Sharon, what do you make of the Bulawayo-based government mouthpiece, The Chronicle, publishing their story about the latest cyanide poisonings in Hwange, 10 days after you put out information via Facebook about the discovery of more elephant carcasses in one of the key Presidential Elephant areas of Hwange?
Pincott: I just hope that Zimbabwe is not reverting back to how they used to operate. In past years there was rarely any official press about anything wildlife-related. Everything was covered up as much as possible, with only the likes of Johnny Rodrigues getting information out. With him now gone from Zimbabwe, there’s a real risk of information being suppressed once again. It took them a while, but thankfully the Chronicle did come forward with this information which the public deserves to know about. I do wonder why the Harare-based main government mouthpiece, the Herald, wasn’t the one to publish the fact that there’s been more elephant deaths by cyanide in Presidential Elephant areas.
Did your own contact tell you all that the Chronicle revealed?
I was unaware that some of the elephant carcasses discovered two weeks ago not far outside the Main Camp border of Hwange National Park were likely to be 1 year old, or perhaps even older. That’s very telling, isn’t it? Around that time, there were a couple of (uninformed) egos around Hwange sprouting that no Presidential Elephants were being affected by captures or poaching – as if they’d actually know! And now it turns out there were in fact probably fresh carcasses around them at that time, without anyone even noticing. It is what I feared of course. It is what I absolutely knew in my heart – and dreaded – would be happening. You don’t have 13 years of such constant problems and carry-on on the ground (as evident in my latest book, Elephant Dawn), with all of that suddenly simply, magically, disappearing, just because somebody decides to say so.
There are some inaccuracies in that Chronicle article however. There were not 300 elephants dead from cyanide in 2013, although that was the figure first incorrectly reported by a South Africa-based journalist. The figure was more around the 120 mark, and I know this first-hand since I was one of those – along with members of Wildlife Environment Zimbabwe, as well as Parks and Forestry – who were involved in proper, professional, aerial scouting; flying in pre-plotted tight transects, scanning for carcasses. Also, these latest poisonings are not in the same area as the vast majority of the 2013 poisonings. The current ones are much closer to the main camp entrance to Hwange National Park than most of the dead previously. And they are in known Presidential Elephant areas. Also, if these officials are looking for just one syndicate of poachers as reported, they are being naïve at best.
We know, absolutely, that ZimParks and Forestry employees, various APU members, lodge employees, unethical sport-hunters, and some policemen (and goodness knows who else) have been involved in past poaching incidents. Saying now that they have ‘teams’ actively searching vehicles for weapons, meat and animal parts doesn’t give me much comfort I have to admit. Who of their own are still involved? Who is making certain they get put away first and foremost?
Sharon, you had one of the most remarkable relationships with wild elephants ever documented anywhere in Africa. Do you fear for the lives of your Hwange elephant friends?
Yes, of course I do. I’m quite certain – given known deaths over the previous decade and a half – that many more of my elephant friends are by now gone forever. All elephant lives are important, but I dare not allow myself to think about which ones are now dead.
What about the recent shooting murder of one of Tanzania’s anti-poaching conservationists, Wayne Lotter?
The murder of Wayne Lotter is a tragedy. Like all of us who open ourselves up to harassment and threats in the course of wildlife conservation work, Wayne will have known well the risks involved. My thoughts have been with his family, friends and colleagues since news of his death broke.
What needs to happen in Hwange?
Firstly, you need to think about just how many more dead elephants may be out there, unseen. As I’ve been saying for years and years, all of the key Presidential Elephant land areas warrant official protection and regular anti-poaching patrols. All elephants/animals fall under the ZimParks banner, however the key Presidential Elephant areas in Hwange are outside their daily focus. It makes sense that the Forestry Commission should take over control of the entire key Presidential Elephant area – so that there are no private ‘owners’ (ie those individuals who grabbed land, under the country’s controversial land reform program) anywhere in this key area. That way, proper patrols can be expanded as necessary and sensibly coordinated and overseen, so that no parts of these key areas are ever left unpatrolled for long periods. And none are left in the hands of private individuals, who get away with doing as they please, as was allowed to happen in 2013 and is still being allowed to continue today.
Many world tourists are choosing to give Hwange – and indeed Zimbabwe – a big miss. But this does not help the elephants and other wildlife there. They need plenty of eyes and ears out on game-drive vehicles, especially in the absence of sufficient dedicated and reliable support personnel on the ground. But do be careful who you choose to stay with. Ask questions. Search the internet. Do your own research. Avoid all private land grabbers who have no place in such key wildlife areas, and any others with suspect policies.Post published in: Environment