If you've ever travelled to the small town of Knysna on South Africa's southern coast, you may have heard tales of "forest" elephants that live deep within its dense forests. The secretive giants rarely make an appearance – in fact, some experts doubt that any of them still survive. But new video and photo evidence captured by field workers last week proves that at least one elephant is still out there keeping the legends alive.

The elusive individual (nicknamed Oupoot, after an elephant in Dalene Matthee's book Circles in the Forest) was first spotted a few weeks ago by a South African National Parks (SANParks) ranger on an evidence-gathering expedition.

The ranger was monitoring the area for clues like elephant dung or signs of feeding, but he got much more than he bargained for when one of the forest’s legendary elephants – animals so rare they border on the mythical – appeared right in front of him. Later, forestry field workers confirmed the sighting when they managed to capture photos and videos of the animal.

Back in 2007, a population survey in the area found evidence of at least five females, along with possibly three bulls and two calves, but there is much debate about how many elephants still survive – and Knysna's impenetrable forests certainly don't make tracking them any easier. That means sightings like this one are almost unheard of.

It’s estimated that as many as 1,000 elephants once roamed this region, and the herds most certainly had a significant ecological impact. Unfortunately, very little research exists about these fabled forest elephants, leaving scientists with the tricky job of piecing together historical data that might reveal secrets about their impact on local biodiversity.

Although popular belief is that the Knysna elephants are a genetically distinct species, recent studies suggest otherwise. It’s more likely the animals belong to a larger southern African population, and were pushed back into the forests around Knysna by rampant hunting and human encroachment. Genetically unique or not, their potential ecological impact on the area is grounds for their conservation.
“Elephants are a ‘keystone species’, essential for the integrity of the ecosystem,” says SANParks, who manage the Knysna forests. “Elephants affect ecological processes through their feeding, digging and movement, and contribute to biodiversity by dispersing seeds, opening thickets, making browse more available to smaller herbivores, making water accessible in dry river beds, and promoting nutrient re-cycling.”

Due to the sensitive nature of SANPark’s elephant research, the exact location of Oupoot remains a secret. And perhaps it should stay that way. A pile of dung, a broken tree branch or a faded footprint should be all the rest of us need to know of Knysna's giants.

(Source; Earth Touch )

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