The Story of 

The Comeback Kids -

Elephants of Addo


In June 1919, shots rang out across the fertile Sunday River Valley, and soon its elephants - young and old - lay dead or dying. Their only crime had been crop raiding. 

At the beginning of the 20th Century, a land developer had encouraged European settlers to farm in the valley, 50 miles inland from the Indian Ocean. After much hardship, they established some crops, which were promptly raided by their delighted neighbors - the Cape elephants. For the aggrieved settlers, the solution was simple. 

An ex-war hero, Major Jan Pretorius, CMG, DSO and Bar, was hired to shoot all but ten elephants. Pretorius was a renowned game hunter, but his job was difficult. Panicked elephant families fled into the thick, impenetrable Addo bush, and a man's life was in great danger if he tracked them there. However, a year later, Pretorius declared the job "done". By his count, 114 elephants were dead and only 11, some seriously wounded, survived in the dense spekboom of Addo. 

And there they hid for 12 more years, until the growing nation of South Africa had killed all but a few of the many Cape elephants that had once roamed the coast from Cape Town to Durban. Only then did people question whether the Cape elephant was a unique sub-species deserving of protection.

In June 1931, a small area of scrub-covered hills was declared the Addo Elephant National Park, just north of the bustling seaside city of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. 

The first priority was to build a fence around the vest-pocket park - one that no elephant could push down. All efforts failed for many years, until the park's second warden, Graham Armstrong, devised  a fence made of stout railway ties placed at short intervals and connected by rows of tramline and steel elevator cable. 

Thanks to Armstrong's ingenuity and the generous donation of miles of steel cable from the elevator manufacturer, Waygood Otis, the fence was secure. Tantalized by fruit orchards and vineyards just outside the park, bull elephants might bend the fence but they could not break it.
The cable that protects human life in an elevator has also saved the elephants of Addo!

The second priority was to encourage the elephants to feel safe around people. Once again, an appeal was made to their stomachs. Tons of over-ripe oranges and vegetables were dumped in an open space and the elephants could not resist it. They became accustomed to visitors, but citrus fruit has had to be banned from the park, for some elephants will force a vehicle open to get at it.     

In the protected sanctuary of Addo Park, the elephants have quickly increased their numbers.   
  When I first visited in May 1999 - 80 years after the massacre - over 250 elephants thrived and many new babies had just been born. Plans were being made to expand the park down to the Indian Ocean, creating enough space to support a population of 2500.   

I have always sought out the company of elephants from Northern Kenya down to Zimbabwe, and west to Namibia, but nothing prepared me for this sight. At a man-made waterhole, called Hapoor, tiny newborns struggled to keep up with the incoming and outgoing herds, lost in a forest of giant legs, tails and dust. They clung to the sides of their watchful mothers and were herded by their ever-vigilant older brothers and sisters. 

Still pink in the ears where tender new skin barely protected their veins, tiny babies had to stand on tiptoe to reach their mothers' teats. Several skidded into deep water where they were rescued by the dexterous pull of adult trunks or by a firm shove from behind.  

Confident youngsters, who had mastered the art of swinging a trunk and keeping their balance on stumpy legs, charged at birds or other elephant babies. But always they returned to stand in the shade under their mother's belly, or to slumber against her protective leg. Some even snoozed alongside my over-sized camper truck.

Elated, I photographed and sketched these youngsters who are truly the Comeback Kids, only 2 to 3 generations removed from massacre. 

Africa's history is land-mined with massacres, inflicted on both animals and humans, over thousands of years. But as you view these images of youngsters beginning life with such vulnerability and such pleasure, do you find yourself asking - as I do - how can we change the past patterns of humankind? 

Will the descendants of the Comeback Kids survive the 21st century? And if they do not, how were you and I  responsible for their loss?