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It was warm nights alone with wild elephants under a full moon that gave a Queensland woman the strength she needed to take on a decade long battle to fight for her big grey family in Africa.
Grantham-born Sharon Pincott was in her late 30s and working as a corporate executive when she decided to give up her life as a corporate executive and dedicate herself to elephants.
“At one stage I travelled to South Africa to the Kruger National Park and it was there as a tourist that I saw my first elephant in the wild in 1993,” she said.
In March 2000 one of Sharon’s friends from Zimbabwe was killed in a helicopter accident while tracking rhino. He was 38, a year older than Sharon.
A month later, at a leadership seminar with her then-contractor Telstra, while sitting on a beanbag in a candlelit room, she heard from three elderly people who said the only thing they regretted in life was not taking risks.
That was enough to solidify change in the 37-year-old woman, who began to make plans to ship her life off to Africa.
Off to Zimbabwe
“It is one thing to go to Africa and do short-term things and come back but it was a real risk to throw everything in and go over there full time,” she said.
“Zimbabwe was in freefall at the time that I arrived; one year to the date of my friend’s death, there was escalating political violence. I arrived at a time when tens of thousands were fleeing the country.
“No one was working with elephants any more, people were fleeing, chaos was happening in Zimbabwe, there was opportunity for me to step in and start working with them.”
The former information technology consultant began working with the presidential elephants outside Hwange National Park’s borders, so named after Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe decreed them protected.
Sharon documented the cuts and tears of the 300-odd elephants, along with their unique tusk formations, to try to tell them apart and name them.
It was during these early days she learnt they were becoming ensnared in wire trapping devices set up by poachers.
“Elephants walk into them regardless and get trapped, they can break free but the wire is embedded in a part of their body, if they are smaller it might be around neck or head, or if it is a big elephant it can get caught around their trunk or their leg,” she said.
“These injuries will kill if left because they can go septic.
“Within months of arrival, it was not only documenting elephants, I was involved in trying to save elephants injured in wire snares.”
Land grabs threaten presidential elephants
But life did not run smoothly for Sharon. She went up against one of Mugabe’s political appointees, who claimed the wildlife land she was working on as his own and began sport hunting on the property.
“That was horrific for me, I wasn’t going to let this happen, I had got to know the elephants so well, I was already helping them out from snares, I considered them part of my own family as they considered me part of theirs,” she said.
“I went to battle against one of President Mugabe’s key politicians on behalf of the elephants.”
After 16 months, Sharon managed to get the politician “thrown off” the land. However, she was not forgotten.
“When you go up against someone like that they don’t forgive or forget,” she said.
“He stayed in the area, then all sorts of things happened. I was accused of being a spy working for the Australian government, in Zimbabwe they hang spies. I found myself on the wanted persons list in 2006.
“Because I had some politicians on my side, I just dug my feet in more and more, the more they wanted me gone the more I was determined to stay and fight for these elephants and the land for these elephants.
“It was a scary time, a lot of intimidation, harassment, threats.”
Elephants “helped me rebuild my spirit”
Sharon said the elephants she had given up her corporate life for gave her the strength to continue fighting.
“I would often go out in the four-wheel-drive, I would sit up on the roof at their height and be one with them and part of their family especially under a full moon where there was no snares, gunfire, that helped me to rebuild my spirit despite all the other stuff,” she said.
“It was the highs of being out with the elephants, especially under a full moon.
“Elephants were in my blood by then.”
Losing a friend
It was towards the end of her 13-year-old stay in Zimbabwe that Lady, one of Sharon’s most-loved elephants, died.
“Lady was such a friend to me, it sounds silly but think about your dog and what it means when one often dies,” she said.
“Lady disappeared for good, I never found her body. It took me 10 months to admit to myself she was gone.
“I watched the effect of her death on her daughters, her sisters and the split that then happened with her family.”
Same problems all over again
Lady died in 2013 and towards the end of that year, the same piece of land was claimed again by someone else.
“We were back to the beginning, we had to start over again, I was reliving the same problems over again,” she said.
By this stage things had gotten so “bad and so mad” with the country that Sharon felt she couldn’t trust anyone any more and made the difficult decision to come back to Queensland.
“It was a really hard decision, these elephants, Lady was dead some others were dead, but by now we were talking 525 elephants at the time of me leaving, to walk away from that was the hardest decision I have ever made,” she said.
Not ready to leave Africa
Back on the Sunshine Coast, Sharon keeps an eye on her Zimbabwean elephant family and has begun making plans to go back to South Africa to continue her work with Africa’s giants.
“I thought I was ready to come back into a First World life but I am not, I can’t go back to Zimbabwe so I am planning to go back to South Africa to work with elephants later this year,” she said.
“Despite everything that happened, there were really high highs and low lows, but I would absolutely do it again, even in Zimbabwe and even in that environment.”
Sharon’s book Elephant Dawn chronicles her life in Zimbabwe and her special bond with the elephants that accepted her into their family.