‘Masakhe’: Trying to rebuild what has been broken (Zimbabwe)


The Zimbabwean

Date Published

See link for photo. 

Today we are making available another extract from the must-read book, Elephant Dawn, by Sharon Pincott, which is enjoying high praise and being released in the UK today, 1st of June (after earlier releases in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the USA). Following this extract, is a USA journalist’s enthusiastic review of this book.

Interestingly, tying in with Elephant Dawn, is the award-winning All the President’s Elephants documentary – show-casing the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe as well as Pincott’s past work and remarkably intimate relationship with them – which has now been acquired by Blue Ant media, who have taken on World-Wide Non-Exclusive Rights to broadcast this documentary through their numerous world channels. All of this ever-intensifying world interest, as created by Pincott, should be a wake-up call to President Mugabe, his ministers and officials about these flagship elephants and the problems they continue to face.

Our chosen Elephant Dawn extract for today is from 2008, from a chapter called Masakhe which is an isiNdebele word (and the name of a young Presidential elephant, who is part of the documentary).

It is tragic that today, 10- and indeed nearly 20-years on (Pincott’s story begins in 2001), Zimbabwe’s problems have really only been shuffled around, with similar troubles still ongoing all these years later. We still vividly recall those years of making do when there was nothing on shop shelves. You can join Pincott on her own rollercoaster ride of highs, and also of lows, in the bush in Hwange, and as she writes later in the book, the feeling of being “trapped in [her] own personal adaptation of Groundhog Day.” “Year after year after year”, she writes, “it’s the same gut-wrenching problems over and over and over again. It’s just a different day.”

One of Pincott’s supportive friends has just been given the honour of naming one of the latest Presidential elephant babies, this one in the M family – where all elephants have names beginning with the letter M for ease of identification and so that records and elephant family trees can be updated. Her story then moves on to the controversial topic of Zimbabwe’s appeal, and associated approval, to trade in ivory with China and Japan; a 2008 event that is widely believed to have worsened Africa’s elephant poaching and corruption problems:

“….. By now Zimbabwe is close to hitting rock bottom. It sometimes seems like there’s no future for this country. I find myself in a Bulawayo gift shop, its shelves all but bare, as they are everywhere. What’s available is overpriced. A young mother, no doubt a tourist, with a spluttering baby on her hip, turns to a fellow shopper and asks if she happens to have a tissue.

‘A tissue? Do you know how much a tissue costs in this country?’ the old lady fumes as she shakes her head and walks away.

I dig into my handbag and hand over a wad of scratchy green (practically unflushable) toilet paper, which is all that I’m carrying.

What a sorry state Zimbabwe is in. Nobody even has a tissue to spare.

We’re now a nation of hunters and gatherers. If we find something and can afford to, we buy more than we really want, to trade with someone else who has a cupboard full of something that we can’t find. Word spreads like wildfire that sugar or flour or salt is available somewhere and crowds gather like vultures to pick the shelves clean before nightfall. Even a simple loaf of bread is now a prized commodity.

Despite the hardships, most people do share the little bit they have. No one resents stirring two teaspoons of sugar into the coffee of a visitor, despite not knowing when or if it can be replaced.

Shaynie eventually chooses the isiNdebele name Masakhe for Misty’s baby. It means ‘to build’ or ‘to rebuild that which has been broken’. She knows that for me, for the Presidential Elephants, and for the country, it is a fitting name. So many things have been broken for all of us, and it’s time to try to rebuild. A few days later, when I bump into the M family again, I lean out of the window of my 4×4 and, gently placing my hand on the head of Misty’s baby, christen him Masakhe.

I’m absolutely thrilled too that there is another baby for Lady, just as gorgeous and special as Masakhe. This little one is named by a couple in Perth, who kindly assist me with replacement field equipment. They choose to call her Lantana. I just hope this doesn’t mean she’s going to grow up to be a noxious pest! I adore her little pink tongue as it closes in on Lady’s breast as she suckles only centimetres away from me.


When Zimbabwe proceeds with an internationally approved one-off sale of ivory just one month later, the only thing that seems to be rebuilding is the disturbing ivory trade. CITES (pronounced sigh-tees)—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which is the body that regulates world trade in animal products—has controversially granted Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe approval to sell a combined total of 102 tonnes of their stockpiled ivory to Chinese and Japanese ‘accredited traders’. This represents over 10,000 dead elephants.

While Zimbabwe argues that it needs the money for elephant conservation programmes (which, I imagine, we’re unlikely to ever hear anything about), I simply cannot equate trade in ivory with the conservation of elephants. More importantly, I’ve lived among Zimbabwe’s wildlife for too long to believe that corruption and greed can be controlled sufficiently for this sort of legal trade to work. I don’t believe there is the capacity—or the will—to properly regulate the market. This sale ensures that the illegal black market is kept alive by making it so much easier to exploit the loopholes. An insatiable appetite for ivory, particularly in Asia, drives elephant poaching. I just don’t understand anyone’s desire to fuel that appetite further with ‘legal’ ivory. Although many people in southern Africa support the legal trade, I agree with my East African colleagues that this sale will help only to worsen the continent’s poaching problems. One way or another, every person who covets ivory carvings and trinkets has the blood of an elephant on their hands.

I don’t believe either, as Minister Francis Nhema would have us believe, that most of the tusks in Zimbabwe’s stockpile—from which they will sell to Asian countries legally—have come from natural deaths. How many elephants outlive all of the ration-hunting by Parks staff, and the poaching, and the sport-hunting, to die naturally of old age in their sixties? In eight years I have not seen the carcass of even a single elephant that has died of old age.

All this talk of a ‘legal’ ivory trade seems to also make it easier to forget how hideous the illegal ivory trade is—trafficking that has been linked to terrorist organisations and organised crime. Elephants die horrific deaths at the hands of desperate and oftentimes just plain greedy and uncaring humans. Conscious that their gunfire might be heard, and preferring to save the cost of another bullet if they can, these killers will.….”

A review of Elephant Dawn by USA wildlife journalist, Christina Russo:

Sharon Pincott’s Elephant Dawn is one of the most powerful stories I have read about elephant conservation in recent years.

I conducted an interview with Pincott for National Geographic while she still lived just outside Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park (“The Fate of the Presidential Elephants”). During that time she was enduring not only a volatile political climate but facing numerous threats in the face of doing what she loved most: monitoring and protecting the elephants in their wild habitat.

Despite the turbulence, Pincott always found a specific quietude — a great solace — while observing these elephants day after night from her vehicle inside Hwange. But she was also burdened by a constant and deep worry, knowing they were suffering tremendously from snares, from poachers, from drought, and from the relentless and general persecution they faced in Zimbabwe and throughout Africa.

Elephant Dawn gave me extraordinary insight into the delicate and determined effort of Pincott: from the hurdles she faced living alone in her humble rondavel; to navigating political landmines; to losing some of her most beloved elephants. Indeed, it’s likely no reader will come away from this book untouched by the dignified and majestic Lady, an elephant who came whenever Pincott called her name and stood quietly next to Sharon when she sang “Amazing Grace” into the Zimbabwe sky. Lady’s profound presence will surely linger with many a reader, and catch a person smack in the heart.

This book is a magnificent read and it is lovingly written by a courageous woman. The penetrating sadness Pincott felt when leaving the elephants after living so closely with them for 13 years still endures long after the last page — and I suspect many readers will also find that her departure brings with it a nagging vacancy and fear that the animals are all the more vulnerable now that she is gone.