The Presidential Elephant Conservation Project - Hwange, Zimbabwe
By Sharon Pincott
24 March 2014
What is that familiar saying?? – “THIS SMELLS FUNNY”…. Well this, in fact, REEKS. And I can no longer sit back and simply watch the shocking decline set in further. After many months of, publicly, keeping relatively quiet, I feel that I now have an obligation to Zimbabwe’s flagship herd to speak out on this issue. And you, as an interested party, have an obligation to absorb these facts and react according to what your gut tells you. PLEASE TAKE THE TIME TO PROPERLY READ THIS POST. This ‘land grab’ situation in the key home-range of the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe so reeks of incompetence and lack of care, of ignorance, of greed, of covering butts, of back-handers, and of the corruption that this country is supposedly, right now, trying to stamp out. Why are those involved so seemingly afraid of one and other that they can’t execute a simple Cabinet directive? And I must apologise sincerely to those tourists who have already experienced disappointment.
For now, I will summarise just one case of what smells worst. And the absurdity of these facts – the pure hypocrisy of it all – will not be lost on anyone who understands how Zimbabwe’s ‘land reform’ program actually works. And it will not be lost on anyone who genuinely has the interests of these elephants at heart. I can only hope that you, as elephant-lovers, prospective tourists, social media followers - and travel agents and tourism sites etc - will make your own assessments, and will then AVOID THE ROT – no matter what flowery fluff might be presented to you on the internet; no matter how sincere someone might be skilled at sounding; no matter what sort of smoke-screen they might have skilfully created. Beware! - Fancy internet advertising and smart talk makes it incredibly easy these days to so expertly fool unsuspecting people. (And it would seem that some have already been fooled.) As the key person in Zimbabwe who, for the past 13 years, not only looks out for the welfare of the Presidential Elephants, but also encourages tourists to come and visit them, I cannot, in good faith, simply let this be. The whole situation is now a sham. The Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe are clearly just a joke to some; these elephants themselves being allowed to also be turned into a sham. It is an embarrassment to Zimbabwe. And it is a tragedy. And that is why these facts must be made clear to the public, so that at least you can make informed decisions.
. There was a Cabinet directive on 3 December 2013 – supported by information provided by the Parks Authority - that the Kanondo land claimant (amongst others) must have their offer letter withdrawn, and that they must be removed from the land. (Note that this Kanondo area includes key Presidential Elephant waterholes – Kanondo pan, and Mpofu pan, on land classified as STATE LAND - that I with a donor, incidentally, resurrected/scooped for the elephants back in 2009.)
. By late December - that is, weeks AFTER the Cabinet directive - the Kanondo claimants began to make their presence felt. Water connections were tampered with, and then 5 imposing signs proclaiming their ownership were erected. Tents (presumably also to merely proclaim ownership, since they were not used) also went up.
. No attempt was ever made to even introduce themselves to those who had control of this land; no courtesies whatsoever have ever been offered to the resident controlling bodies. (Note too that this was NOT a white-owned farm; it was ALREADY black-controlled STATE LAND.)
. The claimants started demanding that no game-drive vehicles enter ‘their’ land.
. The claimants became physically violent – and I was personally subjected to their wrath. A hand came through the window of my 4x4 one afternoon, after I’d been with a snared elephant, and unlocked my door. My door was opened and my arm was grabbed. Forcefully then, he attempted to pull the keys from my ignition (on the far/lefthand-side of my steering wheel). When that failed, he struggled with me further, trying to grab my cellphone from my hand.
. They reported me to the local Police and demanded that I be arrested for trespassing on ‘their’ land.
. No operators on the ground (at least no professional operators; ie those not tempted by promises of also greedily benefiting from this land grab) were acknowledging these individuals to be the ‘new owners’. Game-drives, by those with courage, continued. I carried on monitoring the elephants in these areas, despite ongoing demands to “GET OFF MY LAND”.
Let’s now just quickly take a summary look at these Kanondo land claimants (and do try not to laugh too much at the absurdity of it all!):
. The female claimant is the daughter of someone (now deceased) who called herself an OPPOSITION Party Leader. She says she “inherited” this land from her dead mother. (How difficult is this to fathom? Can anybody in the know imagine how a true Opposition Party Leader was actually given such KEY land in this country in the first place? – especially when it was already black-controlled Presidential Elephant game-drive land.)
. This female claimant does not even live in Zimbabwe. She is a resident of California, America – back now for a while to lay claim to ‘her’ land.
. Her constant shadow on this land is a white, South American male. (A white American! So, in effect really, this KEY land is given to a white American! …Those in the know will have their eye-brows raised high by now, in disbelief.) He is the one, clearly with her blessing, who stoops to physical attacks.
. They have absolutely no hands-on experience in the tourism industry, or with wildlife.
. They know absolutely nothing about the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe – and indeed have begun to publicly refer to every general elephant that wanders onto this land (which, remember, is unfenced and borders Hwange NP Main Camp where thousands of elephants roam) as ‘a Presidential Elephant’. Their pathetic ignorance is as alarming as their actions.
By February (this year), they had started building a so-called ‘lodge’ on the land. (What has happened, you might ask, about the December Cabinet directive??; a directive that, at this point, we are continually assured remains in force.)
By March (this year), tourists on game-drive vehicles are being subjected to the wrath of these claimants. Game-drive vehicles/authorised operators – fearing for the wellbeing of their clients/tourists – stay away, or are being stopped and confronted. My conservation work with the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe is severely hampered.
(And what has happened, you might ask again, about the Cabinet directive?? All is now suspiciously quiet….)
And then something even more abhorrent comes to light. When these claimants arrived, they had the impertinence to simply go ahead and rename this key Presidential Elephant area. They now call it ‘Gwango Elephant Conservancy’. This set off alarm bells immediately, since ‘Conservancy’ is a term used in Zimbabwe to indicate HUNTING areas. (Gwayi Conservancy; Matetsi Conservancy; Save Conservancy etc; they are all SPORT-HUNTING areas). And then, advertised on their website, are 7-DAY trips from America, the length of stay in just the one lodge which is typically associated with HUNTERS (photographic tourists, on the other hand, tend to stay just 2-3 nights in the one lodge, before moving on to their next photographic lodge) – yet they profess (naturally enough) to be opening a new ‘photographic’ lodge named Gwango. And then, what else is uncovered??... It turns out this woman’s own brother is a hunter in the nearby Matetsi (unit 1) HUNTING Conservancy. While that in itself is not a crime, it is now clear that they are working together. A HUNTING internet site is currently advertising that they can now offer – with thanks to both the brother AND this Kanondo / ‘Gwango’ woman (both of whom are personally named, and thanked, on this HUNTING site) – access to one of the most prime hunting concessions in Zimbabwe…. Just as disturbingly, an internet search of her brother’s name reveals that he has already been in court over allegations of conniving with a National Park’s official to offer a client a hunt based on a NON-EXISTENT hunting quota.
(And what has happened, you might ask yet again, about the Cabinet directive???)
Today, these claimants remain on the land, advertising their (apparently) soon-to-be-opening Gwango lodge – while, behind the scenes, they are completely paralysing Presidential Elephant game-drives that have been offered to tourists by existing lodges/operators for scores of years, and are trying too, to paralyse Presidential Elephant patrols and monitoring in this key area. (Those in the know will recall, too, that this is the exact same key Presidential Elephant land that a now-Cabinet-minister claimed as his own back in 2003. He was eventually evicted, and this whole mess cleaned up, in 2005. And yet here we are, now, in this strangely similar VERY SMELLY situation….) One needs to understand, too, that in today’s Zimbabwe some people get away with hunting – or at least TRY to get away with hunting and/or hunting-related activities – wherever they choose, without any regard for the photographic tourism industry. Stories of bribes being exchanged are commonplace. Such people also publicly use terms such as “conservation management” as a smoke-screen for more sinister activities. And sinister activities – both hunting and non-hunting related - there are certainly plenty of, in this case.
….. Are the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe now doomed? (Can individuals like this continue to be left to make such a shocking mockery of them and their land areas? And of them as a key tourist attraction?) …. Unless some sanity finally kicks back in, from somewhere, this could indeed happen.