Title: Elephant Dawn: The Inspirational Story of Thirteen Years Living with Elephants in the African Wilderness
Author: Sharon Pincott
Publishing House: Jacana Media
If you have a soft spot for wildlife, yet too scared to live life in the woods or are not well-resourced to visit or take up conservation work for a life alongside nature’s beasts and creepy crawlings — Sharon Pincott can give you a feel of it as you journey together in Hwange Estates through her riveting book, Elephant Dawn.
book review By Conelia Mabasa
It is not an easy ride though; her life in the bush is a hotchpotch of pure joy under the moon, close shaves, frustration, loss, mourning, anxious and hair-raising moments, anger, bitterness, bravery and unsurpassed determination.
It is a leap of faith undertaken at the height of the land reform programme by an ICT expert who leaves the comfort and familiarity of Australia and the luxuries from her good job to live, befriend and protect the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe — thus named because President Robert Mugabe gave a decree for the protection of elephants in Hwange Estate after a request from a conservationist. If you thought his decrees were only political, you are so wrong!
As whites were being hunted down like prey and haunted out of farms, Pincott was preparing to leave Australia and come to “Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe” for voluntary work with jumbos. Though she had fallen in love from previous visits, most of her compatriots were clueless about her destination, with some saying she was headed for Zanzibar. It is time the world made an effort to tell Africa apart!
I felt a tinge of shame that she had to learn to work firearms as a precaution measure not against the wild beasts, but just in case she was caught up in the politics of the land reacquisition. Yet she was making the journey to a country widely considered to have the friendliest people on the continent.
In a book presented in diary format from 2001 to 2014, Pincott chronicles the challenges she encounters in trying to preserve the presidential elephants on Hwange Estates. In the process, she touches on the political sub-theme that runs alongside her life in the jungle.
She gives perspectives into the farm invasions and gory murders of white commercial farmers, for example Terry Ford. She touches on whites being on the receiving end and being forced to chant Zanu PF slogans as a way of humiliating them for supporting the opposition MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai.
She takes us through the various elections, the death of Nelson Mandela, natural disasters in her country of origin, inflation and corruption in high places. But politics is not her intention, she stumbles upon the politics in her bid to keep the elephants alive and to see the herd grow. Her rude awakening is that she has to protect the presidential herd from people around Mugabe, people that serve in his government.
As she painstakingly works to differentiate herds, to name them, to remove snares with help from the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority staff, clearing water pans while cultivating intimate, trusting and lasting relationships with the elephants, the land reform slowly encroaches onto Hwange Estates and the national park.
That puts the elephants at risk, other beasts too, including Cecil the Lion. She works hard to fend off powerful invaders with offer letters seeking lucrative hunting concessions, particularly the governor of Matabeleland North (2004) and his family.
The land claimants try intimidation, assault, trumped up charges and emotional blackmail, but she remains resolute, working with Francis Nhema, Didymus Mutasa when he was State Security minister and lately Saviour Kasukuwere before he was moved to his current ministry — Local Government.
Pincott says: “The most dangerous predator in Africa, I’ve come to realise, is not the lion. Nor can the hippo, the buffalo or the elephant hope to compete. The most dangerous animal by far is man.” (p 101)
The situation becomes untenable when even the local chief, Dingani, lays claim to land on which wildlife abound. The enemies become too many, the gunshots at night too frequent and the cyanide poisoning does not help matters.
Allegations of baby elephants being taken to Chinese zoos do not help matters. Though she had earlier on passed up an opportunity to work in South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park to keep the presidential herd company, the urge to leave becomes overwhelming.
She pays tribute to those that worked with her and friends that were into conservation work for other animals like the painted dog, lions and hyenas.
Pincott, nicknamed Thandeka Mandlovu for her love of elephants which responded to names she gave them, listened when she sang and viewed her as a friend, has also written The Elephants and I (2009) and Battle for the President’s Elephants (2012).
To reinforce this realistic tale, the publisher includes pictures of her elephant friends in gloss.
Though Pincott’s efforts are invaluable, having left the presidential herd at a whopping 500 beasts and while I understand that she came solely for the elephants, there were instances when I felt that the enigma built around these giants was so enormous that real people diminished in stature to become nothing but enemies of the presidential herd and other wildlife.
She could not stand lawful ration hunting by keepers of the herd whose poverty she testifies. The parks people are also supposed to see to a balance between the beasts and their habitat.
With her nickname testifying to being embraced as one of the locals, I feel she tried to keep locals at arm’s length by holding on to certain preconceived ideas and prejudices. After failing to master the click in Ndebele, she says: “I decide defiantly after listening intently to one of several clicks. ‘It’s like a cricket makes. And I’m not a cricket.’” (p45) I think that cannot pass as an innocent comment, but an insult to speakers of the language.
When a colleague is involved in an accident and there was need for a blood transfusion she writes: “Stephanie also needed blood, and at the back of everyone’s minds was the nagging question: in this country where so many people are HIV-positive, were blood donations screened?” (p 232) This country has made huge strides in bringing down HIV prevalence rates, fighting stigma and promoting abstinence.
All in all, Pincott’s work will forever be cherished and I believe the elephants miss one of their own, Mandlovu.
Zimbabweans would do well to read her book and make some changes, if they are serious about earning foreign currency from tourism, otherwise the wildlife will continue to benefit powerful individuals.