PE to rescue of elephant heroine

Elephant’s Ear, by Guy Rogers

SO WHAT do a besieged herd of elephants in Zimbabwe, a Port Elizabeth rhino campaigner and the power of social media have in common?

It’s like this. Ayesha Cantor, co-owner of our Kragga Kamma Game Park, and initiator of the wildly popular website Africa, this is why I live here and weekly Rhino Friday posts was chatting recently online to Sharon Pincott.

Pincott is the former corporate power-blonde who 13 years ago gave up a bling life Down Under to start afresh in the Zimbabwean bush working with the conservation authorities then taking up a post studying, documenting, promoting and protecting The Presidential Elephants. She has written four books about this amazing personal transition and her work – almost entirely self-funded and against all the odds in often hostile circumstances – with this flagship population of jumbos.

The Presidential Elephants are protected by a special decree first declared in 1990 by President Robert Mugabe and reaffirmed by former Environment Minister Francis Nhema in 2011. The reaffirmation ceremony forms part of an award-winning international documentary All the President’s elephants and it’s part of the reason why Pincott and elephant-watchers around the world are so incensed right now.

Uniquely habituated but free-ranging, the jumbos in question comprise several interlinking herds totalling 520 animals today. They live on a 140km square kilometer tract of state land in western Zimbabwe, adjacent to the main camp area of Hwange National Park where they are one of the country’s major tourism attractions,

But now a mysterious individual, a Zimbabwean woman, apparently resident until now in the US and married to an American, has laid claim to a key portion of this area, called Kanondo, which includes two waterholes vital to the survival of the herds. More than that, she has now moved in with her team and is attempting to force Pincott and legal eco-tour operators out. Verbal and physical attacks have been reported and Pincott is finding it difficult to do her work and tourists are starting to stay away.

The story is mushrooming with a vengeance online even as it lumbers forward on the ground. It’s a monumental land grab, commentators are saying, “reeking of greed, covering butts, of back-handers”.

On December 3 last year the government responded to reports of this land seizure with a directive that the Kanondo “offer letter” should be withdrawn and that the claimant should be ejected.

But the newcomers have not shifted, their threats have intensified and no measures have been taken by the government to implement the directive.

Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF) chairman Johnny Rodriguez says the claimant’s effort to close down the area to legal traffic appears to reveal a hidden agenda and the concern is Kanondo is going to be used for under-handed hunting activity.

The claimant has renamed the land Gwango Conservancy ringing more alarm bells, as the term “conservancy” in Zimbabwe is synonymous with hunting. Gwango is also offering seven-day packages which is usual for hunting guests – but not for eco-tourists who seldom stay more than three nights before moving on.

Responding by e-mail to my questions, the claimant, confirmed her name, Elizabeth Pasalk, and her background as a biochemist. Pasalk said the land, vacant before her arrival, was given to her mother by the Zimbabwe government and passed on to her when her mother died in 2011. She accused Pincott of falsely projecting her work and rights on the land and denied Gwango would be allowing hunting. “Shooting a Presidential Elephant is illegal.”

The Facebook site of incumbent Zimbabwe Environment Minister Saviour Kasukwere, meanwhile, reflects a flood of posts from around the world calling on him to follow through on the December directive and eject Pasalk.

Responding promptly to questions I first e-mailed him on February 6, he said “we have withdrawn any offer letters relating to the land in question. So rest assured that the Presidential Herd will be protected. This is very important to Zimbabwe and our tourism industry.”

Having heard this week that the situation is the same, however, if not worse, I e-mailed the minister again – but got no reply.

The hope in Zimbabwe conservation circles is that government will still step in and evict the claimant. In the meanwhile down south people like Cantor have not given up their support for this front line in the battle to protect our wildlife.

When she heard that Pincott’s laptop was dying, Cantor popped a request on her Africa site and within hours a Pretoria businessman had volunteered to supply a new one and another fan, who owns a transport company, had volunteered to get it through to Harare. A third trucked it through from Harare to Hwange to deliver to Pincott.

It’s a thin line between south of the Limpopo and our neighbour to the north, between elephants and rhinos and caring and not.