The Knysna Elephant Park: Ethical Eco-Tourism with Animal Welfare at Heart

Words: Julie Velosa

If you were born in Africa and have travelled overseas, there’s a good chance you may have been asked if there are elephants and lions roaming the streets back home. If you’re lucky enough to live near a game park, this might be a slightly less crazy notion, but for the most part, us city slickers are as far removed from the big five as anyone else. That’s why it’s so important to have places that connect us to the beautiful animals that make living in Africa so special and that remind us how critical it is that we are committed to conserving them. One such place is the Knysna Elephant Park, located just outside of Knysna – we recently visited to experience their unique brand of eco-tourism.

Knysna Elephant ParkA Home for Displaced Elephants

Before you jump to conclusions and assume that these wild animals are being kept in a park as amusement, let me say that this is not the case at all. The Knysna Elephant Park is, in fact, more of a home for orphaned elephants that have lost a mother through culling or have been rescued from zoos and other less desirable facilities.


The Knysna Elephant Park is committed to providing a safe space for elephants that otherwise don’t have options and continually work to rehabilitate back into the wild where possible.

Knysna Elephant Park

The Legend of the Knysna Elephants

The story of the Knysna elephants has always been shrouded in mystery; these beautiful animals are said to have dwelled in the dense forests of the Knysna-Tsitsikamma area for hundreds of years undisturbed. Of course, development and destruction of indigenous forests had an impact on their existence, as did violent hunting parties in the early 1920s, which devastatingly culled most of the herd in the area.

The legend of the Knysna elephants is somewhat of a rabbit hole and once you start looking into it, it’s hard not to delve deeper and deeper into the mystery.

Part of the charm of the story is the fact that even today, with all the technology and ability at our fingertips, the exact details of whether these animals still exist in the wild is shrouded in elusiveness. Although there is evidence that they are in fact there, this information is kept under wraps for good reason and the Knysna ellies are left in peace, retaining their enigma.

How the Knysna Elephant Park came to be

Ian Withers, a local to the Knysna area, grew up listening to stories told by his grandfather of the legends of the elephants of the forest. When he and his wife, Lisette, settled on a farm in the area in 1994, it was almost kismet when they heard of two elephant calves that had been orphaned through culling in the Kruger Park and they saw this as an opportunity to bring elephants back to the area.

They provided a safe space for two elephant calves, named Harry and Sally (yes, after the 90s movie), on their land and so began the story of what would become The Knysna Elephant Park.

Over 40 elephants have passed through the gates of the Knysna Elephant Park over the years and the park has acted as a temporary refuge to some and a permanent home for others.

The development of AERU

Eco-tourism is a growing global trend and unethical practices have received much-needed exposure in recent years. The Knysna Elephant Park is committed to not only providing sanctuary for displaced ellies but also to develop a unique brand of eco-tourism, where the animal’s welfare is the most important concern.

Knysna Elephant Park

Your entry fee not only ensures that KEP can continue to provide refuge for these animals but also helps fund AERU – the African Elephant Research Unit. AERU is the only research and volunteer project of its kind in the world currently that specifically researches captive elephant behaviour, with the long-term aim of creating a globally recognised elephant welfare index. The research facilitates a better understanding of behaviour, rehabilitation and re-entry into the wild.

What makes the Knysna Elephant Park Unique

There will always be those that believe that eco-tourism has no place but it’s prudent to remember that without places like the Knysna Elephant Park, these elephants would effectively be homeless and would be culled, a nicer way of saying they would be killed. So, before you jump on your soapbox about why this shouldn’t be allowed, please consider the alternative.

Knysna Elephant Park

If anything, the experiences offered by the Knysna Elephant Park, which bring you up close and personal with these beautiful gentle giants, instils a desire to want to help conserve them. At the end of the day, education is the foundation of understanding and it’s that understanding, and these experiences, that plant the seed for future conservationists, researchers and champions of those that have no voice.

The Knysna Elephant Park is committed to the welfare of their giant family and as such have stopped offering rides and are instead focused on more natural interactions.

Why I want to be an Elephant in my next life

The Knysna Elephant Park offers a couple of different options to experience the majesty of these animals and we opted to feed them a snack and go for a walk.

knysna elephant park

A short ride out to the veld brought us to what we termed the ‘elly take away’ – a metal railing that the elephants know is where the tasty snacks are at.

Our guide, Kevin, told us that elephants eat for 19 hours a day (what a life!), this is due to a poor digestive system, meaning they need to continually eat to get enough nutrients. We had been given a bucket of tasty ellie-approved snacks that included sweet potato, pumpkin, apples and other fruit and veggies.

Our guides showed us how to hold out our palms flat and to hide the bucket behind our backs while we offered a snack. It is absolutely fascinating to see how they gently extend their trunks and swiftly pick up their snacks and deliver to their mouths.

They know how tasty everything in those buckets is and so playfully jostle each other to get their share. As soon as the buckets are empty, they wander back into the veld to continue grazing.

A guide is assigned to small groups, ensuring that your experience is really personal. Kevin took us for a walk through the veld, where we met Keisha, Thato and Shungu amongst others.

The elephants are very chilled and are quite used to the interaction and are not opposed to a nice scratch on their leathery skins. The guides are well-versed in the behaviour of the animals and watch for telltale signs of a change in mood to ensure both animal and visitor safety.

Knysna Elephant Park

Unique Experiences at The Knysna Elephant Park

Besides feeding and walks, you can also opt for a picnic or sundowners at KEP. They are also the only place in the world where you can have an elephant slumber party. The elephants have a covered boma where they can retire to at night should they choose to – the boma is open so they are free to roam in and out as they please.

Above the boma are five rooms which can be booked for a stayover; a central lounge area overlooks the boma and you can have your morning coffee watching the ellies as they wake up.

Knysna Elephant Park

They Need your Support

As mentioned earlier, your entry fee into the Knysna Elephant Park ensures that they can continue to look after these special animals, as well as help fund AERU. So, while you get to have an amazing experience with one of Africa’s greats, you’re also helping secure their future.

Book a stop in at the park on your next visit to the Garden Route area and enjoy an up close and personal experience with one of our most unique African treasures.

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Please be a responsible tourist and research animal experiences and interactions before you book them. Support of those that are committed to ethical treatment and conservation helps promote positive and sustainable outcomes.  

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