MITCH REARDON: SHAPING ADDO INTO A BOOK
WORDS: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
IMAGES: MITCH REARDON
It would be safe to say that the Addo Elephant National Park is an enigma. I had mixed feelings about my first visit there. It ticked the “been there, done that” box but didn’t leave me wanting to return for more. Until I read Mitch Reardon’s recently released book, Shaping Addo, that is.
I can safely say that what was missing was the inside story behind this incredible park. Even revisiting my photographs was a new experience. Much of what I had read suddenly became clear. For example, the fact that many of Addo’s elephants don’t have tusks.
That, explains Mitch, is largely because the tuskers largely wiped out by greedy hunters. Those without tusks that were spared passed on their so-called tuskless gene to their babies. It is only now that bulls have been introduced from Kruger that Addo’s new additions are being born with tusks again.
Even now, paging through his book, which has been added to my favourite wildlife books of all time collection, I am amazed to think that the 11 elephants that were left in the Eastern Cape now number 650 and represent the densest concentration of wild elephants anywhere on the planet.
Mitch shares many stories that have seen Addo grow from one of the smallest and most insignificant parks in South Africa to the third largest after Kruger and the Kalagadi.
He started out as a ranger in South Africa and Namibia before becoming a wildlife photographer and writer. This took him to Australia where he wrote extensively for Australian Geographic. Disillusioned by Australia’s attitude to conservation, he returned to South Africa.
He has written ten books, including Shaping Kruger, Wild Karoo and Etosha: Life and Death on an African Plain.
“Australia, unfortunately, has a poor conservation record. That’s highly regrettable as the country not only has unique marsupials and wonderful birdlife but also some of the world’s most accomplished conservationists and biologists. But a lack of public interest in nature conservation encourages a lack of action on the part of the government. This has resulted in Australia having the highest wildlife extinction rate in the world. Even the magnificent Great Barrier Reef is in danger of collapse. While out on assignment for Australian Geographic, I saw the destruction being wrought by introduced foxes, cane toads, feral pigs and cats all around me and very little being done about it. South Africa, on the other hand, is one of the few, perhaps the only country in the world where protected wild space is actually increasing,” he explains.
Addo, is one such conservation success story.
“It is a fine example of how a tiny 2 270 hectare national park, the smallest in southern Africa when it was proclaimed in 1931 to protect the last Cape elephants, was massively enlarged to182 000 hectares (130 times bigger than its original size) to become South Africa’s third largest national park and
one of the most ecologically diverse protected spaces in the world. Its phenomenal growth was achieved by buying clapped-out sheep and goat farms surrounding the park and, through a process known as ‘rewilding’, turning them back into productive wild habitat.
“Its diversity reveals itself in its multifaceted landscapes, ecosystems and habitats. Here, a watchful observer can spot dozens of different sorts of mammals, birds, invertebrates and plants in a single day. Today, the park stretches all the way south from the semi-desert Nama Karoo to the Zuurberg mountains, through the Sundays River Valley with its teeming wildlife and on to where the Sundays River mouth meets the Indian Ocean.
“It then goes offshore to include the Bird and St Croix island groups that provide sanctuary to an immense breeding colony of nearly 200,000 Cape gannets, plus the world’s largest breeding colony of endangered African penguins. These days the park bills itself as the ‘Home of the Big Seven’ because it safeguards not only the usual Big Five ? elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion ? but also the great white shark and southern right whale,” he recounts.
Mitch says that he doesn’t think it is too much of a stretch to describe Addo as a country in one national park. A wild country, of course, without cities, towns and highways, but with a natural treasure chest of lifeforms, lifestyles and events.
THE WRITING EXPERIENCE
He says that what he enjoyed most about writing Shaping Addo was time spent in the field researching and photographing the wild animals that call Addo home.
“Their interrelationships and activities vary from one time of day to another and are determined by the patterns of the seasons. The elephant herds are a particular delight. By the end of the nineteenth century, the last 120-odd Cape elephants had retreated into Addo’s almost impenetrable spekboom thickets to escape ivory hunters. However, early in the twentieth century, their refuge was being cleared and turned into citrus orchards, which brought the beleaguered giants into conflict with farmers.
“As a result, in 1919, the Cape Administration commissioned the famous big game hunter Jan Pretorius, to eradicate the entire herd. He shot them down to just 16 animals, whereupon the powers-that-be decided to grant the survivors a pardon and a small forest was declared as their sanctuary. But, because it was unfenced, the elephants were still free to roam and their population dropped to just 11.
“But once the park was fenced, there began a slow recovery and, today, that founder herd of traumatised ellies has grown to over 650… Over time, they learned to trust humans and, today, far from being ‘the most dangerous elephants in the world’ according to an early ranger, they are surely the most trusting free-ranging elephants in the world. Because they go about their affairs largely ignoring the presence of humans and their vehicles, I was able to spend long hours in close contact with mothers as they taught their calves how to behave and what to eat, in fact everything an elephant needs to know about its amazingly complex society,” Mitch continues.
The book tells the story of how lions, rhinos and a mix of other animal species that were shot out during the nineteenth century were reintroduced. “I was on hand to watch how the lions and spotted hyenas learned to cope with a set of conditions and prey species quite different to those they had known in their homelands. Indeed, wherever I looked I found fascinating examples of a bustling, harmoniously functioning wild kingdom.”
But, as he reveals, it is also unique. For example, the newly homed lions of Addo have completely different family structures to those in other parks and do not live in prides.
In a photo essay, entitled Showdown at Nyathi, Mitch records a lioness introducing her six week old cubs to the resident male coalition so that the large males do not kill them as strange males instinctively do.
His lion sighting, like this one, had much to do with luck as well as returning again and again, hoping to glimpse these beautiful big cats.
I have many memories of my time in Addo, but the best often seemed to take place in the early morning just before and after sunrise, when the birds’ dawn chorus filled the air and the mammals were at their most active. Some, like the predators, were finishing up the last of the night’s kill before retiring to sleep off their meal or resting with empty stomachs until the next nightfall presented new opportunities. .
“Other species were just becoming active – warthogs emerged from their burrows, as did troops of meerkats. Buffaloes and kudus visibly relaxed after surviving another night, while the elephants went on doing what they do most of the night and most of the day, satisfying their gargantuan appetites. Late afternoons were also a favourite time, as old buffalo bulls joined together on the open grasslands where they huddled in a defensive circle, horns facing outwards, preparing to spend the night chewing the cud and occasionally sleeping very lightly so as to avoid a rude awakening,” he recalls.
Another of the fascinating details that emerges whilst moseying one’s way through Shaping Addo is the fact that this is one of only two parks in the whole of Africa where visitors can see lions with a seascape backdrop – even though fences make sure that they cannot step on to the sand.
THE CONSERVATION CONNECTION
Mitch says that, for him, one of the most pleasantly surprising things about Addo is just how far it has come since his first visit during the seventies. This tale sets the scene right at the outset with Mitch describing it as underwhelming. The only game drive available wound around the outer perimeter of the park and tourists saw very little.
Much has changed. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done, most importantly connecting the various sections of Addo to allow for the free movement of elephants and other species over its entirety. Currently, some sections are separated by roads and even an active railway line that prevent elephants and other big game from spreading out and limiting the damage to vegetation in the southern Main Camp Area,” he says.
In the chapter on Addo’s elephant, he recounts how he accompanied the game capture team in the relocation of elephants from southern Addo to the northern Darlington Area.
“Ideally, they will one day be able to make the journey themselves. The taking down of fences between the Kruger National Park and its privately-owned neighbours on the Kruger’s western boundary allows free
passage over an enormous area, which is highly beneficial (and promotes) a more natural utilisation of wild country. That, in combination with the closure of at least half of Kruger’s artificial water points has partly re-established old migratory paths and a more self-sustaining balance. For example, in conservation circles, Addo generally is recognised as an outstanding success, but elephant damage to the park’s southern spekboom thickets remains a major problem.”
Poaching is another. “Poaching, particularly for rhino horn, is exacerbated by the long tentacles of corruption that reach all the way from rangers in the field to top management and beyond to certain politicians.
Unlike Kruger, where rhino poaching is rampant, Addo has not lost a single rhino to poaching. And that’s not good luck, it’s good management. A lot of the credit must go to the park’s longtime head ranger, John Adendorff, who regrettably has left SANParks and now manages Majete National Park in Malawi on behalf of African Parks.”
For Mitch this was a huge loss as Adendorff and his team of crack rangers feature prominently in the book as they put in place conservation practices that have made Addo what it is today.
“When SANParks was unable to come up with the money for an elephant translocation from southern Addo to its northern Darlington section, John, using his own initiative and good contacts contacted an NGO and they arranged the entire operation between themselves. Nothing in Addo should be taken for granted. It’s all the result of hard work, good leadership and cutting edge know-how. Without the right people in charge, Addo could have ended up like so many of this country’s provincial game reserves which have become poached-out basket cases.”
COVID AND CONSERVATION
As Mitch explains, ecotourism is essential to keep the parks of Africa running.
Without the money generated from tourism, the parks would probably not survive. Addo’s development into a Big 7 destination has made it extremely popular with overseas and local tourists. It’s also very popular with the neighbours on its borders because it provides a bonanza of jobs and business opportunities.
“The Addo district was one of the most economically challenged regions in South Africa, with high rates of illiteracy, unemployment, HIV-AIDS and poor living conditions. Research has shown that wildlife conservation creates four times as many jobs as small
stock pastoralism, which is the dominant form of land use around the park. Around one job is created per 100 ha for nature-based tourism compared to one job per 370 ha for subsistence farming. Moreover, tourism has led to the creation of one-third of the businesses within a 30 km radius of Addo. It’s estimated that one new job is created for every 10 foreign visitors.”
Because the park now generates income for an estimated 1 400 households supporting 5,600 people, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on the park and on the private Addo-based tourism industry surrounding it, Mitch believes.
“The park is now open again to visitors – at this time almost exclusively locals – and the hope is that despite the many lost tourism-related jobs and companies, there will be a slow recovery in the future,” he says.
Whilst normality is restored, says he is writing a few nature articles for magazines. “But there’s no rush to get started on another big project. I’m waiting to see what comes along!”
For future visitors to the park, it’s important to remember to pack a copy of Shaping Addo before so much as slipping a suitcase into the boot and heading for the Eastern Cape.
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