Learning from Zimbabwe’s Presidential elephants

(Chapter 24 of the book titled The Last Elephants)

Zimbabwe’s Presidential Elephants roam a relatively small slice of unfenced land in western Zimbabwe’s Hwange Estate, their huge footfalls etched daily in the Kalahari sand. I arrived in March of 2001 to work with them, a fearless young woman from Australia eager to embark on a new life working alone, untrained, unpaid and self-funded.

The elephants were said to inhabit just one section of land and to be specially protected from hunting, culling and other ills by a 1990 Presidential Decree. Although the decree was probably well intentioned at the time, the realities on the ground were worrying.

Few elephants remained just on the Hwange Estate. Hwange National Park – some 100 times larger than the estate – beckoned, with a mere railway line separating these two areas. The elephants, I also discovered, didn’t belong to just one herd. Which were Presidential Elephants and which were not? They were all said to be Presidential when (and perhaps only infrequently) they were within the estate’s boundaries. Research into population dynamics pointed to another anomaly. The 300+ elephants touted to be presidential could never have proliferated from a handful of ‘original’ estate elephants, as the public had been led to believe. Influx from the adjoining Hwange National Park was certain.

Various elephants were easily recognisable and, in my early years, did spend much of their time on the estate with their families. A few of these individuals were known by name to some resident safari guides. Most notable were two adult females, Inkosikasi and Skew Tusk, said to be two of the original Presidential Elephants. Yet I never encountered these two or any of their family members intermingling, so it was unlikely that they were even related. Inkosikasi was a big, tuskless cow but, as I soon discovered, there were several such cows and all were mistakenly called Inkosikasi. When Skew Tusk broke her skewed tusk, as she did every few years, people with no knowledge of her ear patterns and/or family members could no longer identify her. Nor, therefore, would they know if she suddenly disappeared from her family. In fact, I soon realised that relatively little detail was known about this clan of elephants, apart from their being calm, friendly and used to the close presence of game-drive vehicles, something considered unusual at the time.

There was still more to contemplate. Though they enjoyed nominal protection under the head of state, they could hardly be considered a flagship herd when they were off-limits to all but a privileged few with money to stay at a couple of private lodges. And no special security measures had been implemented to protect them. What happened, I wondered, when they wandered into nearby sport-hunting areas or the unfenced Hwange National Park (where ration-hunting regularly took place)? The park had wildlife rangers, but I never encountered them patrolling the estate, which didn’t even have an anti-poaching team of its own. Equally concerning, trophy-hunters had begun operating between two of the estate’s photographic lodges without a public murmur of concern.

So I inherited a tangled web of inaccuracies and confusion, with nothing implemented on the ground to give weight to the decree. Dedicated long-term monitoring, intimate knowledge and special protection measures had in fact been lacking during the 11 years since President Robert Mugabe had issued his decree. Many, even within Zimbabwe, were not aware that these elephants existed and there had been no notable government interest in them since their naming.

My timing was, in the eyes of friends and family, bizarre. I was working alone in a volatile country not my own. People were fleeing violent land take-overs and here I was on a preapproved, but self-appointed mission to raise increased awareness of these particular elephants. What they urgently needed was an independent person with an open mind, a great deal of patience and tenacity, and a willingness to learn; someone who could be their voice among the political and economic madness that was Zimbabwe at this time. I was, it seemed to me, in the right place at the right time.

The elephants on the Hwange Estate were breathtaking. They were easy-going and glorious to behold. It was an opportunity and a privilege to get to know them intimately and I set out to learn everything I could about them as individuals and families. As a non-scientist I obtained input from members of Kenya’s long-term Amboseli Elephant Project (run by pioneer Cynthia Moss), who were all happy to share their invaluable knowledge with me. Right from the start, I vowed to continually remind the Zimbabwean authorities about the unique status of these elephants and to raise their flag high in a bid to secure their wellbeing.

My first task was to introduce structure to the naming of individual elephants. As had been done in Kenya, I assigned a letter to each family and gave all the elephants within that family group names beginning with it. There was the extended A family, the B family, C family, and so on. It made no sense to me to use numbers, as science prefers.

I classed as Presidential Elephants those families which, in 2001 and 2002, appeared to be spending most of their time on the estate. How frequently I encountered each of the families during my daily eight hours in the field, day after day, year after year, made it possible to gauge which ones didn’t wander too far. Studies had found that older, independent males wandered over great distances, something my own sightings supported. So, given this fact, and also how regularly the adult males disappeared for good after wandering into nearby sport-hunting concessions, I concentrated on the family groups, taking thousands of identification photographs (right ear, left ear, front-on). Slowly and carefully, I began piecing together family trees.

With familiarity came trust and there’s nothing quite like being trusted absolutely by an enormous wild elephant. Ultimately, I became a part of their families and a reassuring presence during troubled times. Often they would greet me with a rumble, as they would their own kind. Remarkably, they began coming to me from afar when I called them by name. It was a grand privilege when mothers chose to bring their newborns to meet me, regularly relaxing right beside my vehicle door for 30 minutes or more. Sometimes they would follow my slow-moving 4×4, as if I were their matriarch, taking time to browse whenever I stopped along the sandy roads.

I revelled in these newfound elephant friendships which were to become, over more than a decade full-time in the field, among the most remarkable relationships with wild, free-roaming, elephants ever documented. During frequently challenging times in the remote Hwange bush, it was these special relationships that kept me motivated, smiling and sane. These exceptional creatures managed constantly to restore my spirit and keep me pressing on.

Snaring was widespread on the estate during my early years, and I would spend weeks searching for affected families, coordinating snare removals and monitoring progress of de-snared animals. This brought me even closer to them. Just as worrying were land grabs during Zimbabwe’s ‘land reform’ programme and trophy hunting in areas where it should never have been allowed. I chose to spend time calming families after bouts of gunfire. There were years when they ran from land claimants’ vehicles and from some suspicious game-drive vehicles. With urgency, I helped kit out and deploy a dedicated anti-poaching team. Later, elephant families watched, seemingly in hope, as I arranged and oversaw scooping and clearing of neglected waterholes. These were highly intelligent animals. They knew I was their friend, an honorary elephant of sorts, someone who was wholly on their side.

Politics soon raised its head, but not in the way I expected. I came across dubious people, often in respected positions, who frequently and deliberately confused information regarding elephants in general. Why did they seek to mislead? Was it ignorance, ego, greed or apathy? Their uninformed message – that all’s well and under control – was then, and still is, one of the very real dangers elephants face. Simply seeing lots of grey moving through the bush certainly doesn’t mean that all is well within each family.

As with human friends, a caring touch was perhaps inevitable – although I never set out to touch a wild, free-roaming elephant. I knew the families, not just individuals, and I understood the various rankings within these families from years of monitoring. I was also familiar with a family unit’s relationship to nearby families. I had learnt which individuals within each family were likely to cause trouble; like humans, elephants experience jealousy. I’d learnt to read their moods and their body language. And in time I could recognise them from a distance, just by the way they walked, the way they held their head and by who was with them. I never pushed their level of tolerance, nor did I ever force myself upon them. I let them come to me.

It was an elephant I had named Lady – the matriarch of the L family – who was the first truly to accept me into her world and respond with excitement to my voice and presence. One memorable day, when she was right beside my 4×4, I leaned out of the window and placed my hand on her tusk. It was an instinctive moment, the same way I might greet a human being. She didn’t flinch or react in any obvious way so I left my hand there for several minutes. This brief connection left my spirit soaring.

From then on, Lady always went out of her way to come and stand beside my vehicle, her trunk swinging like a pendulum as she hurried towards me. Then she would emit a deep, contented rumble. I always looked up into her amber-coloured eyes, talked to her and placed my hand on her tusk. I’d breathe deeply, inhaling all of the magic surrounding me: the beauty, the peace, the companionship, the learning and the extraordinary African light. I would close my eyes to heighten my sense of hearing and listen intently to the multitude of rumbles, trumpets and roars, the footfalls, the slurping of water, the crack of a branch or of a giant ear and the scraping together of leather hides.

One day, through the window of my vehicle, I placed my hand very gently on Lady’s trunk. It felt as warm as Kalahari sand, much rougher than I thought it would be, and deeply grooved. Lady tensed a little, not knowing what this strange human appendage was against her skin, but did not try to evade my touch. In that moment, time stood still. A rush of adrenaline shot through me as we two creatures – such unlikely friends – momentarily became one. I felt as if I was dreaming: such trust from a fully grown wild elephant. Holding her gaze, I talked, and then I did the only thing that seemed appropriate: I sang ‘Amazing Grace’ to her. Tears sprang to my eyes as I struggled to comprehend the enormity of the privilege.

Later, I rubbed my hand up and down Lady’s trunk, applying as much pressure as my own strength allowed. She appeared to revel in it, as did I. Sometimes when I did this, she concertinaed her trunk like an accordion and I always got the feeling that she was about to sneeze. Other times, when I crooned to her and looked up into her long-lashed eyes, her temporal glands erupted with liquid. It wasn’t a trickle, but more like a bubble of liquid that sprang from within, before streaming down both sides of her face. This was a sign of excitement. It was obvious to me that both Lady and I thoroughly enjoyed our encounters. They are moments I will never forget.

I watched Lady’s daughter, Lesley, grow from playful youngster to new mother. Her first-born, a boy, came into this world with some drama. Umbilical cord still attached, he was temporarily ‘abducted’ by three older teenagers from another family, who then bullied Lesley. In a submissive gesture typical of lower-ranked elephants, she backed into them continuously, trying desperately to get back her newborn. Then she suddenly raced towards my 4×4 and, within touching distance of me, turned abruptly and raced back towards her baby. She did this twice. I was both distressed and honoured that she was asking me for help. Thankfully, everything turn out okay and a few days later I leaned out of my window and gently touched her tiny baby’s trunk, christening him Lancelot. Six month later, Lancelot became the third snare victim in the L family. A worrying 25% of Lady’s family were ultimately caught and injured in wire snares, but thanks to dedicated monitoring and access to skilled darters, all of them were saved.

I had favourites in each of the 17 extended presidential families, elephants that I was particularly drawn to for various reasons. There were Misty and Mertle from the M family, who were about as different in character as two elephants could be. Misty was quiet and gentle, Mertle bossy and boisterous. I adored Misty’s close presence right beside my door, where she regularly napped with Masakhe and other of her offspring.

When I was amongst the extended W family there were countless unforgettable moments with Whole (with a very distinct hole in her left ear, but requiring a name beginning with W), Whosit, Wilma, Wonderful, Wish, Wanda and many others. But it was my first kiss that I remember as hauntingly special.

One day Willa unexpectedly lay down beside a mineral lick, under the blazing Hwange sun. I didn’t often see adults lying down unless they were unwell, although I was aware that other elephant populations were observed asleep on their side quite frequently. She got back on her feet and wandered over to the shade of a sprawling teak tree, only to lie down on her side once more. I talked to her from afar. She eventually arose and wandered towards me, coming to a halt just centimetres from my door, as she always did. I continued talking to her gently as she rested her trunk in an L-shape on the ground and crossed her back legs – signs that she was particularly relaxed – and put what felt like her full weight against my door. I felt my 4×4 shift and realised she could toss it on its side if she wanted to. But I knew this wasn’t her intention. She wanted company. She wanted comfort. Clearly feeling unwell, she wanted me to reassure her that everything would be okay.

While talking to her and tenderly touching her trunk with the back of my hand, I put my face against the long leathery nose of this wild giant and kissed her gently. This was not a hurried encounter. It was two beings, totally at peace with one another; a bond forged over many years with love, patience and understanding. I kissed her again and again. Willa stayed still, looking down at me with kind, wise eyes. This intelligent being, gifted with conscious thoughts and emotions, was clearly thinking. She may not have been able to speak my language, nor me hers, but she had chosen to commune with me nonetheless. We understood each other and she knew I was concerned for her. I recognised her own genuine warmth. This encounter with Willa (who gave birth to baby Wobble just a few months later) left me feeling euphoric. To have gained this level of trust from a wild elephant – one that had been through many difficult times over the previous decade – was just one of numerous encounters that made everything worthwhile.

But the good times always came with a considerable dose of bad. Politically connected land claimants and others, unethical trophy hunters and poachers continually tried to scare me off, have me expelled and worse. Threats and increasing bouts of intimidation became common. I was accused of being a spy for the Australian Government. Later, my name remained for 12 long months on a publicly displayed ‘Wanted’ list at the local police station and an article in a government-mouthpiece newspaper stated that I needed to be dealt with ‘once and for all’. I was verbally abused and once physically assaulted (resulting in a case I won in court) by accomplices of those who were grabbing Presidential Elephant land as their private property.

There seemed always to be someone trying to make trouble. My police file was as thick as a thesaurus, although I’d never been charged with anything, despite repeated attempts by antagonists. I had no reason to cause trouble myself, but I was not afraid to speak up on behalf of the elephants. I was also frequently having to flag lack of maintenance of key estate waterholes (forcing the elephants into other areas), increasing amounts of litter, noise, gunfire, speeding vehicles, off-road driving and other irresponsible behaviour. Egos and indifference continued to combine with other ludicrous carry-ons, while well-known elephants disappeared forever. One of them was Lady.

Eventually, by 2014, it was simply becoming too dangerous. After 13 years of exhilarating highs (including the release of several books, the reaffirmation of the Presidential Decree in 2011 and a world-acclaimed documentary), but unceasingly frustrated by crushing lows (young elephant captures, cyanide poaching, ongoing land grabs, corrupt and erratic officials and hunters), I had to find the courage to leave Zimbabwe and my elephant friends. It certainly felt like a life or death decision, and the most difficult I’d ever had to make.

Sometimes, as I was forced to rationalise, you must be out of a country to raise required levels of awareness. I knew the risks to me were not going to abate and I was completely burnt out from so many traumatic years full-time in the field. I had little choice but to leave, forlornly aware that problems would continue behind the scenes and, once again, that they’d likely go unnoticed, suppressed and lied about.

In 2017, nearly 3 years after returning to my homeland, Australia – having written the book Elephant Dawn and still missing my elephant friends deeply – I was further disturbed to learn that I have a rare, progressive and incurable autoimmune disease. Stress is likely to be one of its triggers and I’ve certainly had my share of that, and then some.

Today my special word – which I temporarily lost sight of in Zimbabwe – is hope. In 2001, I gave this uplifting name to a proud member of the H family: Hope. Now, with the world watching more attentively, I long for the day when Hope, her clan mates and all of her kind will finally be permitted to live out their lives, properly protected, and in peace and harmony.

Post published in: Featured
  1. Karen Dugo
    • Sharon Pincott

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