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The Eastern Cape’s Addo Elephant National Park was established in 1931 to prevent the last of the region’s once mighty elephant herds from being blasted into oblivion.

A group of Addo elephants having a bath at a waterholeThe locals had become fed up with the bolshie pachyderms damaging their properties and threatening their lives so the government had sent down one Major Pretorius to sort them out. And sort them out he did. Bang, bang, bang went his rifle and within no time the elephant problem was ended.

Thankfully though, there were a few people who thought it would be a shame of the Eastern Cape lost the mighty beasts altogether; and so the Addo Elephant Park was born – a tiny place where the last 11 jumbos in the Sunday’s River Valley lived in relative peace – and were fed with daily deliveries of oranges.

From a humble sanctuary for 11 elephants Addo Elephant National Park has shot up into a ‘Big Seven’ reserve that’s still growing

It was pretty much just a zoo back then, a sort of circus attraction that brought in tourists but had little conservation value. Now, however, things are very different. From a humble 2,000 hectares the park has expanded into a megapark of some 168 000 hectares covering six different habitats: Nama Karoo; fynbos; forest; subtropical thicket; coastal belt and marine.

Impressive indeed. In fact because the ‘new and improved’ Addo Elephant National Park focuses on marine as well as terrestrial conservation, its slogan is ‘The only place in the world where you can see the Big Seven’, by which it means elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, Southern Right Whale and the scary great white shark.

The Alexandria dunefield (the largest dunefield in the Southern Hemisphere) is now part of Addo, as are the seven Algoa Bay islands, which together harbour the world’s largest Cape Gannet breeding colony and more than 4096 of South Africa’s penguins.There are seal colonies and Roseate Tern nesting sites, as well as numerous important fish and perlemoen breeding areas deep beneath the surface.

So perhaps Addo should find a new name for itself. But of course elephants are a big part of its history and are still the number one drawcard – so ‘Elephant Park’ it’s likely to stay.

The Colchester section in the south, which has been opened up partly to accommodate the growing herds of pachyderms, is just one of many new areas that have been incorporated into Addo. The reason for this expansion is»because the focus of the park is no longer on saving individual species, but rather on saving entire habitats, some of which are exceedingly rare. One such habitat is the Alexandria dunefield, a magnificent rolling landscape of cream-coloured mountains covering 15 800 hectares and stretching some 50 kilometres along the coast.

But it’s not only the rare animal and other species living among the dunes that gain from the park’s protection. Humans, or at least those living nearby, also benefit, as rainwater that’s filtered through the sand is siphoned off in a controlled manner to provide drinking water to nearby communities.

Addo scenes
Some of the sights and experiences on offer at Addo

At the same time, underground freshwater ‘rivers’ from the same source travel far out to sea and mix with the ocean, thereby creating unusual yet crucial conditions for the thousands of marine species that live and breed out there. Should these ancient flows be disrupted (by an increase in human use, for instance), the environmental and economic consequences for South Africa could be disastrous.

The dunefields are also important for cultural reasons, because scattered among them are numerous prehistoric shell middens left by people from a long gone race who gathered there and ate heartily from the available seafood.Thank heavens it’s all being protected, then.

Another biome that’s being saved comprises the lovely fragments of forest which are all that remain of the unbroken canopy that once ran down the coast. Most of this was swept aside to make way for cattle pastures, but the bits that remain have been incorporated into the Woody Cape section of Addo.The dream, of course, would be to link up the remaining patches to regenerate a forest that partially resembled the original. But SANParks cannot pursue this because the land is too important for dairy farming.

On the other hand, SANParks has entered into conservation agreements with private landowners that are proving successful. Kuzuko, a luxury lodge in the northern reaches of the park, is one example of this. Its owners have ‘donated’ a large area of land to Addo and also pay a percentage of their takings to the park. In return, SANParks stocks the land with game and looks after the conservation management.

SANParks’s vision for Addo is far-reaching and those striving to make it work know it will take time to build the park into the even larger World Heritage Site they dream of. It’s an enormous task that will involve hundreds of stakeholders. But if South Africa is to play its part in the coming war against global warming and environmental mayhem, then projects such as these are absolutely essential.

But what of those who say the environment cannot be placed ahead of the immediate needs of poor and hungry people?

Well, SANParks would agree with them in principle, but also argue that national parks benefit all living things, not just animals and plants. Due to the absence of malaria, for instance, ecotourists are flocking to the Eastern Cape. As a result of this Addo stands to become one of the economic mainstays of the region. Studies have shown that conservation and ecotourism generate more jobs and wealth than farming and other land uses. And this is just the start. Because as Addo grows, so will the economy and employment opportunities.

It’s a win-win situation from which everyone can benefit – the birds in the trees, the fish in the ocean, the national economy, the Eastern Cape and last buf not least, the wonderful big, grey creatures which once so nearly disappeared from the region forever.

Text and photographs by Dale Morris. Taken from the October 09 edition of Country Life.

More on the town of Zuurberg More on the area of the Greater Addo

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