via Who destroyed the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe? April 14, 2014 by Sharon Pincott
The President of Zimbabwe, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, proclaimed – and indeed reaffirmed 21 years later – his patronage of this special clan of elephants. Zimbabwe’s flagship herd. And it is the President’s own government officials who must now take credit for DESTROYING the entire concept of them, of general tourists’ ability to enjoy them, and of what they were meant to represent.
Those who have read my books know that at least ten of my 13 years in Zimbabwe have been a never-ending battle, fighting (and fighting and fighting, despite unbelievable accusations and events) for the welfare of the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe. There are, however, other things that you don’t yet know. You don’t know, for example, that there was once a proposal that this area be turned into a ‘Presidential Park’ – so that key things like game-drive capability amongst these elephants (to benefit the maximum number of tourists possible) could be properly managed; so that the number of, and distance between, competitor lodges could be properly and sensibly controlled; and so that those trying to underhandedly hunt could be properly dealt with. This proposal was rejected by the previous Environment Minister Francis Nhema. Under his watch, land areas were snatched and underhanded hunting activities went on, and on. When further land claim problems resurfaced in early 2013, Minister Nhema was too busy electioneering to help with my pleas. But not surprisingly when the cameras were rolling, not long prior to that, he did indeed put his face on the international ‘All the President’s Elephants’ documentary, SAYING all of the right things as usual. This documentary incidentally – showcasing the Presidential Elephants – went on to win, in the international arena, such awards as ‘Outstanding Contribution to Nature’ and to become a finalist for ‘Best Nature and Environment Protection’, in addition to receiving numerous other accolades. Did the Government of Zimbabwe even once make mention of it? Certainly not that I know of.
When Minister Saviour Kasukuwere stepped in to head the Environment Ministry last year, he initially brought with him a ray of hope that things might now improve. But sadly that didn’t last for long after his limited understanding of the Presidential Elephants and of the real issues surrounding them – which seemed to result in him being easily swayed by whoever was the flavour of the day – began to shine through. A lot more talk, and no action, became the norm. And then, there was no talk at all. Minister Kasukuwere became suspiciously quiet with regards to the State Land Kanondo land grab, when it all clearly became too hard. But before his silence, he misled at least one South African journalist – evident now in a published news article – writing to him on 6 February stating “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.” But close to four-and-a-half months after the 3 December Cabinet directive that offer letters must be withdrawn, there is still no evidence that this has happened. (And, yes, yes, I know, I can hear all of your bellows from here: “We told you so; what else could you expect?”….)
The truth is that for the past 13 years it was only me who bothered to take any dedicated, real, unwavering, interest in The Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe. (Where were those others who were once involved, on a day-to-day basis, who had professed to care about them? Those who walked out – indeed sold out – on them years before I arrived in Zimbabwe; years before times in Zimbabwe got really tough? Those who were still happy to bask in some glory while knowing nothing of their current lives and never-ending daily family struggles and losses.) Unlike others, I was one of only a handful who had no monetary interest in them. And sadly, I was the only person who even noticed when ‘Lady’ – who had become the most renowned of the Presidential Elephants, immortalised in my books and in the television documentary – disappeared for good. Although her body was never found (something that does happen heartbreakingly often in the thick Hwange bush), I feel sure she was shot; her family still devastated and torn apart. She was the most high-profile of many who were lost. Who will notice when others go missing in the future? The answer to that question is nobody. Nobody will notice. Nobody will care.
The truth is, it’s all been something of a joke; something that was taken less and less seriously by those in Government as time passed (except, sure enough, when those cameras were rolling). It was a joke that has now been allowed by the very Government who proclaimed their status, to turn into an embarrassment, a disgrace, a complete farce. The Zimbabwe Government now treats this land as if it is little individually-owned plots to grow mealies on, with no regard whatsoever for the ongoing, long-term, welfare of these elephants as a whole. And with no concern about tourists being able to come and to easily arrange a decent lodge game-drive amongst them. When my draft of the 2011 Presidential Decree Reaffirmation was edited by Government, they couldn’t even get the location of these elephants correct! (A mistake that remains on the Decree Reaffirmation certificates today.) Now they simply allow land-grabbers in to these very areas to destroy the very heart of it all. Under Minister Nhema’s watch we lost forever one area, and then another. But at least these were on an outer edge of the key area. Then it got much worse. Under Minister Kasukuwere’s watch, we have now lost yet another; the most critical of them all. What we have now is little plots of land, where questionable individuals are being allowed to do as they please, destroying past processes and efforts (that were particularly intense over the past 12 months). That this has been allowed to happen shows just how ‘important’ the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe are to the Government.
One of the mega rich of Zimbabwe’s ministers is ex-Mines Minister, Obert Mpofu. In another land grab case, he claimed as his own this exact piece of Kanondo land (and more) in 2003. He was actually evicted in 2005 and the land was back once again to being what it had been, Presidential Elephant game-drive land that benefitted many. The Government at least got this right. But many wonder if this, now, is Minister Mpofu or his side-kicks back in disguise. How else did the Lands Ministry ever dare to allocate this land a second time, and still today get away with not correcting their mistake?
What too of the donors who have assisted these Presidential Elephant land areas in the past – on assurances that they were protected areas – only for their contributions to then benefit these land claimants? No donor should ever take the chance of assisting again in these outside, clearly now insecure, areas.
Perhaps some will now scramble and propose the use of academic researchers to try to replace my efforts. But my years in Zimbabwe have taught me – certainly not always, but far too often – that many individual academic researchers in this country tend to show interest only in their own academic advancement for short-term studies, and more often than not stay a few months or perhaps a few years part-time (and indeed sometimes only a few weeks) before moving on elsewhere or going back to their universities, and to their normal lives. They have no interest, or time, to get to know wild elephants intimately or to care sincerely about what happens to them. Instead they might throw on a few grossly huge, ugly and intrusive elephant radio collars (which they often then fail to ever take off), and sit in offices downloading data from satellites, doing one study or another, and only contributing to the piles of dusty papers that sit on the high shelves of academic libraries, that so very few people ever choose to read. That’s how they profess to then know and care about elephants. And that is certainly not what The Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe have ever stood for, nor what they need to survive. Academia and dedicated conservation efforts are very different things in an environment such as this.
Things will go on, though, just like they always do, after any death or tragedy. And there will be those who will crudely abuse elephant relationships that I spent over a decade restoring (after such awful unrest in these areas during the first lot of damaging land claims back in the early 2000s), as well as the many other unique relationships that I built anew. And photographs of friendly elephants will continue to be taken and published. But the lost decade of intimate knowledge and deep understanding, of Presidential Elephant families and family trees, of unique care and truly profound relationships, of dedicated efforts for awareness, of snared elephants saved with their progress closely monitored, and of so many other things, can never be recovered. Just as tragically, the uninformed and inexperienced new-comers will probably claim that tourists can still come (but note, only ever with restrictive accommodation conditions attached), and get on game-drives amongst the farce that is now ‘The Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe’ in (grabbed) land areas – when the sad reality is, they don’t even know what they’re looking at. To them, it is all just a blur of grey; carelessly calling them all ‘Presidential Elephants’, merely trying to cash in. And under-handed hunting activity will no doubt continue to go on.
These people – along with some of the Ruling Party’s responsible government officials – show no care, and have no clue.
Indeed some of these very same individuals (clearly a malicious attempt to deflect focus from themselves and their own dubious doings) have apparently now – since the advent of this Kanondo claimant – begun accusing me of living the high life off the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe! It is not even worth time defending myself over such ignorant and spiteful allegations. Those who have bothered to understand all that was achieved, know of what I once had and sold in Australia to be able to do what I’ve done for these elephants over the past 13 years, and just how very many personal sacrifices I made over the course of these years. And they know, too, all that I’ve offered on a complimentary basis, and just what I’ve had to put up with in return. It is, though, simply incomprehensible to so many in a country such as Zimbabwe – where greed and corruption has already been publicly exposed and acknowledged – that someone would spend their own time and money in this way.
I cannot allow myself to be linked to such new depths of collusion and cluelessness. I cannot keep hitting my head against a brick wall, year after year after year after year, with lack of care and lack of respect and understanding of these elephants growing and growing – despite all the efforts – like an invasive weed over a pond, smothering everything. This is now a country where even a high-level Cabinet directive to remove the land claimants can simply be ignored; where there is no accountability, and where months of ongoing damaging delays don’t seem to matter to anyone in Government – and that surely says a lot in itself. Any level of trust and respect that I might have once had, is now completely shattered. I know there will be some who will not understand my decision to go on to do other things, but they have not been through it all themselves, day after day, year after year after year, not comprehending what it is to be bone, bone, tired of it all.
There are others in Zimbabwe who will continue their own fight, for their own reasons, against this destructive Kanondo land grab in this key tourism area; the beginning of what could be a complete disaster for Zimbabwe’s tourism industry in general, if allowed to go on and indeed happen again, elsewhere. Or perhaps the Government doesn’t care about that either?
As for the elephants, I take pride in the fact that I dedicated to them 13 long years – even if right now they can no longer be considered (by any rational person) to actually exist as a flagship herd, in any credible form. I can only hope, now, that they become one with Hwange’s general elephant population, finding safety INSIDE the boundaries of the better secured Hwange National Park, as they have done before in tragic times.
I wish them Godspeed.
(by Sharon Pincott, April 2014)