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The Fate of the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe—A Conversation With Sharon Pincott

Since 2001, Australian Sharon Pincott has been monitoring and protecting a unique population of elephants in western Zimbabwe known as the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe. The herd was given this name after President Robert Mugabe awarded it a presidential decree in 1990. Symbolizing Zimbabwe’s commitment to responsible wildlife management, the decree was intended to protect...

Sharon with the ‘W’ elephant family. (Photograph courtesy NHU Africa)

Since 2001, Australian Sharon Pincott has been monitoring and protecting a unique population of elephants in western Zimbabwe known as the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe. The herd was given this name after President Robert Mugabe awarded it a presidential decree in 1990. Symbolizing Zimbabwe’s commitment to responsible wildlife management, the decree was intended to protect these elephants against future hunting and culling.

Over time the herd grew to 525 individuals divided into 17 extended families on “Hwange Estate”—35,000 acres bordering part of Hwange National Park.

But now, after 13 years dedicated to these elephants, Pincott has decided to abandon her work and leave Zimbabwe. She says that a key section of the Hwange Estate has been taken over by a land claimant, as part of Zimbabwe’s controversial land reform program. The claimant, she says, has damaged conservation efforts and tourist activity and has ties to the sport hunting industry. Pincott also notes that a Government Cabinet directive to remove the claimant has been ignored.

After numerous unsuccessful protests, on April 14 Pincott wrote her final post on the Presidential Elephant Conservation Project Facebook page, announcing that she was ending her work with the Presidential Elephants because of what she says are untenable circumstances.

Since Pincott’s announcement, there have been reports of gunshots in the area.

The fate of the elephants is uncertain.

Russo: Have you fully abandoned your work with the Presidential Elephants, or are you going dormant?

Pincott: I’ve worked alone (on a full-time, primarily self-funded, voluntary basis) under the banner of The Presidential Elephant Conservation Project since 2001. The sort of conservation work that I’ve been doing over the past 13 years (including fighting the sort of ongoing battles that don’t win you many friends) can only be done with solid ministerial contacts—both in the Environment Ministry and in the President’s Office. Dealing just with local Parks Authority personnel doesn’t work well enough. I don’t believe the required commitment is there anymore from these offices, and so yes, I have withdrawn my services and closed down my project. Once I’m ready and organized, I’ll be moving on from Zimbabwe.

Does President Robert Mugabe’s 1990 decree have any value today?

In 2011 I worked, successfully in the end, to get the 1990 Presidential Decree reaffirmed, in the belief that—with hunting, mining, water, and land takeover problems ongoing—this decree did indeed hold weight but needed to be reasserted as a clear and current reminder to all.

I actually do think that if I could have managed to get in front of the president to properly explain with some passion the current situation and concerns, he may have personally intervened in this latest drama. It seems to me that his own ministers, who act on his behalf, simply don’t take time, today, to properly understand and take action. Talk, alone, is cheap. Right now, I have to say that the Presidential Decree and its reaffirmation don’t seem to hold much value at all—over and above helping to generate the public outrage that this situation is currently receiving, which is something, I suppose.

There have been reports of gunshots at Hwange Estate since you announced you were leaving. Do you believe any of the elephants have been killed?

I understand that the last worrying report turned out to be sport hunting activity, with three men stalking elephants in one of the Presidential Elephants’ key areas. One of these men, related to a government minister, has been the subject of reports by me for at least a decade now. That’s one example of a problem that never gets properly fixed. Most in the area are cautious, and indeed many are afraid—for themselves, for their businesses, for their jobs, and for their relationships with others—and therefore put all of these things ahead of doing whatever is necessary to help protect these elephants from all of the numerous threats. And I suppose that’s understandable, in a way.

I’m unable, now, to get back into the area to know what exactly is going on. I don’t know if any elephants are injured or dead.

Will anyone else be watching and documenting the herd in your absence?

Only the Parks Authority and/or the Ministry of Environment can answer that question.

Can you explain the land grab issue that has partly led to your decision to leave Zimbabwe?

The land claimant has taken (and this happens with no monetary payment; someone simply decides they want a particular piece of typically agricultural or sport hunting land, and then government issues an “offer letter” to that person) an area in the very heart of the Presidential Elephants’ key home-range, known as State Land Kanondo.

It includes two important and busy year-round waterholes, and another three smaller wet-season ones, which I’d previously arranged for a donor—believing it was protected land—to scoop [out] for depth to assist these elephants. These areas are of particular importance to monitoring efforts and also to showcasing the Presidential Elephants by way of lodge game-drives.

The claimant and her off-siders have made it impossible for tourists to easily get amongst the herd on game-drives as they used to do and have physically assaulted me during routine patrol and monitoring efforts. They have family links to the sport hunting industry, with reports revealing past unethical hunting practices by the claimant’s brother.

The government clearly realized the mistake, and the cabinet issued a directive to withdraw the offer letter in December of last year. That sounds simple enough to me! But this is now a country where even a high-level cabinet directive can be ignored—and that says a lot in itself. I have had no feedback as to the current status of the claim, but nothing has changed on the ground as far as I know.

Land reform in Zimbabwe is a government program that is meant to take land from whites, to give to the blacks. The Presidential Elephant game-drive land in question was not white-owned, and it certainly wasn’t agricultural or sport hunting land, which is the type of land generally subject to claims. It should never have been allocated.

The 'E' presidential elephant family at Mpofu pan (one of the key waterhole areas taken by the Kanondo claimant). (Photograph by Sharon Pincott)
The ‘E’ presidential elephant family at Mpofu pan (one of the key waterhole areas taken by the Kanondo claimant). (Photograph by Sharon Pincott)

Before you arrived in Zimbabwe, the Presidential Elephants had already been somewhat familiarized to tourists. Can you explain the history?

Alan Elliott owned a safari company called Touch the Wild, and he, along with his safari guides, began habituating these elephants to human presence during the 1970s. These land areas had previously been hunted, and so the wildlife was nervous of human presence. As they became unusually trusting and particularly calm around tourists, Alan obtained the original Presidential Decree in 1990 in an attempt to ensure no more hunting would ever take place in these areas.

How does this “habituation” show up today in the herd?

Today, these wild elephants will happily mingle around safari vehicles full of tourists. They are still potentially dangerous animals, however, and so tourists are not permitted to try to touch them although they may frequently be in touching distance. Even with me, the elephants are left to make up their own minds about whether they wish to approach somebody, rather than the other way around, so as not to harass them in any way. Very special relationships occur only with time.

In the early 2000s, there was a lot of gunfire disturbance when land claims first hit these areas, in 2003. These first land claimants—of this exact same Kanondo area—were eventually evicted in 2005. So I spent a lot of time, back then, re-habituating these families, who for a while, were even running away from my own vehicle.

When you came in 2001, were you asked to fill a vacancy?

There was no vacancy as such that I applied for and filled. As a regular tourist to Zimbabwe during the mid- to late 1990s, I saw an opportunity and took a chance. I was welcomed (in the days when being white and foreign weren’t anywhere near as challenging as they are today in Zimbabwe)—but there was no salary, no accommodation, no vehicle, no fuel, no field equipment, no permit, no anything,  apart from an approval to be on the land. I had to make my own way and organize and pay for everything myself.

You say you’ve been threatened a number of times since you began working with the herd. You’ve had death threats. You’ve been accused of being a spy. You’ve been physically assaulted. 

If you’re doing something wrong, you don’t want good eyes and ears around, do you? Anybody benefiting underhandedly from these elephants, and even those not doing their own jobs properly (be that something like waterhole neglect or non-enforcement of routine policies and controls), along with those shooting in areas where they should not be, will of course be very happy to see the back of me. I’ve said to the officials time and again that they should be investigating those who continually report and harass me, since I’m not the bad guy here. People (including the likes of some parks authority staff) get away with a lot, if nobody is game to report them.

What was your daily activity with the herd?

There are always family groups to survey, updating records of births, deaths, those in estrus, musth, mating, wound recovery, etc. There [are] always routine patrols and monitoring to be done, also checking on things like water flow to pans and the overall condition of those pans. And trying to arrange for donor assistance where needed. There may occasionally be a game-drive to accompany, on special request, for someone who’s after a very intimate encounter. There are books to work on for “awareness” purposes, social media sites to update, and emails to respond to. And, always, there’s some battle or another to tear your hair out over!

I drove my 25-year-old 4×4 amongst them every day, regardless of whether it was the November to April wet season or the May to October dry season. I traveled through forests of teak and acacia, spending extended time around open waterhole areas, where the elephants are forced to come and drink in the dry season. It was in these open waterhole areas where I could best see who was who, who was injured and who was missing.

The herd is vulnerable to poaching, sport hunting, and snares. Can you elaborate on these threats?

Poaching is an ongoing concern, as is unethical sport hunting. Some sport hunting areas are now simply hunted out. As a result, hunters struggle to find enough animals (or in the case of elephants, enough “trophy” specimens with heavy enough ivory) to shoot, and this has led to hunters swapping and borrowing each other’s quotas, hunting on each other’s land, and indeed hunting whenever they can get away with it. The officials may deny this (although I’ve personally had discussions with some who don’t even bother to deny it anymore). It’s a well-known fact that this happens, and certainly poachers and unethical sport hunters encroaching in Presidential Elephant areas—if proper patrols aren’t constant—is a real and valid concern. The Parks Authority has inadequate resources to worry too much about areas like these outside the boundaries of the national park itself. (Related: “Controversy Swirls Around the Recent U.S. Suspension of Sport-Hunted Elephant Trophies.”)

Snaring is also an ongoing problem. When I was last banned (temporarily) from an area, no one noticed a little elephant in the “A” presidential family who was snared. By the time I was able to get back into that area where this particular family spends much of their time, the skin had grown over the wire. Indeed, given [that] the snare was on the leg of a fast-growing youngster, the bone had also grown around the wire, making a snare removal particularly difficult at best. It isn’t enough to just have game-drive vehicles out and about perhaps noticing a snared animal, especially since this sort of thing isn’t the focus of general tourists and safari guides.

See the below videos by Pincott—first, of an elephant named Whosit apparently trying to revive her dead brother, Wholesome, who was killed by a snare at the age of three. Second, of another herd elephant removing its own snare.

Have you ever worked in partnership with any international conservation groups? Are you calling upon any of them now for assistance in protecting the herd?

Perhaps the term the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe puts international conservation groups off! During my first five or so years in Zimbabwe I tried, mostly without success, to obtain funding. None of the big international conservation groups ever responded positively to my requests for assistance. Eventually, you just have to give up and get on with it yourself. And I was fortunate to have a well-paid career behind me that meant I could carry on. But you have to understand that this latest issue is not about funding at all. It’s about the current lack of commitment, understanding, and care from the Zimbabwe government.

How did you notify the government that you were shutting down the project?

Nothing formal was done in my case. Just like with the original 1990 Decree that never even had a certificate or anything, it was only when I did the 2011 reaffirmation that I ensured a certificate (which included the bright red Presidential Seal logo-thingy as well) was produced and signed by the president. (And I didn’t ever have a research permit, since I wasn’t an academic researcher.) The fact that I had three cabinet ministers’ cell phone numbers on my mobile said it all!

Once I told Minister Kasukuwere, Minister of the Environment, that I was shutting down my project, I decided based on personal ethics that I would never attempt to go back into these land areas. I could be arrested for trespassing if I did that now, given that I’ve closed down my project.

When Minister Saviour Kasukuwere came into office, you wrote on your Facebook page that he said: “Poachers will be dealt with mercilessly. We will protect elephants alongside all our animals. This is a war we will win.” Was he a liar?

When Minister Kasukuwere was appointed to lead the environment/wildlife ministry last year—with no wildlife background or experience whatsoever—I was determined to support him as much as I could. Not long after his appointment, I was actively involved in the flyovers that confirmed the numbers of elephants dead from cyanide poisoning (indeed I was the one who spoke to Minister Kasukuwere to actually get these flyovers started—which was a concern in itself: Why didn’t the Parks Authority do that?).

Nonetheless, there was some swift and positive action at that point. But what happened then? Did anybody ever get to the root of the problem? After relatively few poachers were jailed, everything went very quiet. Silence shouldn’t be interpreted as the problem having been solved. The fact that the local Parks Authority management knew of a significant number of elephant deaths for many months before all of this became public, and simply wrote off their non-reporting of the situation as “an oversight,” says a lot in itself. I must say, though, that the parks rangers I had dealings with at the time were impressive in their determination to catch the poachers. (Related: “Elephant Poachers Poison Hundreds of Vultures to Evade Authorities.”)

Who has been your biggest ally in Zimbabwe?

Until recently, my best ally in Zimbabwe was probably Minister Didymus Mutasa, a very high-level minister in the President’s Office. It was a comfort to just know that he was there, if and when I needed special help, and that was important to me. He has of late, though, been unwell.

Sharon Pincott and Willa. (Photograph courtesy NHU Africa)
Sharon Pincott and Willa. (Photograph courtesy NHU Africa)

Are any photographic safari operators rallying behind you or the protection of the herd?

There are operators in the photographic safari industry who are expressing their own concern about the current land grab and the negative impacts on themselves, trying for support and action from Zimbabwe’s tourism minister.

Videos and photos on your Facebook page show that a number of these elephants have a deep affection for you and vice versa. They come when called. They’ve stayed with you when a family member is snared. They’ve introduced you to their newborns. Do you believe they’re aware of their increased vulnerability in your absence? Do you feel guilty for leaving them? And are there any circumstances in which you would resume your work?

I know that the Presidential Elephants—some more so than others—do know when I’m not around. This is evident in their welcome, when they see me again. At times I can actually see their temporal glands erupt with liquid as they rush towards my 4×4 to say hello. And I can feel their joy in their rumbles, that I do believe are occasionally directed specifically at me. Over many years, I have earned their trust at a very personal level, with a deep understanding of their family lives. And I believe they enjoy my company as much as I enjoy theirs.

I can’t let myself think about the guilt, and I must admit that answering heart-rending questions like this one does bring tears. Elephants are such intelligent and resilient beings, which I’ve had the privilege of witnessing first-hand. They will go on regardless. I think that too much trust and respect has been shattered now, at government level, for me to be able to change my mind about leaving Zimbabwe.

You had a particularly close relationship with an elephant named Lady, who disappeared in 2012. By all accounts, you do not know her fate but assume she’s been killed. You’ve said the family has remained in tatters since her loss. Can you describe what you have witnessed in terms of Lady’s loss and other familial losses?

My relationship with Lady, for example—and that with others—is a result of my own dedicated time spent with these elephants. While all of these elephants were habituated to the presence of people when I arrived in 2001, that meant that they came within a few meters of vehicles without fear. I had no other distractions (no safari operation to run like Alan did), and so over my first few years I (unintentionally) developed particularly close relationships with some of the families and individuals—to the extent that some came and leaned up against the door of my 4×4 for maybe up to an hour.

The loss of any member is mourned by an elephant family. The loss of a matriarch, or high-ranking female, can be devastating to that family. I’ve noted that sons of dead elephants leave their natal families much earlier than they otherwise would and become independent males before they’re even teenagers, giving them far less chance of survival themselves. Daughters without their mothers do sometimes fall pregnant at a much earlier age than normal, at times before they’re even nine years old, and subsequently lose their newborns. Just like with humans, deaths (especially premature ones) tear families apart, and the negative repercussions are ongoing.

Do you think there is any growing pressure from outside Zimbabwe for the Zimbabwean authorities to protect the Presidential Elephants since word of your departure was released? 

I hope that the international interest and outrage does wake up the responsible Zimbabwe officials and that better controls will be put in place to properly secure these elephants long-term. After all, what is the point of having a “flagship herd” if they represent nothing of what they were meant to (remembering that they are supposed to represent Zimbabwe’s commitment to responsible wildlife management), and if tourists can no longer even easily get on game-drives amongst them?

If Zimbabwe can’t properly care about and safeguard their own flagship herd, then what hope do all of their other elephants really have long-term in this country?

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Meet the Author

Christina Russo
Christina Russo is a freelance journalist. For nearly 15 years, she has worked as a producer for a number of public radio programs, including NPR/WBUR’s "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. Christina also freelances for Yale Environment 360, where her written work focuses mainly on wildlife conservation issues. She is the co-producer, with WBUR, of the nationally syndicated documentary on American zoos, From Cages to Conservation. She has written numerous articles about animals, including a story about caring for donkeys in Ethiopia; a veterinarian saving horses in Sonoma County, CA; an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand; and the work of pre-eminent whale biologist Roger Payne for her hometown newspaper, The Gloucester Daily Times.