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A spontaneous and tender moment between Sharon and one of her beloved elephants.

Australian woman spends 13 years fighting for elephants

QUEENSLAND'S sandy beaches and rolling oceans are a long way from the grasslands of landlocked Zimbabwe but they are exactly what author-activist Sharon Pincott needs to restore her bruised spirit.

This now Sunshine Coast resident, who grew up on a vegetable farm in Grantham, has bunkered down back on home soil after 13 years living with elephants in Zimbabwe, working on a voluntary basis under the banner of the Presidential Elephant Conservation Project.

It's somewhat of a healing for Sharon after more than a decade of fighting corrupt politicians and determined poachers in a never-ending quest to save her beloved elephants.

 

Her story is worthy of a run on Australian Story. Indeed presenter Caroline Jones describes Sharon's newly released book, Elephant Dawn, as "a book to take readers into another world''.

Thirteen years ago Sharon sold her mortgage-free home and gave up her corporate IT job in Brisbane to start a new life with the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe, named after a presidential decree granted by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.

She arrived in the small and troubled African country with no real plan, no funding or backing, just a starry-eyed notion that she had to do her part in documenting the life of these regal elephants as well as doing her best to protect them from horrible injury or death from poachers, hunters and land claimants.

"I'd always loved wildlife," Sharon said. "When I worked in corporate IT I was contracting so I had the freedom to travel and I'd go backwards and forwards to Africa for holidays. It was in 1993 that I saw my first elephant in the wild and it blew me away."

It was during one of these visits that Sharon met Andy Searle, a wildlife warden in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park who, with his wife and family, became a close friend. His premature death in a helicopter crash in 2000 was the catalyst for Sharon to stop being a visitor to Africa and become a resident instead.

 

"Through Andy I got to understand Africa and wildlife," she said. "When someone dies prematurely like that, he was just 38, I was one year younger, that has an impact."

Sharon settled in Zimbabwe, volunteering to work with international scientists and academic researchers.

She lived in a tiny hut and in her first years undertook all the menial jobs the scientists and researchers would not touch, such as studying the role elephants play in dispersing acacia seeds.

"I had to count the number of acacia seeds in elephant dung," she said. "There were thousands of them. The elephants eat the acacia trees and their digestive system eliminates the seeds whole."

Living in a tiny hut and sifting through elephant dung was a long way from the comforts of the Australian corporate world, but Sharon never faltered. Her love for the majestic elephants outweighed everything else.

 

"I lived just outside the Hwange National Park," she said. "That amazement I had at my first sight of an elephant stayed with me. Even though I spent eight hours a day, every day, with the elephants they never lost that power to capture me."

Over the years Sharon developed a bond with entire families of elephants. She gave them all names and could identify an individual elephant in a crowd by some small marking. As she came to know the elephants, they too came to know her, and a bond developed that has been called "one of the most remarkable relationships with wild elephants ever documented''.

"I could identify them like a human or a dog," Sharon said. "These were wild, free-roaming elephants. I named them all and eventually they recognised their name and came to me when I called, just like a great big grey dog. Elephants are closely bonded with each other and they stay together. I learnt how to read their moods, when to stay back and observe, when to let them come to me."

That bond led to an extraordinary encounter one day where one of the elephants came so close to Sharon she instinctively kissed its trunk, a moment that was captured by a film crew making a documentary at the time.

"I was so fortunate to have that documented," Sharon said. The elephant had been lying down and I was worried about her. I called her and she came to the vehicle. She had never come this close before. She was leaning up against the door and I looked up at her. I thought she might have been sick and I instinctively kissed her. I am absolutely convinced she came to me for comfort. I found out later she was pregnant, and like most pregnant women she was obviously having a bad day."

 

Sharon Pincott and her beloved elephants.
Sharon Pincott and her beloved elephants.

All the while that Sharon was living, learning and loving the elephants, documenting their breeding habits and lives, recording data for the researchers, Zimbabwe was in economic freefall and the political unrest grew daily.

"Inflation was at 230 million percent," she said. "We were using trillion dollar notes. Electricity and water would be cut off. When mandatory land reform was happening, it became very scary. The land was taken from the white farmers violently. Those white farmers who had been there for generations suddenly had nothing. At the same time, the government started taking wildlife land, elephant land."

It was when a government minister came to her and said he had been given permission to use the elephant land as a hunting reserve that Sharon's inner fighter bubbled to the surface like hot molten lava.

While Sharon stresses she was not threatened continuously, nor did she constantly fear for her life throughout this tumultuous time, there were many dangers andseveral menacing situations.

 

Xenia Ivanoff

"The government man was a personal appointee of Mugabe," she said. "I had to go up against this man. He had been given approval to use the wildlife land to sport hunt. I took him head on. It (Zimbabwe) is a scary place to be when you are doing something like that.

"There were threats that I would be dealt with 'once and for all'. I was a white foreigner. I was also Australian. President Mugabe hated Australians as well as the Americans and the English."

Although Sharon had all the odds against her, she also had the help of a small band of people willing to stick their necks out for her and she managed to save the land from the minister attempting to claim it for hunting.

"You can imagine winning from him was not easy," she said. "Then he wanted revenge. He accused me of being a spy, a secret agent working for the Australian government to bring Mugabe down. The thing that kept me fighting was the elephants, having such an amazing relationship with them. I wanted to protect them."

As well as fighting corrupt ministers, there was always the omnipresence of the poachers and over the years Sharon witnessed many of her beloved elephants suffering terrible injury and death. "It was terrible to see the suffering," she said. "You can't get it out of your head. It is absolutely horrific. You don't become immune. It changes your values."

There were many times during the 13 years when Sharon wanted to flee, to return to the peace of Australia, but she always found the courage to stay.

 

"The economic collapse, the political violence, the murders of white farmers and murders of their own people all frightened me," she said. "At one stage I was on the Wanted Persons list publicly displayed outside the local police station. The intimidation is designed to make you scared so you leave. But the elephants…"

Eventually the danger became impossible and when Sharon did leave Zimbabwe it was the Sunshine Coast where she settled, to rebuild her battered spirit and to write a book about her experience.

"It was a sad time to walk away from the elephants but I feared that something would happen to me if I stayed," she said.

"Just before I left, the same land I saved was being claimed by somebody else. It was happening all over again. That was just a final thing in a long list."

Sharon Pincott's book Elephant Dawn is a moving, disturbing and often funny saga, but one that is a celebration of love, courage and honour.

"Through the years I had to find the courage to stay," she said. "But in the end I felt like I was in some sort of abusive marriage with Zimbabwe, and like any abusive relationship, sometimes you have to find more courage to leave. I hope my book makes it clear that it is never too late to take that leap of faith into something completely different. And never doubt that one person can help to make a difference."