By Jane Fields
They call her Mama Elephant. For 13 years, she has waged a lonely battle to protect Zimbabwe’s “presidential herd” of elephants, a 525-strong group that roams Hwange Estate in the remote, dry west of the country.
From her base in a tiny, thatched, round hut, volunteer Sharon Pincott has helped treat scores of elephants wounded by poachers’ snares.
She has paid villagers to clear out the weed that made the water holes undrinkable.
She can recognise individuals by their earmarkings and has named about 300 of the elephants: one is called Grace, like president Robert Mugabe’s wife.
But now the former IT specialist has announced she is throwing in the towel after an official allegedly connected to the Mugabe regime announced she was taking over Kanondo, a swath of land used by the herd, and opening up a lodge for photographic tourism.
Stopped from following the herd, Australian-born Ms Pincott fears the elephants may be hunted.
Fuelling those suspicions, the owner of the new lodge, Elizabeth Pasalk, is the sister of a Zimbabwean safari operator Rodgers Madungure, who, according to one report, has already faced charges of illicit hunting.
“Too often, there’s underhanded hunting activity going on somewhere,” Ms Pincott said.
“The [state\ parks authority hasn’t ever treated gunfire in photographic areas with enough concern. People are given warnings, but they inevitably just turn back up again afterwards. Some are linked to government officials.”
The presidential herd is supposed to be just that: a herd of elephants under the personal protection of Mr Mugabe, now 90.
It was a triumph for Ms Pincott – who has written two books about her work and been featured in a South African documentary – when, in 2011, she managed to get the president to reaffirm his decree protecting the herd from hunters.
She thought then that she had won precious breathing space for Misty, Mertle, Marianne, Caramel, Calm-down, Gwyneth, Wish and so many other elephants. Now their future appears far from certain.
Ms Pincott’s outburst on her Facebook page – she posted a photo of the elephants with the caption “Doomed” and said she was “bone tired of it all” – prompted outrage from fans who turned to social media to beg environment minister Saviour Kasukuwere to intervene. He has remained silent.
Ms Pincott told The Scotsman that officials recently “ordered” her to Harare for a meeting. “But it turned out that it was for a meeting where the Kanondo land claimant would actually be present – which I felt was totally inappropriate,” she said.
Unlicensed hunting is a growing concern in Zimbabwe where “wildlife-based land reform” – often code for the takeover of established safari outfits – is the latest phase of Mr Mugabe’s white farm grab.
Last month, the United States banned hunters from importing elephant trophies from Zimbabwe, citing questionable management practices.
The move provoked an outcry from Zimbabwe’s hunting community which warned that US visitors would go elsewhere, hitting thousands of Zimbabweans who are dependent on the industry of income.
But conservationists insist unethical hunting – including the illegal transfer of hunting quotas – is a threat.
Johnny Rodrigues, of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, said: “Once you close down an area like this, you know there is some hidden agenda … [the elephants\ will be shot and that will be the end of the presidential herd.”
But new owner Ms Pasalk, who is based in the US, told South Africa’s Tourism Update website: “Our entire team is highly committed to safeguarding the wildlife in our area, including the presidential elephants.”
Ms Pincott’s work has not always won her fans.
Hunters complain that the presidential elephants stray out of state land into hunting concessions. Some ecologists claim the nearby Hwange National Park is home to thousands too many elephants already and that culling is necessary.
While Ms Pincott revels in the memory of a kiss shared with wild elephant Willa – “an extraordinary, humbling moment” – others in the sector are fiercely opposed to that kind of human contact.
But her commitment is undeniable. In the two weeks since she announced she was leaving, hunters are reported to have made an approach on the presidential elephants.
“I just can’t seem to make sense of it any more,” she said.