By Alex Bell
SW Radio Africa
15 April 2014
The fallout over an ‘illegal’ land claim in the Hwange National Park has seen one of the country’s top elephant protectors stepping aside and shutting down a key elephant conservation project.
The Zimbabwe ‘Presidential Elephant Conservation Project’ was founded and has been run by Sharon Pincott since 2001, with the aim of monitoring and protecting the Presidential Elephant Herd, a unique herd of wild elephants that are meant to be protected by Presidential decree. In 2011 Pincott successfully lobbied Robert Mugabe to re-pledge his support for the elephant herd. This was in the face of land invasions, poaching and other threats to Zimbabwe’s elephant population.
But 13 years since the Project was launched, the elephants now face being left without a caretaker after Pincott announced on Monday that she is stopping her work. The announcement has followed a worsening fight caused by the takeover of a piece of land in the Hwange National Park, which serves as the herd’s home range.
The land in the Kanondo area has been claimed by a woman who insists she has an inheritance claim to the land, despite a 2013 directive by Zimbabwe’s Cabinet that offer letters for the land be withdrawn. In what has been described as a case that “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,” the Cabinet directive of 2013 has been ignored. Instead, the Kanondo land claimant has forged ahead with the building of a safari lodge.
The Kanondo area is now being referred to as the Gwango Elephant Lodge, which claims to be a conservancy opening for tourism business. The claimant, Elisabeth Pasalk/Freeman, is understood to be an American resident, but concern has been raised amid reports that she is the sister of a known Zimbabwean hunting safari operator named Rodger Madangure.
Pincott has since been fighting for support and intervention from the government, because of the threat the land claim has to the Presidential elephant herd’s future safety. But her efforts have been to no avail.
In a public letter announcing her withdrawal, Pincott listed the repeated failures of government officials to stand by the Decree mean to guarantee the elephants’ safety. She said that under the watch of former Environment Minister Francis Nhema, “land areas were snatched and underhanded hunting activities went on, and on. When further land claim problems resurfaced in early 2013, Minister Nhema was too busy electioneering to help with my pleas.”
She said that Nhema’s successor Saviour Kasukuwere has also proved a disappointment, after becoming “suspiciously quiet with regards to the Kanondo land grab, when it all clearly became too hard.”
“Under Minister Nhema’s watch we lost forever one area, and then another. But at least these were on an outer edge of the key area. Then it got much worse. Under Minister Kasukuwere’s watch, we have now lost yet another; the most critical of them all (Kanondo). What we have now is little plots of land, where questionable individuals are being allowed to do as they please, destroying past processes and efforts (that were particularly intense over the past 12 months). That this has been allowed to happen shows just how ‘important’ the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe are to the government,” Pincott said.
She added: “I cannot allow myself to be linked to such new depths of collusion and cluelessness. I cannot keep hitting my head against a brick wall, year after year after year after year, with lack of care and lack of respect and understanding of these elephants growing and growing – despite all the efforts – like an invasive weed over a pond, smothering everything.”
Johnny Rodrigues, the Chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), who has worked closely with Pincott over the past 13 years, said Tuesday that he was “disappointed and disgusted” by how the situation has developed.
“It’s uncalled for and shows the authorities here in Zimbabwe are not serious about what they say. They are doing nothing about protecting the areas for the elephants…. These greedy people are trying to fatten their wallets and they don’t care about wildlife,” Rodrigues said.
He added: “Once she’s removed from there, the Presidential elephants will be gone. I hope they move on, but I believe the people claiming this land are interlinked with hunting operations so I don’t see any future for these animals. They will all be shot and that will be the end of the Presidential herd.”