On top of an abiding love of wildlife and a beautiful but deeply troubled country, it is poaching, greed, corruption, revenge and apathy that unmistakeably permeate the pages of Sharon Pincott’s unforgettable new book, Elephant Dawn, which documents her 13 years working alone with the Presidential Elephants in Hwange. This book is testament to the way numerous Zimbabwean officials and their connections chose to deal with someone on the ground who, as far back as 2001, could not turn a blind eye to illegal and unethical wildlife-related practices. In both her book and in this interview we are privy to a closer look at the intensely bonded, intelligent elephants that Pincott worked with, which Zimbabwe chooses to rip from their families at a very young age, and then commit to a life behind bars in a foreign land. This interview was conducted by Inga Yandell.
Yandell: Elephants have much in common with humans—family unity, intelligence, emotional quotients, and memory, being just some of the qualities we share. And like humans, communicating and bonding with elephants requires patience and a willingness to learn from one another. In 2001 corporate executive, Sharon Pincott, embarked on a new adventure—seeking meaning and contribution in Africa. The life changing move lead to a thirteen-year association with the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe. Her exceptional story is chronicled in the autobiographical ‘Elephant Dawn’ (Allen & Unwin, 2016/Jacana Media, 2016). What you learn when you live and work with wildlife is to recognize the qualities which unite us and the diversity which sustains us. Distinct yet connected, elephants share our ultimate goal for survival.
You abandoned a secure and successful life for an unknown path, what empowered and sustained you through this incredible journey?
PINCOTT: I endured endless problems and harassment over the years, but in a country like Zimbabwe people everywhere were fighting their own battles and that reality helped me keep my own struggles in perspective. More than anything, it was simply being in the company of such magnificent animals that restored my spirit every day and kept me pushing forward for so long.
You dedicate the book to ‘Lady’, can you tell us about her?
PINCOTT: Lady was the first wild, free-roaming elephant who truly accepted me into her world. She was the leader—the matriarch—of a small family of elephants who su?ered death, disappearances and snares. In time, Lady came to me when I called to her, just as a domestic dog might. She would bring her new-borns to the door of my 4×4, and suckle them only centimeters away from me. She dozed right beside me, and took refuge there from amorous bulls when she was in oestrus. I would talk and sing to her which she clearly found reassuring. Lady became my friend; someone who I loved to hang out with. I learnt so much from her.
What were the pivotal moments of trust that enabled your closeness with these powerful giants?
PINCOTT: I always let the elephants approach me, rather than the other way around. It was their choice to interact with me— or not. In time, as someone they came to trust implicitly, I was accepted as one of their family. My hand on the tusk or trunk of a wild, free-roaming elephant became similar to a human handshake. When they sleep and suckle right beside you, sometimes for hours on end, there can be no doubt that they’ve accepted you into their world.
What is one key thing that your relationship with these elephants taught you about their species?
PINCOTT: How deeply death and disappearances tear their families apart.
There are several vital messages in your book, what are the ones you value the most and hope to impart?
PINCOTT: 1. Elephants are very human-like beings, whose close bonds, intelligence and ability to grieve must be respected.
We all have powers of resilience and courage that we don’t realize, until they’re put to the test.
What direction and outlook will we need to surmount the challenges that lie ahead for wildlife conservation?
PINCOTT: Africa’s human population is set to double by 2050. Already today there is human-wildlife conflict. This situation will only worsen as human populations grow. Human development, that encroaches on wildlife land—like mining for example—needs resolution too. Corruption, human greed, poverty, pollution, lack of water, lack of funds, are all problems that somehow need to be overcome.
How are the needs of elephants di?erent from other wildlife in the protection and promotion of their welfare?
PINCOTT: As the world’s largest land mammal, their needs for space and water are greater than other species. Awareness of their human-like qualities and re-education of those who view ivory as a symbol of status and wealth are also paramount to their survival.
Do you encourage engaging with elephants and tourism or does this make them more susceptible to poachers?
PINCOTT: Those who don’t intimately know an elephant, or elephant family, should never attempt to engage with them. You must be able to properly read their moods, understand their body language, and know all about their family relationships and individual egocentricities before initiating any close contact.
Tourism is key, so long as it is properly controlled. As long as the safari outfit you choose is a reputable one, tourists bring more eyes and ears to the field, and responsible tourism assists the long-term survival prospects of all wildlife. Choose a lodge that puts a percentage of their profits back into supporting the wildlife and also the impoverished communities who live among these wild animals.
As for poachers, no elephant, whether habituated to the presence of people in vehicles or not, can escape their guns and poison.
How does your approach di?er from past measures to protect and understand elephants?
PINCOTT: I don’t think my approach is all that di?erent to elsewhere. As a non-scientist, though, I’ve perhaps been more willing to be completely open about my close relationship with the elephants. I’m also now in a position to write about the corruption and unethical practices that surrounded me for 13 years. I think we all work to try to ensure that local people are more aware of how special their elephants are; learning to value them as living beings. But when someone is hungry, desperate and living in abject poverty, this is never easy.
The clan of over 520 wild elephants I worked with carry the identity and supposed protection of the President. This Presidential Decree, which I had rea?rmed in 2011, is supposed to keep them safe. But it does little for these elephants if it provides just a fancy name, instead of in- depth monitoring and real protection measures on the ground. In reality right now, the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe—who roam on unfenced land—continue to su?er exactly the same problems as all elephants do, all around Africa.
Best bonding moment…
PINCOTT: An unplanned kiss with the wild free-roaming elephant I named Willa when she was pregnant, having a bad day, and looking for some comfort.
PINCOTT: Sitting with a trunk-load of gooey reddish mud on top of my head, dripping down onto my face and shoulders, after a trunkful of mud—that was supposed to all go over the elephant’s back—came flying in the open roof of my 4×4, and landed all over me instead.
Exceptional lesson an elephant taught you…
PINCOTT: You can do anything you set your mind to—after watching one remove her own wire snare from around her leg.
What you love most about elephants…
PINCOTT: Their sense of self.
Never do this around one…
PINCOTT: Pay more attention to a lesser-ranking elephant, when a more dominant one is around. Elephants experience jealousy too!
Teach your children…
PINCOTT: Humanity is caring about more than just our own species.