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Zimbabwe’s Presidential Elephants Embroiled in a New Saga

Hwange, Zimbabwe – Fresh concerns have been raised over the safety of Zimbabwe’s famous herd of Presidential Elephants after it has emerged that state land bordering on the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve, has been ‘acquired’ and closed off. Speculation is rife that it is to become a hunting concession thus putting the move in direct contradiction with a Presidential Decree that protects the elephants from such practices.

In 1990 President Robert Mugabe decreed that the 400 plus elephants that roam the unfenced land outside the reserve should never be hunted or culled, and that they must symbolise Zimbabwe’s commitment to responsible wildlife management. However, the decree was largely disregarded with little subsequent response from government. In 1997 when Zimbabwe was lobbying CITES to sell its stockpile of ivory to China, Mugabe stated that all Zimbabwe’s elephants must now “pay for their rent”, meaning that it was time for the country to benefit from the value of its ivory. Licenses to kill elephants were dished out and no further mention of the special dispensation given to the Presidential herd was mentioned again. Hunting and poaching outside Hwange therefore continued unabated.

Then in 2001 the herd scored a fairy Godmother in the name of Australian businesswoman, Sharon Pincott. Sharon had abandoned her high-flying job and came to live among the elephants, where she remains to this day. Over the years she has developed a close-knit bond with the herd, knows each individual intimately – a situation that is affectionately reciprocated – and has studied the intricate dynamics of the various groups. But she has also battled against hunters, poachers, and devastating droughts in helping conserve this unique free-ranging herd of elephants. Her biggest threat, however, has been the government. During Zimbabwe’s ‘Land Reform’ era one government official claimed the land for himself and issued dozens of hunting licenses to his chums. Sharon managed to annul the claim (it was state not private land) but not before many members of the herd had been shot. She has since endured continuous threats and various forms of intimidation from officials.

In 2009 the indomitable Sharon launched the Presidential Elephant Conservation Project where she actively sought international donor assistance and marketed the area as a tourist destination. She trained local guides and acquired game vehicles to take visitors to view the elephants, many of who uniquely allow Sharon to approach right in among them. Sharon also arranged and oversaw the construction of six permanent waterholes and the scooping and deepening of two natural water pans called Kanondo and Mpofu. As a result in 2010, the first time in five years, the elephants finally had adequate water to get them through the murderous dry season.

Now, in the latest saga a land claimant by the name of Elisabeth Pasalk or Elisabeth Freeman has claimed ownership of the Kanondo area where the two water pans lie. The claim comes in spite of a 2013 directive by Zimbabwe’s Cabinet that any offer to claim the state-owned land must be withdrawn. The woman, though, has insisted that she inherited the property from her late mother, who in turn was given the land by the government. The claimant has all but ignored the directive and has gone ahead and built a safari lodge called the Gwango Elephant Lodge. The surrounding land has been declared a ‘conservancy’ that will open for ‘tourism’ within this month.

This, says Pincott on her facebook page ‘reeks of incompetence and lack of care, of ignorance, of greed, of covering butts, of back-handers, and of the corruption that this country is supposedly, right now, trying to stamp out. Why can’t [they] execute a simple Cabinet directive?’

In the meantime the claimant is making her presence felt. Sharon has reported that the vital water connections have been tampered with and imposing signs proclaiming ownership have been erected. The claimants have started demanding that no game-drive vehicles enter ‘their’ land. The new owners staff have also become physically violent toward trespassers and Sharon herself has borne the brunt of it.

“A hand came through the window of my 4×4 one afternoon”, she states, “my door was opened and my arm was grabbed. Forcefully, [a man] attempted to pull the keys from my ignition. When that failed, he struggled with me further, trying to grab my cellphone from my hand.” Afterwards he reported her to the local police.

Gwango’s website is quite thin on tourist information, there is a short blog but it does not tell us much about it’s background, it’s staff or whether or not it will be a hunting concession. What it does inform the reader is that ‘unrestricted access to the area has created an increase in human activity with vehicles frequently driving directly in and out of important animal habitats and close to vital pans.’ Although it stops short of saying exactly what the effects of said vehicles has on the animal habitats, the implication is that the area is now off-limits to any outside interference regardless of the fact that Sharon has put time, money and effort in securing the waterholes and the well-being of the herd.

Despite the lack of information on the Gwango Lodge website, experience in the region has taught me that when an area is declared a ‘conservancy’, nine out of ten times it’s a hunting concession. Sharon knows this. She is also convinced that the claimant, who is said to be an American citizen, is the sister of a known Zimbabwean hunting safari operator named Rodger Madangure. Madangure owns a large hunting concession nearby and has recently appeared in court over illicit hunting operations.

Sharon is not the only one concerned about the prospect of hunting. A UK based radio station reported that the chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), Johnny Rodrigues, believes that if Sharon’s photographic safaris and sightseeing tours are being blocked from going into the area, there is almost certainly an ulterior motive. “Once you close the area down like that,” he told the station, “you know there is some hidden agenda. My concern is that these people will use this area as a hunting area.”

If the area does become a hunting concession, and the government refuses to act on it’s directive, and the Presidential Decree – which it is likely to do – 13 years struggling to protect one of Zimbabwe’s last free-ranging herds of elephants may effectively come to nothing.

Adam Cruise

Adam Cruise is a published author and writer specialising in Africa, Europe and it’s environment. He travels extensively throughout the two continents commenting, documenting and highlighting many of the environmental concerns that face the regions. He is a well-known travel, animal ethic and environmental writer having his articles published in a variety of magazines and newspapers. The rich and varied cultural and historical aspects of both continents have also fascinated Cruise and are evident in much of his writings.

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