Imvubu Newsletter

Addo Elephants in the Amathole Museum

© Wingate, L. 2005 Imvubu 17:1, 6.

The origin of many of the mammal specimens on display at the museum is either obscure or limited to a place, a date and perhaps, a collector’s name. However, the origin of the two elephants on display is well known.

Before the arrival of European settlers during the seventeenth century, elephants occurred throughout most of South Africa and it has been estimated that there were approximately 100,000 in the region at the time. However, owing to excessive exploitation during the seventeenth and subsequent centuries, their numbers had been reduced to barely 230 by 1919, the biggest herd being in the Addo area of the Eastern Cape.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century farmers in Addo, an area of low and unpredictable rainfall, experienced extensive damage to water-storage dams as well as some crop damage caused by elephants. Human fatalities were also reported. Notably, in three of the four cases of Europeans killed while hunting, they were killed while hunting elephants.

On 25 November 1919, as a result of complaints made by farmers, the Cape Provincial Administration entered into a contractual agreement with the noted big-game hunter and celebrated war hero, Major P J Pretorius, to cull the herd. Only a reduction of the herd was considered at first. However, on 1 April 1919, the Administrator of the Cape, Sir Frederic de Waal, personally proposed that the whole herd be exterminated. However, by January 1920 the Administration had decided to preserve a small number of elephants. In terms of a new contractual agreement between the Provincial Administration and Major Pretorius sixteen elephants were to be left in the Addo Reserve..

On 12 June 1919 Pretorius shot and wounded his first elephant. At the outset, it was estimated that there were “approximately 126 elephants divided into three herds”. Thirteen months later, Pretorius claimed to have killed a “hundred and twenty odd” Addo elephants and only sixteen remained.

Pretorius had been requested to record scientific information about the elephants he shot, such as, size, mass, body measurements, etc. However, even though Pretorius collected the data, they were never made available to scientists. What is known is that only three museums received specimens. Two came here, four went to the SA Museum in Cape Town and eight to the British Museum of Natural History in London. It is unknown what happened to the remaining one hundred and fourteen specimens shot.

Prior to 1919, elephants in the Addo area had been hunted for centuries. By 1919 the selection of large tusked individuals by ivory hunters had left a herd with small tusks or without tusks. Note the tiny tusks of the adult female on display.

Ironically, in the end, Pretorius, the hunter who actually killed the Addo elephants, emerged as the most important factor in the survival of the remainder. He and a handful of other individuals convinced the government that the remaining sixteen elephants should be preserved and this subsequently led to the creation of the Addo Elephant National Park in 1931, which was the only positive outcome of the whole affair.

Readers interested in the full account of the foregoing events or in photographs of Major Pretorius at work in the Addo Bush should consult the following references.


Hall-Martin, A. .J. 1992. ‘Distribution and status of the African elephant Loxodonta africana in South Africa, 1652-1992’. Koedoe 35: 65-88.

Hoffman, M.T.1993 Major P. J Pretorius and the decimation of the Addo elephant herd in 1919-1920: important reassessments. Koedoe 36(2):23-44.

Pretorius, P. J. 1947. Jungle man: The autobiography of Major P.J. Pretorius C.M.G., D.S.O. and Bar. London: George G. Harrap & Co.