By Alex Bell
There is rising concern for the future welfare and safety of Zimbabwe's Presidential Elephant Herd, because of the takeover of a piece of land in Hwange, which serves as the herd's home range.
A woman who calls herself either Elisabeth Pasalk or Elisabeth Freeman has claimed ownership of the land in the Kanondo area, despite a 2013 directive by Zimbabwe's Cabinet that offer letters for the land be withdrawn. The woman has claimed that she inherited the property from her late mother, who in turn was given the land by the government.
The land, which is classified as State land, was identified and resurrected by the founder of the Presidential Elephant Conservation Project in 2009. The land in question includes key Presidential Elephant waterholes - Kanondo pan and Mpofu pan.
But in what has been described as a case that "so 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," the Cabinet directive of 2013 has been ignored. Instead, the Kanondo land claimant has forged ahead with the building of a safari lodge.
The new land 'owner' has also been blocking outside access to the land, including game drives full of tourists on photographic safaris in Zimbabwe specifically to see the Presidential herd. The caretaker of the Herd has also personally been threatened and manhandled for continuing to monitor the herd on the Kanondo land.
The Kanondo area is now being referred to as the Gwango Elephant Lodge, which claims to be a conservancy opening for tourism business in April 2014. The claimant, Elisabeth Pasalk/Freeman is understood to be an American resident, but concern has been raised amid reports that she is the sister of a known Zimbabwean hunting safari operator named Rodger Madangure.
Johnny Rodrigues, the chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), told SW Radio Africa that there is concern for the Presidential Herd, which is meant to be protected by a Presidential decree, but which could become the target of hunting safaris.
"Photographic safaris and sightseeing tours are being blocked from going there. And once you close the area down like that, you know there is some hidden agenda. My concern is that these people will use this area as a hunting area. We believe there is an ulterior motive and this area will be used as a hunting concession," Rodrigues said.
The government is now under pressure to explain the situation and stop what Rodrigues called "the invasion of state land which is supposed to be preserved for tourism and non-hunting." He called on the new Environment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere to intervene.
Meanwhile, an online row over the situation has been heating up, with the Gwango Elephant Lodge moving to 'dispel' what the owner says is misinformation.
Posting on the social networking website, Facebook, Gwango Elephant Lodge says the information is a result of "opportunistic people who have personally benefitted from continuous, unmonitored access to our area by pretending to be concerned about Zimbabwe's Presidential Elephants and the wildlife in Hwange."
The Lodge added: "There is nothing that Gwango is doing that will adversely affect the Presidential Elephant Herds. Our entire team is fully committed to conservancy and anti-poaching."