The fate of the presidential elephants of Zimbabwe

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.

National Geographic

The herd was given this name after President Robert Mugabe awarded it a presidential decree in 1990.

Symbolising 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 programme.

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I don’t believe the required commitment is there anymore from these offices, and so yes, I have withdrawn my services and closed down my project.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 organised, I’ll be moving on from Zimbabwe.

Russo: Does President Robert Mugabe’s 1990 decree have any value today?
Pincott: 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.
Russo: 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?

Pincott: 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.
Russo: Will anyone else be watching and documenting the herd in your absence?

Pincott: Only the Parks Authority and/or the Ministry of Environment can answer that question.
Russo: Can you explain the land grab issue that has partly led to your decision to leave Zimbabwe?
Pincott: 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 programme 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.

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

Pincott: 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.

Russo: How does this “habituation” show up today in the herd?
Pincott: 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.

Russo: When you came in 2001, were you asked to fill a vacancy?
Pincott: 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 organise 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.

Russo: What was your daily activity with the herd?
Pincott: 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 among them every day, regardless of whether it was the November to April wet season or the May to October dry season. I travelled 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.

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

Pincott: 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.
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.

27 Responses to The fate of the presidential elephants of Zimbabwe

  1. skippy 007 February 21, 2015 at 7:04 am #

    The so called animal advocates and game rangers in collaboration with government ministers are responsible for the poaching these animals in the name of sport. As I pointed out before very few animals die in the hands of small time local community poachers and they don’t target big game. The problem is,if you point out this fact you are called names like sellout etc. The truth is why should I support people who are destroying the livelihood of the future generations for the selfish reasons? They should be ashamed of themselves that foreigners are the ones who are spearheading the conservation of our natural resources while they loot. Who do they think they are fixing? Who will be affected by the lose of these animals? The foreigners will move on once their lives are put at risk after putting so much effort in trying to conserve what doesn’t belong to them. We should be thankful to such people who work tirelessly for a good cause instead of calling names and threatening them. I am not sure if Zanu will ever see any light or worth forgiving.

  2. Porusingazi February 21, 2015 at 7:06 am #

    This is just perfect.smuggling baby elephants to china,killing them for birthday parties and invadind the land.i am not a scientist by i think some people possess genes with propensity to destroy.however i suppose this becomes dominant when you associate with a cetain group of people.

  3. r. makwehe February 21, 2015 at 8:32 am #

    I live in hwange and don’t agree that Pincott was protecting the elephants. She was there to monitor and as far as I know she was not cooperating with Parks authorities at Main Camp. She shouldn’t cry foul as she invited this by not working closely with Parks who are mandated to look after this heritage.
    The presidential herd is doing fine without her and we don’t deny poaching here and there but its something that has not gone out of hand. Poaching has been there even when she was around. It is very difficult to eradicate poaching but minimise it We as Zimbabweans should put our heads together and not give credit to foreigners where its not due. People should not blame Parks or government for the sake of it but to work together for the benefit of our future generations Lets run away from the blame game and protect wild life. Assist parks with resources.

  4. fact February 21, 2015 at 10:05 am #

    you call yourself the president when you cant take care of elephants ko isu vanhu 13million ndopauchagona unonyadzisa

  5. Ndlovu February 21, 2015 at 10:51 am #

    will he now be serving them up for his born day celebrations of disgust this year? or now stealing their babies for cash, sending them off to a cruel life in zoos in the east? probably both it sounds like, those poor hwange elephants

  6. Jacob February 21, 2015 at 11:12 am #

    When u go to primary article from Geographic D. Mutasa is brought up. He should speak out about this now he expelled by Zanu because he been talking to you bout other things.

  7. Midlands February 22, 2015 at 11:47 pm #

    Since the April 14 mentioned here look at the disasters that have befallen our ellies in that Hwange area. It just goes on and on and on these days and land grabs like this one that are not “farming” keep coming. Happy Birthday Mr President. You will go down as a joke in animal history as well as human history.

  8. Gilly February 23, 2015 at 1:24 am #

    We left for better times in the US ten years ago. I can not imagine sticking it out and giving your all for another ten years after that and only then leaving. Life is better outside of this millennium’s Zimbabwe. You wonder why you miss it at all when you continue to read things like this but we continue to read the news. Soon though there will be nothing at all to miss.

  9. Disgusted February 24, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

    Sharon is far better off out of it. So many tourists cannot bear to go to Hwange national park now as it is too heartbreaking to contemplate with the terrible baby elephant captures that are going on, imagine how it would be for her. And when there are political land grabs in these main tourist areas they disrespect everything and show their true colours. When have we last seen Saviour Kasukuwere talk anything about his own portfolio, wildlife? He is too busy bootlicking the President in spectacular fashion.

  10. Cally February 25, 2015 at 1:12 pm #

    Kkkkk is the r. makwere comment here from the same ray makwere from umtshibi capture base inside hwange, a national parks employee????????? that is a good joke, the one who is the head national parks capturer of all of the baby elephants that are being taken away!!!!!!! Your comment is too predictable, we will give you as a Zimbabwean all of the credit you want for the destruction that you causing to our national park now and you want to ask for resources to plunder more???????? It is national parks men like you who give all us Zimbabweans a very bad name, as head of capture in hwange how much are you putting in your own pocket??????? the truth hurts when you do not do your job and try to cover everything. nothing changes up there.

  11. Cally February 25, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    Kkkk, I can tell ray makwehe from umtshibi capture in hwange is one of those who get away with a lot because nobody is game to report him!!!!!! just as well some national parks men at main camp and in our country are still good, we know from reading on internet that better national parks men did support cabinet direction to get rid of land grabbers from hwange tourist area cause they destroying things for our tourists and other lodges. sure many in national parks do not support baby elephant stealing either but too scared to say.

  12. Ray February 25, 2015 at 4:03 pm #

    I can post on your other articles, why not here?

  13. Ray February 25, 2015 at 4:08 pm #

    So I can post here when it is short so I will try another time Newsday: We can all search the net and find out the disasters and concerns from many thousands around the world since this National Geo interview was printed last year, but for R. Makwehe who you are right is the name of the head man of Hwange NP capture unit, I have just confirmed, to now try to tell us that he wants to “protect wild life”! Really? REALLY? I suggest he take some input from the mass anger and horror from tens of thousands of “foreigners” who might visit our country over what he is doing right at this moment to our wildlife that does certainly belong to “future generations” in Zimbabwe. Or probably he is too busy sending more of our baby elephants to their deaths, or internment at best, to places very far away from Zimbabwe. You don’t want “foreigners” Mr Makwehe but you come begging here for “resources”. From who? Poor Zimbabweans struggling to make ends meet and who are forced more than ever now with land grabs next to hwange safari lodge to pay high prices even to visit their own presidential elephants and then cant even do that properly anymore? Or do you expect those “resources” to come from these awful “foreigners” who were not born in Zimbabwe, as you always do with your hands out? Do learn to be grateful for the effort and input of others, regardless of white or black or Zimbabwean or otherwise.

  14. Ray February 25, 2015 at 4:11 pm #

    Yes, we can all search the net and find out the disasters and concerns from many thousands around the world since this National Geo interview was printed last year, but for R. Makwehe who you are right is the name of the head man of Hwange NP capture unit, I have just confirmed, to now try to tell us that he wants to “protect wild life”! Really? REALLY? I suggest he take some input from the mass anger and horror from tens of thousands of “foreigners” who might visit our country over what he is doing right at this moment to our wildlife that does certainly belong to “future generations” in Zimbabwe.

  15. Ray February 25, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    I have to stop trying on my comment now. I must have tried ten times to post. I am trying to say that the national parks capture person who commented here is pathetic for saying that we must protect wild life when he is capturing baby elephants from the future generations that he refers to and is sending them off to pure misery. And the irony of having his hand out here for resources when they will only come from foreigners who he clearly resents and has little knowledge of. They are were your bread is buttered my friend, like it or not. You need to look at the anger and disgust from tens of thousands on the net.

  16. Ray February 25, 2015 at 4:35 pm #

    The land grabs beside hwange safari lodge are bad enough with their destructive effect on good, decent and proper lodges in the area, and on tourists trying to do their usual gamedrives to see this herd, of which many have given up even trying to visit these days. But the baby elephant captures are putrid for the world tourist to even try to stomach. Who will ever convince the greater world now that you would be responsible with any resources that you plead for here when you in national parks are the root cause of the worst possible problem, the baby elephant captures to feed foreign zoos?

  17. Pam February 25, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

    Let us make things very clear for those who do not know. 1) The land next to Hwange Safari Lodge was grabbed by those now calling themselves Gwango Elephant Lodge. No one who knows the background and the negative affects on lodges and tourists would think of supporting this new lodge. The Presidential Elephant facebook is still easily found for background reading. 2) Mr R. Makwehe does rule over the section of National Parks who do all of the wildlife captures in Hwange National Park, that has the world fuming and disgusted right now over their actions with this. These are two extremely negative wildlife things that have been permitted in this important tourist part of Zimbabwe.

  18. Pam February 25, 2015 at 5:57 pm #

    Just before the elephant captures were made public by Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, I tried with three others to book a safari to the presidential elephant area in Hwange and was told by National Parks tourist office that this was not possible any more. Now with the captures we will certainly never return, like hoards of others we know unless all of these problems are properly resolved, something that local Zimbabweans have obviously failed to do alone. Arrogance will not help you. Listening will.

  19. Becky February 26, 2015 at 6:01 am #

    With regard to the comment by the Hwange National Park warden for capture, how often does NPs personnel even go on this land? I am there very often with projects and know for a fact that a scout never goes there unless called in by someone like Sharon Pincott in previous times or by someone in the independent APUs. There are some good scouts at Main Camp but their time is tied up inside the park as we all know. When they are called to the outside photographic land it is for a few minutes and then they are gone, so on top of everything else with regard to the heartless captures of the baby elephants and all of the irony in your comment, you overstate what you do and know about as well.

  20. Jessica February 26, 2015 at 6:43 am #

    At least we all know now the name of the man ripping baby elephants from their families. It is tourists (mostly foreign) who are complaining about Hwange land grabs resulting in no game-drives with these particular elephants or game-drives that are over a very small piece of land that are pointless after 60 minutes. It is also very large numbers of ecotourists (mostly foreign) who will not support a national park where such cruelty is being carried out. Yet you want ‘resources’! From who? Foreigners? Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, with your racism. You deserve no ‘resources’.

  21. Sally R. February 26, 2015 at 9:48 am #

    Sharon Pincott did so much for this country of ours getting so much support and attention from all around the world for some of our elephants at least. Imagine how difficult that must have been, given our world reputation and especially the name of the herd. Conservationists around the globe had never even heard of these elephants until she dedicated her life to them. Who cares, Mr National Parks, if she was foreign or not. She did much more than most and you ought to be thankful. Look what happens once she’s no longer here to calm the waters of those whose trust and respect she gained and intensified. Our President serving up elephant for the masses, National Parks taking their babies away from them. Frankly we deserve all of the negative publicity that we are currently getting from all parts of the globe, including a lot of concerned people in Asia, over all of these things. It is an embarrassment.

  22. Claire February 26, 2015 at 10:03 am #

    We have just had long discussions about this in Harare. Sharon did more than anybody to put our elephants on the map. People, including some of the biggest names in world conservation (if you read the acclaim on her books) came with gracious words. It is a disgrace that after dedicating something close to 14 years of her life to our elephants, some idiot in National Parks decides to push the ‘foreigner’ button. He deserves all of the foreigner outrage over all of the elephant things, focused on our country, to go in his direction. It is such a shame Sharon is no longer here to help us gain back some of our reputation.

  23. Disbelief February 26, 2015 at 7:45 pm #

    Those Gwango “new farmers” next to Safari Lodge in Hwange, I would never trust that they aren’t a cover for really bad things and a lot quite obviously feel the same as us (real) Zimbos who really do live here. How did that piece of paper, the government ‘offer letter’ ever get approved for someone who is not fully indigenous and living with a “foreigner” anyway? More underhanded deals and cover-ups, like the elephant captures.

  24. Costello February 27, 2015 at 8:46 pm #

    We sure miss updates and input from this lady (Sharon) but I cant help but agree she is better off out of it.

  25. Jamie February 28, 2015 at 2:47 am #

    Mr R. Makwehe! from Hwange capture — you just don’t get it, do you? Small mindedness. People will smell the stench of what you have done with the baby elephants for years and years and years to come. You would have “resources” from tourism, if only you would not keep destroying tourists’ wish to visit Zimbabwe with all that continues to disgust would-be tourists. Your comment is one that also disgusts.

  26. Resident March 1, 2015 at 7:28 pm #

    It would be hypocritical to continue to promote such a herd of elephants while such other unethical things are happening with elephants and their land in Hwange. Minister Saviour Kasukuwere from the Environment ministry has a lot to answer for. Well done Sharon Pincott, you did the ethical thing.

  27. Indigenous March 2, 2015 at 10:03 am #

    you are right Mr Jamie, the gwango lodge woman beside hwange safari lodge is not even black, she is a coloured and she has a white American boy in her bed as her partner. There are hundreds of thousands of indigenous in Matabeleland like me who missed on this land in hwange while she came in from not around here and took it with her westerner, please explain honourable Kasukuwere and our President Mugabe.

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