Hwange’s hunting sagas go on and on, seemingly endlessly. We speak to Sharon Pincott about Hwange’s latest one, this time involving a family of elephants and their young:
Sharon, we understand that the South African sport-hunter, Theunis Botha, who was recently killed when an elephant was shot and fell on him near Hwange National Park, was with his hunting party on Good Luck farm. Can you tell us more about the location of this hunting farm?
Pincott: Good Luck is a legal sport-hunting concession. However it is one of those right next to one of the key areas where the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe are widely known to roam. In fact I wrote, in a chapter of my latest book Elephant Dawn, about four disturbing incidents that occurred back in 2007, while I was first preparing to leave Zimbabwe to work with elephants in South Africa. These incidents all happened within just a few weeks of each other, and actually convinced me to stay on in Zimbabwe (which I then did, with the Presidential Elephants, for another 7 years). One of these incidents was an illegal sport-hunt of an elephant, which actually started on Good Luck farm, but which ended on photographic Presidential Elephant land. So we had a dead elephant bull on photographic land, which National Parks had not been informed about, until vultures alerted me to the remains of the kill.
Is it possible that the female elephant shot in this latest sport-hunting incident was a ‘protected’ Presidential Elephant known to you?
Pincott: It is certainly possible, and indeed likely in this particular hunting area, that the elephant shot was a Presidential female; from one of the 17 extended family groups who make up the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe. As I’ve said previously – in response to comments from just a couple of (uninformed) operators in Hwange, who quite recently were basically saying that nothing has been negatively affecting the Presidential Elephants – these elephants do not roam just within the boundaries of a relatively small photographic land area. Naturally, they roam further afield, in this larger unfenced Hwange environment. And Good Luck farm adjoins these photographic areas. If somebody could show me a decent photograph of the dead elephant on the ground, with her one ear and tusks visible, I may be able to identify who they killed – although identifying elephants lying on the ground from just a photograph, with one ear obscured, is never easy.
Just like after past poisoning episodes, and the ongoing elephant calf captures, my mind reels wondering which elephants well known to me (and well known to others too, through my books, social media, and the international documentary) may have been involved, and which one/s are now dead or missing.
What does it mean when a female elephant is shot?
Pincott: Killing a female elephant has many catastrophic repercussions. Depending on the age of the female killed, there will likely be at least two, and possibly three, young elephants who were dependant on that mother for their very survival. If it’s the matriarch (that is, the leader of that family group) who was shot, then the disintegration of that entire family unit is a very real possibility. As I know personally, mothers, sisters, aunties and offspring are always deeply affected and will be mourning this death.
I have to wonder too if only one elephant was shot? I’m not sure that we’ve yet heard the entire story; it sounds incomplete to me. It is most unlikely that the youngest of this dead female elephant’s offspring will simply have raced off, staying away from its mother. Did they capture her youngest offspring? Were they shot too? I imagine the chances are fairly high that more than one elephant was shot dead, or perhaps injured or captured, in the chaos and heat of the moment and the aftermath of this incident. Perhaps the hunting party, and National Parks trackers (from the elephant spoor in the immediate area of this incident, when ZimParks presumably investigated onsite), could clarify this fully? Although I also know personally that oftentimes the whole truth doesn’t ever come out.
How does this incident leave you feeling?
Pincott: Mr Botha was a person with family and friends. I’m genuinely sorry for their loss. Fatalities are always awful. Sport-hunters in general however, especially sport-hunters of a species as intelligent and family-orientated as an elephant, are not typically people that I have much affinity with.
This is yet another opportunity for the Zimbabwean government to reflect on just what their flagship clan of elephants – that is, the one that President Robert Mugabe chose to put his title to in 1990 (and chose to reaffirm in 2011) – really means to them. Why are sport-hunters allowed in areas so close to where this so-called ‘specially protected’ flagship clan of elephants are widely known to roam? It remains a ridiculous and worrying situation, as it was for all of the 13 years (2001-2014) that I worked with these elephants – regardless of whether or not it was a Presidential Elephant that was killed in this recent incident.
Last year, the CEO of Africa Geographic called the Presidential Decree “a paper tiger”, and that’s exactly what it is. Realistically, these elephants continue to face the exact same problems as does every elephant in Africa, and then some, in this Hwange environment – despite my repeated attempts over more than a decade to give real meaning to these elephants and to the Presidential Decree, even moreso after President Mugabe reaffirmed it, in writing, in 2011. But these attempts only infuriated the new, well-connected, sport-hunting land owners (and other ‘new land owners’) in this Hwange area.
Despite my numerous past pleas, there are typically always some female elephants (often supposedly tuskless ones) on approved Hwange hunting quotas, in addition to bulls. This particular shooting of a female elephant was apparently not planned, but it raises numerous questions regardless, all over again.
There seems to be negative wildlife incident, after incident, in Hwange. Does this surprise you?
Pincott: Nothing surprises me in Hwange anymore! Far too often during my 13 years, there were Presidential Elephants racing away from the sound of gunfire, sometimes unsuccessfully. Clearly, this is still happening.
It’s always been one of my fears, when guided walks/people on foot get far too close to these elephants, accidently or not. Someone like this was always going to get killed sooner or later. And now the elephants in this area will, once again, be rattled and acting out of character, as I saw them doing too often during my dedicated full days in the field, monitoring them every day, for many years.
What do you suggest can be done right now?
Pincott: There is nobody in Zimbabwe now who can determine if the dead elephant(s) was a Presidential Elephant from a specific Presidential family. That, by the way, is how I’m certain the unethical, corrupt, and the resentful, like it to be.
This time it wasn’t just the elephants who paid the ultimate price. But as always, the innocent elephants suffer unnecessarily.
If I was still in Hwange right now and hadn’t seen and identified the body of this elephant(s), I would be surveying each Presidential family group to see who is missing. And I’d also be searching tirelessly for young elephants wandering alone or with only each other. But I’m no longer there and positive identification isn’t possible. Game-drives and others in Hwange need to be on the look-out for injured elephants – regardless of whether they’re ‘Presidential’ or not – and also for young ones wandering alone and losing condition, who can be taken in and cared for by the Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery if deemed necessary. Game-drives are only out and about for a few hours a day and are typically focused on other things, but their intermittent eyes are better than nothing. Otherwise, depending on their age, young elephant deaths could potentially now occur, without anybody even noticing (since – as I also know only too well in this Hwange environment – elephant bodies are often not found).