Addo Elephant National Park & Cheetah Distribution In Perspective

A rewilding success story or a man induced failure?

Stan 5

The Addo Elephant National Park was established in 1931 to protect the last 11 elephants hat found refuge in the dense, almost impenetrable Valley Bushveld (a subtropical vegetation type within the Thicket Biome).  The tangled nature of the vegetation between the Indian Ocean coastal city of Port Elizabeth and the Suurberg Mountains afforded the elephants much needed natural protection from the neighbouring citrus farmers who had lobbied for the destruction of these mega-herbivores.  The remaining elephants made regular forays into the neighbouring agricultural landscape to the intense regret of the farmers, and so plans were made to contain them within the park by erecting an almost impenetrable elephant-proof fence (I say “almost impenetrable” because one notorious male named Hapoor crossed the fence on numerous occasions until authorities made the decision to put the old beast to rest).

Since the proclamation of the Addo Elephant National Park and the erection of the Armstong elephant-proof fence the park has continued to expand with leaps and bounds.  As the elephant population grew (along with the last Cape buffalo population to have survived in the Cape of South Africa by hiding in the dense Valley Bushveld and becoming nocturnal), the park’s focus turned to a more holistic approach of biodiversity conservation.  At this point many more habitats where added to the park with land purchases as it expanded south to the Indian Ocean and north over the Suurberg Mountains into the vast plains of the Karoo. These landscapes harboured in the park include habitats within the Thicket, Forest, Fynbos, Savanna, Grassland, and Nama Karoo Biomes scattered over the large park and its many sections (some of which are separated by fences along national highways and major roads).

This is where the issue of the Addo cheetah trio come in.  Moving from the thicket, savanna and coastal grassland mosaic of Hopewell Private Game Reserve, the Addo trio moved north-west into the Colchester and Addo Main sections which have been connected (by removing the separating fences) in 2010 to allow the growing elephant population to expand southward and alleviate the browsing pressure these mega-herbivores have on the vegetation.  This landscape the trio now called home was mostly dense valley bushveld in the north with some limited natural savanna and numerous old agricultural pastures that have since been restored to grasslands.  The south of their newly claimed home was more favourable with additional restored old agricultural pastures and some grassland and savanna habitats that served the Addo cheetah trio well.  Even so the management team bluntly stated that cheetah never occurred in this area naturally and hence their removal from Addo south of the Suurberg Mountains was sealed.

Having gone through the very same resource material that is available to the SANParks management team at Addo on the historical distribution of wildlife in the area, I believe the removal of the Addo cheetah trio was a grossly unnecessary intervention on the part of man!  Keeping in mind that successful acclimatisation of an animal in a new terrain does not prove that the species occurred within the area historically, and granted the Addo cheetah trio’s unaided self-relocation only materialised after their mother who was born in Limpopo, South Africa, was herself translocated into the Hopewell Private Game Reserve by man, we will now analyze the historical incidence of cheetah in the area.

Bluntly stated the historical journals and diaries of the early settlers of European descent have left nothing of the previous occurrence of cheetah in the immediate vicinity of the Addo Elephant National Park, not even a mention.  Given the dense and tangled nature of the Valley Bushveld habitat that grows amply over much of the area, this need not necessarily come as a surprise as cheetah are quintessentially predators of more open areas.  When reading through the historical accounts of early explorers, travellers and settlers during the 1800’s cheetah were found to the immediate north and east of the Addo Main and Colchester sections of the park wherever herds of springbok moved through the landscape.

Throughout the open country of southern Africa cheetah and springbok shared the same distribution and wherever springbok occurred, cheetah did also.  The converse, however, was not true as cheetah ranged freely into denser thicket and savanna habitats where springbok would not dare to venture.  With cheetah distribution overlapping the entire spectrum of springbok habitat, it may prove interesting that within the immediate vicinity of Addo there exists to this day an isolated island of grassland surround by a sea of dense Valley Bushveld where springbok abounded.  These early records of springbok on the grassland island of Grassridge have raised many puzzling questions to this day among the scientific community, and it might be noted that even historical incidence of springbok in the region has still not allowed the Addo Elephant National park to regard this iconic gazelle as “naturally occurring” or indigenous to the region.

From these facts and considerations we may very well make the conclusions that cheetah should be regarded as indigenous to the Addo Elephant National Park region.  This should be established on the premises that: (1) Cheetah occurred historically within the neighbouring (<100km) region of the park; (2) Cheetah are far ranging species that can move large distances in pursuit of prey; (3) Suitable habitat exist and has existed in the past; (4) Suitable prey species exist and has existed in the past (i.e. Grassridge springbok and additional historical population on the eastern boundary of Addo Main and Colchester sections); (5) Cheetah are regarded by SANParks as indigenous “naturally occurring” in the northern section of the park a mere 30km north of the Addo Main and Colchester section of the park; (6) The lack of colonial sight records does not warrant non-occurrence (especially in a landscape where predators have been seen as vermin to be discarded as quick as possible after the initial settlers arrived most often without a detailed or any account of persecution).

With the departure of the notorious and almost legendary Addo cheetah trio it is a sad and gloomy day for many a visitor to the park, and certainly a loss of biodiversity for this part of Addo Elephant National Park, but for the surviving two brothers – their story as only begun!  To the continued success and survival of the Phinda duo!  Bon voyage.

Marcel van der Merwe II  |  Rewilding Forum

Special thanks to Stan Blumberg for allowing us to use his marvelous photos of the Addo trio.

Stan 1

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5 thoughts on “Addo Elephant National Park & Cheetah Distribution In Perspective

  1. The cheetahs have proved that they do belong in ADDO, would only be fair if a breeding pair be introduced into the park.

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    1. Totally agree with you George! We hope to see a future where all the sections of Addo Elephant National Park has been connected from the coast to Karoo, in which case animals from the north will be allowed at will to spread throughout the park where their ecology allows them. The Suurberg Mountains will certainly not prove a major hurdle for them, and after a proverbial hop, skip and jump they may once again roam the southern sections of Addo.

      Thank you for your comment mate,
      Warm regards,

      Marcel van der Merwe II | Rewilding Forum

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    1. Hi Kathleen,

      It truly is a sad fact that our need for control over nature lead to the death of one of the beloved brothers. We can only hope the remaining two would find safe refuge and adapt to the predators in Phinda, as they have in Addo.

      Thank you for your comment!
      Warm regards,

      Marcel van der Merwe II | Rewilding Forum

      Like

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