TALKING TO ELEPHANTS
Lawson Mabhena, Sunday News (Zimbabwe)
August 7, 2011
WHEN I first heard that Ms Sharon Pincott, an Australian wildlife
enthusiast living with elephants near the Hwange National Park, could
talk to the jumbos, I thought: well that’s a load of rubbish.
Living with elephants, I could imagine as something easy for anyone
with a passion for wildlife, but talking to them — that was a claimworth proving false.
Then I travelled to Ganda Lodge in the Sikumi Forest bordering the
national park on Monday, 1 August — that is where I got a rude awakening.
The lodge was the venue for the reaffirmation of the Presidential
Decree for the protection of the Presidential herd of elephants, which
was done by the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Cde
Francis Nhema, on behalf of President Mugabe.
Just before the function where Cde Nhema read the decree by the
President, Forestry Commission rangers I spoke to seemed to be sure
that this woman, all the way from Down Under, could talk to the
biggest mammals walking the face of the Earth. But still, I was not convinced.
After all formalities, at around 2pm, the moment of reckoning came. I
was to travel with a photographer behind this woman who could
talk to the much-feared animals.
Travelling with her were a group of filmmakers who have been working
on a documentary on the relationship between Pincott and the
Presidential Herd of over 450 elephants.
We were told the first family of elephants was hardly a kilometre away.
We set off in a motorcade, Pincott in front, we at the back and two
vehicles belonging to the filmmakers in-between.
A family of elephants intercepted us before we had gone very far. It was
the E family. There are 17 families in total and each of them named after
the first 17 letters of the alphabet.
From a short distance I could see various members of the E family
approach Pincott who was standing through the sunroof of her vehicle.
She was feeding them acacia pods and rubbing their trunks.
She signalled our vehicle to come closer for a better view. I could
hear her call some of the members of the family by name. In each
family, members are named after the family letter.
In the E family one member Pincott called to come closer was Eileen.
Just when all my doubts had been cast aside, I was shocked to learn
from Pincott that we were yet to visit “friendlier’’ families.
How could wild elephants possibly get friendlier than
allowing a human to touch them?
Well, I was shocked just long enough to meet the A family.
We arrived at a water point at the same time with this particular
group and because of the new faces that were trespassing their
territory, the family of elephants turned away and began to scatter.
“Don’t worry, I will call them,’’ was all Pincott said.
“Here Adele. Good girls, come here girls,’’ Pincott called out, and
the whole family stopped. Adele came closer, but before she got to
Pincott, greeted her matriarch — the oldest member of the family — Ania.
In no time, Pincott was rubbing Adele’s trunk and having
regular small talk with her.
“My relationship with the herd is such that these elephants actually
accept me as one of their herd. They spend hours within a metre of my
vehicle each day; bring their new-born calves right to my door to
introduce them to me; sometimes rest their trunks on my bonnet; rumble
to greet me; and some of them even allow me to place my hand on their
tusks and to rub their trunks.
“But tourists must remember that I have spent the past decade, up to
eight hours each day, with these elephants. They know me; they know my
voice and they know my smell. I understand their family hierarchy and
their family relationships. I can read their moods. I know which ones
to trust more than others.Tourists must never try to reach out and
touch them, or to give them even one acacia pod. Obviously no human
food is ever given to the elephants, as should be the case for all
wild animals,’’ Pincott said.
“Responsible safari guides can ensure that you have very close
encounters with these elephants, but everyone must respect — and
remember — that they are wild animals. You must remain in the safari
vehicle at all times; you must keep your voices very low; and you must
not stand up when around them closely. If you and your safari guide
obey all of the rules, you will have a safe, and very
memorable time among them.’’
Now totally devoted to elephants, Pincott met her first elephant in
1993 in an untamed wild in Africa.
“I was on a business trip to South Africa, and encountered a big bull
in Kruger National Park in South Africa. It was to change my life. I
travelled back and forth to Africa regularly after that and met many
wildlife people, and volunteered my time on various wildlife projects.
“In 2000 my friend Andy Searle — who was a wildlife warden in Hwange
National Park — was killed in a helicopter accident while tracking
rhino. He was only 38 years old. It made me think about how short life
was and that you need to be doing with your life what you really want
to do. The next year, in 2001, I gave up my high-flying life in
Australia — I was the information technology director for Ernst &
Young Australia — to work on a full-time voluntary basis with the
Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe. I sold my home in Brisbane,
Queensland, so that I had funds to support my voluntary work,’’ she said.
Pincott made a career of studying or monitoring elephant herds in 2001.
She has been working among the Presidential herd for 11 years and
knows almost every single member of the various families by heart.
“The year before Andy’s death, Andy introduced me to a man called
Lionel Reynolds, who was working for the safari company Touch the Wild
at the time. It was following Andy’s death that Lionel arranged for me
to come and monitor this herd,’’ she said.
The one-hour international television documentary that is presently
being filmed — primarily on Forestry Commission and Dawn Properties
land, bordering the Main Camp section of Hwange National Park until
late September — will screen around the world next year.
The story is based on the work and relationship Pincott has with the herd.
“The past decade has entangled me in some tough times, and it would be
unrealistic not to cover some of the issues I have faced. But mostly
it will concentrate on just how extraordinary the Presidential
Elephants of Zimbabwe really are, and the very positive Reaffirmation
of the Presidential Decree,’’ she explained.
It was in 1990 that President Mugabe first decreed that the habituated
elephants that roam the photographic safari land bordering the Main
Camp section of Hwange National Park were protected. They subsequently
became known as The Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe.
“They are wild, free-roaming elephants. There are no fences here, and
they certainly are not hand-raised or domestic. They are an
extraordinarily friendly clan of some 450 wild elephants, in 17
extended family groups. In 2001 I began assigning letters to each
family group, and giving each elephant within a family group, a name
beginning with that letter. Hence, you have the A family, where all
family members have a name beginning with A; and you have the Ws, for
example, where all family members have a name beginning with W, etc.
“I know the elephants by sight and name, just like — perhaps less
crazy — people recognise humans. I monitor their well-being, and their
social structure and population dynamics. I’m therefore, keeping track
of births and deaths, and matings and relationships both within and
between different family groups,’’ Pincott, who believes can be a
guardian angel to the herd, said.
“Dartings are arranged when elephants are snared, and many lives are
saved. They have become like family to me, and I worry about them, and
love to visit with them, just like human families."
Seeing Pincott talk to elephants as one would have regular talk with
humans, was indeed amazing, but even more amazing was the fact that no
Zimbabwean I know — myself included — has such passion for our wildlife.
Said Pincott: “The Presidential Herd is a key tourist attraction for
Hwange and Zimbabwe. It is a world-class tourist attraction unique to
Zimbabwe. We encourage visitors from around the world to come and
experience this beautiful country; to visit Hwange National Park, and
as an add-on to that to come and experience the magnificence of the
AUTHOR / ELEPHANT SPECIALIST / CONSERVATIONIST
(Please note that circumstances change regularly in Zimbabwe. Be sure to double-check that the lodge you book with is still doing game-drives in areas where the Presidential Elephants are regularly encountered.)
In March 2001 Sharon Pincott left her home in Australia, and began working with ‘The Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe’ on a full-time voluntary basis, on land bordering the Main Camp section of Hwange National Park in the west of the country. President Robert Mugabe decreed, in 1990, that the 400+ elephants which roam this unfenced land – known locally as the Hwange Estate – should never be hunted or culled, and that they should symbolize Zimbabwe’s commitment to responsible wildlife management.
Sharon instigated a formal naming process, for ease of identification, and learnt to know hundreds of wild, free-roaming elephants as individuals, and members of close-knit families - while closely monitoring their lives (their ‘social structure’ and ‘population dynamics’) on a daily basis.
It was an idyllic time.
Visit the Presidential
Elephants with IVORY LODGE
Visit the Presidential
Elephants with SIKUMI LODGE
SEE 'SUNDAY NEWS' ARTICLE BELOW
But it soon became apparent that snaring was rife – Sharon’s elephant friends succumbing to terrible injuries - and snare-destruction teams were established to help combat the poaching problem. No sooner was the snaring situation under better control, a government official claimed this tourism land as his own (as part of Zimbabwe’s ‘land reform’ program), and managed to secure quotas to sport-hunt. What followed was 16 months of heartache and endurance, before this situation was eventually righted. But still, the degradation – and the threats and intimidation - continued. Every year from that point on, pans were left to dry up; the elephants forced to move elsewhere to find adequate water. Snaring was once again rife, while continual efforts were made to save the lives of maimed animals.
What kept Sharon in Zimbabwe was the beauty and wonder of the Hwange veld – which still remained, despite everything – and the extraordinary relationship that she formed with these free-roaming Presidential giants over many years. Wild, adult female elephants came to Sharon when they were called by name – and even more remarkably, allowed her to rub their trunks. Sharon trained some safari guides from surrounding lodges to be able to identify key individuals, so that they could better share their splendour with tourists.
Her book titled The Elephants and I tells the 2001-2008 story of her life with these elephants.
In late-September 2009 – before the rainy season began – Sharon proactively sought kind donor assistance, and personally arranged and oversaw the scooping of six pans on the Hwange Estate (including its three major pans Kanondo, Mpofu and Mtaka). As a result, in 2010 - for the first time in five years - the Hwange Estate finally had adequate dry-season water for its wildlife, including its elephants.
Sharon considered ‘The Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe’ to be a truly unique tourist attraction, which could potentially attract a myriad of people from all around the world to Zimbabwe (bringing much-needed foreign currency into the country) - yet the indifference amongst others in Zim continued, adding to the frustrations of her ongoing voluntary work. Nevertheless, she continued to strive to protect and promote these extraordinary elephants over 13 years, until she finally left Zimbabwe, after endless battles and more land claims in October 2014.
Visit the Presidential Elephants with GANDA LODGE