Elephants living in dense woodlands are difficult to count. Many elephant populations in Africa occur in such conditions. Estimates of these populations based on total counts, aerial counts and dung counts often lack information on precision and accuracy. We use standard mark–recapture field methods to obtain estimates of population size with associated confidence limits. We apply this approach to a closed elephant population in the Tembe Elephant Park (300 km2), South Africa. A registration count completed in 4 months gives a known population size. We evaluate mark–recapture models against the known population size. Individual identification profiles obtained for elephants during the registration count and mark–recapture events indicate that at least 167 elephants live in the park. We consider this value as an estimate of the minimum number alive. We include 189 sightings of bulls and 37 sightings of breeding herds in the mark–recapture modelling. Of the models we test (Petersen, Schnabel, Schumacher, Jolly–Seber, Bowden's, Poisson and negative binomial), Bowden's gives an estimate closest to the registration count. Assumptions of the model are not violated. For all models except one (negative binomial), our estimates improve with increased sampling intensity. Confidence intervals do not improve with increased effort except for the Schnabel model. Mark–recapture methods should be considered as reliable estimators of population size for elephants occurring in dense woodlands and forests when other methods cannot be relied on.