Zimbabwe’s Presidential Elephants Embroiled in New Saga
Adam Cruise
7 April, 2014

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 has been ‘acquired’ and closed off. Speculation is rife that it is to become a hunting concession thus putting the move in direct contradiction to 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. In 2001 the herd scored a fairy Godmother in the name of an Australian businesswoman, Sharon Pincott. Sharon had abandoned her high-flying job and came to live among the elephants, where she remains to this day. She has developed a close-knit bond with the herd and knows each individual intimately – a situation that is affectionately reciprocated. But she has also battled against hunters, poachers, government claims to the land and devastating droughts in helping conserve this unique free-ranging herd of elephants.

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 arranged and oversaw the construction of six permanent waterholes and the scooping 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 Freeman has claimed ownership of the 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The claim comes in spite of a 2013 directive by Zimbabwe’s Cabinet that any offer to claim the state-owned land must be withdrawn.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 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 the month.

This, says Pincott ‘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?’ The claimant is making her presence felt. Sharon has reported that water connections have been tampered with, imposing signs proclaiming ownership have been erected and no game-drive vehicles allowed to enter. The new owner’s staff have also become physically violent toward trespassers and Sharon herself has borne the brunt of it.

When an area is declared a ‘conservancy’, nine out of ten times it’s a hunting concession. The claimant, it is believed, is the sister of a known Zimbabwean hunting safari operator named Rodger Madangure who owns a large hunting concession nearby and has recently appeared in court over illicit hunting operations.

A UK based radio station reported that the chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), Johnny Rodrigues believes that if photographic safaris and sightseeing tours are being blocked from going into the area, there is 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.

Main photo: Mother and child from the Presidential Elephant Herd, Zimbabwe. (Sharon Pincott)

For the article on Green Action News click here.