They're Africa's 'Bigfoots' – creatures of myth, legend and folktale. Anyone who has ever travelled to the small town of Knysna on South Africa's southern coast will have heard the almost impossible-to-believe tales of huge herds of elephants that once roamed the beautiful surrounding forests.

Today, most experts believe these massive creatures are extinct in the area ... but a recent image taken by a camera trap is proof that at least one elephant still remains in this dense, coastal habitat.

Knysna Elephant On Trap Camera
This partial snapshot taken by a camera trap is proof that at least one elephant still survives in Knysna's dense, coastal forests.

The story of the Knysna elephants' disappearance is diabolically simple: they were wiped out by hunters and ivory poachers until just a few dozen remained at the turn of the twentieth century. By the time anyone cared enough to stop the slaughter, it was too late for the populations to recover. Over the years, traces of the remaining survivors – a lone footprint or some dung – have surfaced every once in a while, but these bits of evidence have been so rare that it's almost as if they'd been left behind by ghosts, perhaps to remind us of what we've done. And when confirmed sightings have taken place, they've generally involved only a single individual. 

Knysna Forest Map

That single elephant seems to be the only surviving descendant of the huge herds that once ruled the coastal forests of the Outeniqua-Tsitsikamma area.

Anecdotes from journals and letters from the early 1800s speak of frustrated travellers whose journeys were delayed for hours when roads through the area were blocked by long processions of elephants. That sort of abundance is almost impossible to imagine today.

Knysna's lost elephant herds would have had special adaptations to survive in this unique habitat of dense, almost impenetrable, coastal forest – an environment that is completely different to the one inhabited by their cousins in the savannahs further north. And yet, interestingly, the Knysna elephants are not considered a distinct a subspecies. The video below, filmed by an Earth Touch crew, is a glimpse into the forests that were once home to these giants:

The South African National Parks (SANParks), which manages the forests, has been able to firmly identify only one remaining elephant in the area (who at this stage is thought to be female), but they're not prepared to exclude the possibility that others might still exist here. And yet, the chances of this seem low. Elephants, particularly females, are generally very social animals, so if multiple survivors remained, it's likely they would be found together. Whatever the case may be, and as sad as it is to contemplate, there is certainly no hope of a finding a breeding population.

Introducing other elephants into the region is also not an option. A failed attempt at this took place in the 1990s, when three elephants from the Kruger National Park – two adults and a juvenile – were introduced into the forest. The baby elephant died within three months and the other two were relocated to a nearby wildlife reserve shortly afterwards. 

As for the elephant recently captured on the camera trap, SANParks says there are no plans to capture it. Perhaps ongoing studies on dung and future camera trap footage will one day reveal surprising results. For now, the elephant will continue to roam freely in the forest, just as it has for years, unaware of its sad status as the last elephant standing. 

Knysna Elephant Timeline:

Pre-colonial times: About 3000 elephants

1870: 400-500 

1902: About 30-50

1908: About 20 in the main forest

1910: 15 large elephants and 2 juveniles

1914: 13 elephants

1920: 7 elephants

1981: 3 elephants

1994: 3 young elephants from Kruger National Park are introduced to the forest. The youngest dies after 3 months. The others are soon relocated to nearby Shamwari Game Reserve.

1999-2014: Only sporadic evidence of elephant activity, some photographic evidence and recent camera trap footage.


  • The Knysna Elephants and their Forest Home (Wildlife and Environment Society of SA, 1996)
  • SANParks