If you love elephants (and who doesn’t!) visit Getaway’s website – www.getaway.co.za – to access Sharon Pincott’s (author of ‘The Elephants and I’) new blog page. Live vicariously through her accounts in the Hwange bush – and through her elephant photographs too, which are also posted there. Alternatively, go direct to: http://www.getaway.co.za/page/sharon-pincott
Here’s a glimpse into Sharon Pincott’s book ‘The Elephants and I’
Preface in THE ELEPHANTS AND I
By Sharon Pincott
Another fine African day draws to a close as I sit on the rooftop of my faithful old Range Rover. A gentle breeze cools my body as I breathe in the quiet beauty of the summer sunset. Ahead, the blood red sun will soon touch the horizon. An elephant family is feeding close by, expertly snaking their trunks around dried clumps of grass, kicking with giant front feet to help loosen their supper from the ground. Dust, tinged pink and gold in the fading light, floats high into the air. Baboons sit silhouetted on termite mounds, while flocks of guineafowl scamper about, busy with evening chatter. A grove of acacias, old and wise like the elephants, stands guard over the approaching night.
I lower myself into my 4×4 and call out, ‘Come on Lady, come girl, come here my girl.’
Lady is a fully grown jumbo who roams freely in the wilds of Africa. She’s one of a clan of wild elephants said to be protected by a ‘presidential decree’. Born wild. Living wild, with no fences to restrain her. The matriarch of a family of 17, Lady comes to me when I call her, like a familiar friend.
Her massive, placid form is soon beside my door. I look into her amber-coloured eyes, so filled with wisdom and warmth. Her incredibly long eyelashes, dark and mesmerising, are momentarily tinted ochre by the warm glow of the setting sun. I slowly reach my arm towards her, and gently place my hand on her trunk.
I am the first human to earn her complete trust. Some say she has bestowed on me the status of ‘honorary elephant’ – and I am moved and deeply honoured.
The smell of life around me is so intense that I can almost reach out and touch it, and I feel the freedom of being, right now, the only human around. I sit quietly, reflecting. I’m here in the exalted company of the largest land mammals on earth. I had once dreamed of being in such extraordinary company and now I am living my dream. Life has meaning and I have large grey friends.
Eight years ago (or maybe it was 80; it often seems difficult to be sure) I was living an extravagant life Down Under, in a world filled with countless material pleasures. There was family, friendship and fun, but somehow the rest of it lacked real meaning. Wild Africa, half a world away, beckoned. Like a powerful magnet, it drew me in – naive, a dreamer, unaware of the commitment or involvement that it would bring.
‘Zimbabwe?’ my family and friends had asked, bewildered. ‘You’re going to live in Zimbabwe?’
Zimbabwe, in the dawn of the new millennium, was not where many people chose to be. Yet I resolved to invest my hopes and my dreams in this troubled country, a land in dire need of both hope and dreams. And I was initially rewarded with a sense of fulfilment and contentment like I had never experienced before. Elephants were the reason I’d left my large suburban home in Brisbane, Australia, to live in a small hut in the Zimbabwean bush. They were the reason I’d given up a high-flying corporate life as an Information Technology (IT) specialist.
I could not know, though, from my idyllic early days of intimate wildlife encounters, sundowners, campfires and savannah breezes, that I would eventually find myself embroiled in challenges way beyond my imagination.
Nevertheless, here I remained – a million miles from my childhood home, yet completely at home.
Through the deepening twilight I glance to my right at the grove of towering acacia trees. Perhaps, I muse, like these acacias, having a thorny hide had helped me to survive here. But why, I wonder, do I choose hardships that, as a volunteer, I’m not obliged to endure? In these unlikely surroundings, comforted at this moment by the rich sounds and smells of the African veld at dusk, I ponder how on earth I got to where I am now.
I think back to my childhood, my career, and the events and people that were pivotal in me choosing this unusual life. So much has happened since then. Had I known what lay ahead, would I ever have come to this place? Probably not, I admit to myself. But given the chance, would I do it again? Yes, absolutely yes – of that I’m certain.
I remember a friend once commenting, ‘There’s a tragic appeal in lost causes.’
Is that what this was, a lost cause?
Whatever it was, this place – filled with poignant beauty and wonder, and with elephants – was now my home. In time, I felt a profound sense of responsibility towards my four-legged friends and so, even when disillusionment and fear became my constant companions, and the First World beckoned, I trudged on.
Having been so warmly accepted by the giants of the wild, there were many times that my spirit soared with joy. But there were many other trying times when I felt my resolve crumble under the weight of unbearable sadness.
Yet, despite everything, while driving through the Zimbabwean veld – on my daily mission to protect my elephant friends – I always tried to remember to make space on the seat beside me. For hope.
Meet some of the elephants who star in Sharon Pincott’s book titled ‘THE ELEPHANTS AND I’ – including the one named ‘Lady’ – and witness Sharon’s extraordinary interactions with wild elephants in Zimbabwe, Africa. Go to:
Or visit www.sharonpincott.com, and select the Video tab.
Getaway November 2009
Africans at large – Sharon Pincott
Introducing Getaway’s Elephant Ambassador
In recognition of her courageous work with wildlife in Hwange Estate, Getaway has appointed Sharon Pincott as its Elephant Ambassador in Africa. She will be reporting on the herd, and its environment and surrounds in the magazine each month. If you want to contact her, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
A life in love
A hut in Hwange is a long way from the glitz and high life of an IT executive Down Under. But strange things can happen when you meet an unlikely soulmate in a place you never expected to be. By Don Pinnock
Everyone agreed that Sharon Pincott was at the top of her game. By 1993, the blonde from Queensland in Australia, was a jet-setting IT executive flying the world with a handsome consort, staying in top hotels, driving a red sports car and attended by a devoted poodle.
Late that year, however, something odd happened. She met an elephant and fell in love. It was in Kruger National Park and, as she watched the huge bull she knew, inexplicably, that she had come home.
Sharon returned to where she was then living, in Auckland in New Zealand, but was haunted by the meeting. She moved back to Brisbane and began juggling her high-powered consultancy work with unpaid volunteer jobs in Africa, working in Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Namibia. But among them, Zimbabwe exerted a powerful pull. There she met wildlife enthusiasts like Karen Paolillo and Andy and Laurette Searle and discovered they were her sort of people.
Andy introduced her to the subtleties of the African bush. His death in a helicopter crash in 2000 became a catalyst for action. Sharon locked up her house in Brisbane, gathered together some savings and moved to Hwange Estate alongside the national park to live with and study the Presidential Herd, a group of elephants given protection by government decree. Friends of this globe-trotting young socialite were aghast.
‘I walked across the tarmac at Victoria Falls Airport,’ she said, ‘feeling that I’d arrived where I was always meant to be. I wasn’t a qualified researcher. But I took heart in Dr Louis Leakey’s early view of Jane Goodall, whose work with the chimpanzees of Gombe is world renowned. He believed a mind uncluttered and unbiased by theory, a real desire for knowledge and a sympathetic love and understanding of animals were more important than a scientific degree.’
In Hwange, Sharon negotiated the use of a small rondavel – complete with cobras, gerbils, dormice and with bats in the eaves. She bought an old Range Rover she named Nicki Mukuru.
The mechanic who worked on it complained he’d been trying to make custard out of cow dung. But apart from constant blowouts it turned out, at least in the early years, to be dependable. In it she set out to explore the bush in clothes that would have made her chic girlfriends back home shudder in dismay.
Meeting the herd
The Presidential Herd began as 22 frightened elephants in danger of elimination by hunters. Under protection, by the time Sharon arrived, the herd had swelled to around 400, but no formal record of them existed. They were also being caught in snares, which horribly mutilated them and often severed their trunks. And, despite legal protection, they were still occasionally being hunted.
‘Soon they were no longer just great lumps of endearing grey,’ she remembered. ‘They were individuals – members of close-knit families – and I was privileged to have the chance to get to know them. I quickly learned that elephants do very human things. They greet, they caress, they protect, they communicate, alert to everything going on around them.’
This familiarity was to be the source of wonder – and of pain. Kanondo Pan was the Presidential Herd’s favourite playground, and Sharon spent days, and some nights, in Nicki Mukuru watching and documenting. ‘It became my office, a far cry from the skyscrapers around the world where I used to spend my time. Zebra crossings were really zebras crossing and families of lumbering elephants formed the only traffic jams.’
Forging remarkable relationships with these wild, free-roaming creatures, she earned the name MaNdlovu (Mother Elephant) among the locals. A matriarch Sharon named Lady at first only tolerated Sharon’s presence, then befriended her in a very elephant way, standing beside the Range Rover with her eyes drooping sleepily as Sharon massaged her trunk. The vehicle’s bonnet became dented with friendly greetings from tusks, its wing mirror crumpled when an elephant unintentionally leaned too hard.
‘There is a timelessness about watching majestic elephants stride across the plains,’ she would write in her book, The Elephants and I. ‘They are creatures of supreme dignity, undoubtedly belonging to this land. They have a mighty form, yet it’s one delicate enough to take an acacia pod from a human’s hand. While sitting watching these magnificent beasts I am forever overwhelmed by a strong sense of what is precious.’
A country in collapse
What also became apparent was what was not precious. She returned to Brisbane after about a year and was overwhelmed by the amount of ‘stuff’ everyone, including herself, had. She made a difficult decision: to sell her house, in effect burning bridges and committing her life to Zimbabwe. Her adopted country, however, was in meltdown. The economy had collapsed, land grabs by officials and ‘war vets’ were crippling agriculture, fuel and food was scarce and professional people were leaving in droves. Hungry people were snaring anything that moved, others were snaring for profit.
‘I regularly drove the sandy roads wondering what gruesome wound I’d have to face that day,’ she said. ‘Would it be a trunk not long enough to reach the mouth with water? Bloodied flesh hanging hideously from a leg? A wire wrapped tightly under a chin, up to the ear, culminating in a disgusting bow of wire on the top of the head? Water spraying out of a sliced trunk? A thick cable round a neck?’
Hunting was another problem. In 2003, Sharon was informed that Kanondo and the surrounding area had been claimed by the governor of the province and would be opened to sport-hunting. His relatives would settle there. She was no longer allowed in the area.
Sharon was stunned. The Hwange Estate hadn’t been hunted for 30 years and the animals were habituated to humans. It would be a massacre.
Aware that her work permit could be revoked, Sharon was unsure what to do as guns blazed. But it was too much to bear and she began making representations to the highest officials in the land. It worked, temporarily, and the hunting quota was withdrawn. But this invoked the ire of the ‘settlers’ and veiled death threats followed.
Animals scattered and elephant sightings became rare. Sharon documented the situation for all who would listen both in and outside the country and the intimidation was stepped up. Police harassed her, roadblocks were set up to prevent her movement on estate roads and she was cautioned at one point not to travel on lonely, main roads because of the possibility of ‘death by puma’ – a planned ‘accident’ with a heavy Puma army truck. She was interrogated by officials believed to be from the Central Intelligence Organisation.
But her persistence paid off when the Kanondo and surrounding areas were returned to the original owners for photographic safaris. Poaching continued, however.
People asked her if saving elephants was worth risking her life for. ‘I never allowed myself time to ponder an answer,’ she said. ‘I was no longer interested in making a living. Instead, I wanted to make a life.’
But the ‘settlers’ weren’t finished with her yet. More threats followed.
Finally, the former governor, now minister, wrote her a letter accusing her of being an Australian spy assigned with the task of frustrating Zimbabwe’s land reform programme. He called her an ‘Australian reject’ in cahoots with ‘racist white Rhodesians’ whose provocation needed to be stopped ‘one way or another.’
Sharon returned to Australia briefly to see her parents and, while there, was phoned by the Australian embassy in Harare saying it was dangerous to return. But she did. ‘It seemed there were so few people in Zimbabwe who truly cared about the plight of wildlife’ she said. ‘So many were, understandably I suppose, preoccupied by their own survival.’
But the stress was wearing her down, and land degradation was obvious. Despite the beauty and wonder of the region, which still remained despite everything, Sharon finally decided to leave for good … then found she just couldn’t. She’s still there, doing what she can to protect the Presidential Herd, still hoping things will come right.
‘Seeing elephants in large gatherings always triggered my imagination,’ she said. ‘I watch and imagine them, together again, hungry for conversation after their long time apart.
‘I imagine them without acid judgement, more respectful of each other than many humans are. I imagine them alone under a full moon, dancing in celebration of their reunion, their trunks and bodies fluid with the exquisite music of the dawn and dusk symphonies. I imagine them roaming this earth forever.’
Sharon’s highly acclaimed book, The Elephants and I, is published by Jacana and is available in bookshops throughout South Africa, and online from www.bookdepository.co.uk, which offers free world-wide delivery.
Jacana Media are currently reprinting Sharon Pincott’s highly acclaimed book titled THE ELEPHANTS AND I: Pursuing a dream in troubled Zimbabwe – just 4 months after initial release.
Media interest in Sharon’s story is still strong.
You can now purchase The Elephants and I by Sharon Pincott from the Book Depository – and enjoy free world-wide delivery. Go to: http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/browse/book/isbn/9781770096493
From my Hide, SOUTH COAST HERALD
The Presidential Elephants
The story of a Zimbabwean herd
The concept of a Presidential Herd of Elephants is probably unique to Zimbabwe, hailing from a happier time in that now sad country. We met these special elephants in the late 1990s when my wife and I were doing a Land Rover 4×4 trail recce for a local hotel group. We were staying at the Hwange Safari Lodge just outside the Hwange National Park, and one evening the word went out that the Presidential Elephants had arrived.
They had indeed arrived and were just outside the lodge’s perimeter fence, great, grey shapes in the half-light. It was our first encounter with this unique herd, then under the protection of President Robert Mugabe, and it was certainly a project that captured the imagination. And it certainly captured the imagination of Sharon Pincott, an Australian IT specialist and executive who gave up the good life at home to work with Africa’s wildlife, ultimately the Presidential Elephants.
Her story is a remarkable one, ably told in her just published book, The Elephants and I*. Sharon’s new found passion for Africa began with a business trip to Johannesburg and a brief sortie to the Kruger National Park, where she met her first elephant. Subsequent trips back to Africa on volunteer missions took her to Uganda, Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe, but it was Zimbabwe’s Hwange, that made her realize that she had to come back to stay.
This she did in 2001, her assignment being to research, on a full time and voluntary basis, the Presidential Elephants in their home range on the Hwange Estate, 140 square kilometers of unfenced conservation land adjacent to the National Park. For nearly eight years Sharon struggled against constant shortages, (fuel, food, just about everything), poaching and illegal and legalized (by the powers that be) hunting, and finally land grabs. She suffered on-going obstructionism, naked racism, an assault and even death threats, but she stuck it out.
She continued her work for as long as she could, in fact Zimbabwe’s Presidential Elephants are now probably the best documented herd in Africa, and she’s still up there, hanging in.
Sharon Pincott is a remarkable woman; courageous, stoic, determined and resourceful. Her story of her trials and tribulations, and the fun times, in Zimbabwe makes good reading. I loved the descriptions of some of her less hazardous experiences with wildlife and her beloved Range Rover, as well as some of the really evocative situations, such as Gs’n’Ts in the sunset. It’s a good book, reminding us of just how much we owe people like Sharon, and what can happen when a country goes wrong.
* The Elephants and I, Sharon Pincott, Jacana, Johannesburg, 2009
Sharon Pincott’s The Elephants and I masterfully combines a tale of the struggle to conserve Zimbabwe’s “Presidential Elephants” with a portrait of what life in Zimbabwe is like; it is a passionate and touching read.
BRITISH AIRWAYS COMAIR
1 May 2009
The Elephants and I
by Sharon Pincott (Jacana, R195)
The Secret meets Born Free in this story of an Australian woman’s bond with ‘the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe’ and her efforts to stay positive and protect them in a time of political upheaval, poaching and land invasions. In 2001, former high-flying IT specialist Sharon Pincott – now nicknamed Mandlovu (Mother Elephant) – became an unpaid volunteer reporting on the wellbeing of elephants roaming the Hwange Estate. The 400-strong herd had a ‘special protection decree’ from Robert Mugabe until October 2003, when hunters were allowed back in. First (false) impression: dangerously naïve Aussie faces midlife crises (‘It [Africa] was the perfect place to rejuvenate my soul’). Final impression: a courageous and determined conservationist outlasts fear and intimidation to stay on and fight for her beloved animals.
South Africa’s popular 50/50 television program will be airing an interview with Sharon on Monday, 11 May 2009. Video footage – showing her amazing relationship with wild, free-roaming elephants – will be shown, as well as additional footage that shows the intelligence and human-like qualities of these elephants. Be sure to watch! You’ll get to ‘meet’ Lady – one of the four-legged stars of Sharon’s book titled ‘The Elephants and I: Pursuing a dream in troubled Zimbabwe’.