12 April 2005

Old Elephant Tree collapses

One of Durban's living national monuments, a 200-year-old umkhuhlu tree (a forest mahogany or Trichilia Dregeana), collapsed in March. It was known as the elephant tree because it was part of the old Berea forest which served as a refuge for elephant herds until the mid 1850s. Many attempts had been made to preserve the tree. Although the main trunk and some branches of the elephant tree survived the collapse, the remains of the tree are now so unstable that a decision would have to be taken soon on whether to fell it completely or to fence off the area to prevent injury to passers-by.
Durban's Berea used to be thickly forested. In 1839, Swedish naturalist Johan Wahlberg got so lost in the dense groves around Mitchell Park that he had to fire several shots from his hunting rifle to summon a rescue party. According to Durban historian Prof. Donal McCracken, elephants used to wander through the forest 150 years ago on their way to the Umgeni River. When the village of Durban was established in 1824, the Berea forest was inhabited by elephant, buffalo, leopard and the occasional lion. In the 1850s the larger game animals were killed, or forced to vacate their grounds. The last recorded lion left its footprints next to the Botanic Gardens in 1854.