Sharon Pincott is to elephants what Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall are to gorillas and chimps.
She arrived in Africa in the early noughties without any science qualifications but a dogged determination to do something to save elephants. From 2001 she completely immersed herself in fieldwork with a single clan, one that she formed an extraordinary bond with. She stayed thirteen years.
“It definitely was the best of times and the worst of times,” she told a gathering of women at a Wildlife Queensland event this month.
Before she took on the unpaid conservation role she left her well-paid professional job for, Sharon had visited Africa many times to volunteer with wildlife groups – taking extended leave to do so. She had spent time working with wildlife in Uganda, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe and it was Zimbabwe where she says she felt the most safe.
“Which tells you things about the other countries,” Sharon said. “In terms of being a single woman in Africa, Zimbabwe was of the only places you could walk around by yourself and be safe.”
“When I arrived, poaching was out of control, local people would set snares to trap other animals – but elephants wander into those snares,” she said. “I was the first person to be on the ground in this area for many years.”
While there are myriad tour operators and ‘officials’ in the area, they’re not exactly looking for accurate data around elephants and how they’re faring and certainly not tracking individual elephants or clans and Sharon says there were a LOT of snares.
What I learned over there is that you can’t always change the world, but you should do what you can
“Within my first year, I was continually looking for 17 elephants to do snare removals from,” Sharon said. “But I also went over there with the purpose of studying social structure and population dynamics and better knowing them as individual elephants.”
“We are still losing some 30,000 elephants a year to poaching. That’s one every 15 minutes.”
“I can’t help but think, if we can’t save the world’s largest land mammal, what hope do smaller animals around the world have.”
There’s a saying around activist circles. If you’re a wildlife conservationist in Africa and you haven’t got someone after you, you’re not doing your job properly. In the case of Sharon Pincott it appears she must have doing an incredibly good job.
“As a woman, especially as a white woman, there were pluses and minuses. If you’re a straight talking Australian you’ve got one up on these guys, because they’re not used to that. It made for interesting times – I was dealing with men who are involved in awful human abuses. These are not like ministers in Australia – but you meet these guys and they’re just like any normal guy,” she said.
That 13 years Sharon spent working with elephants in Zimbabwe were a volatile period in the country’s political history. Land reform had a well-documented tumultuous impact and there was rampant corruption at all levels of government. Sharon endured repeated intimidation, threats and physical assault. She was accused of being an Australian Government spy. Her name was on a wanted poster displayed publicly at the Zimbabwe Republic Police station.
Despite all of this, she continued her work. In 2013 she was part of a team that confirmed 120 elephants dead from cyanide poisoning at a time when poaching and ivory smuggling was getting worse.
Back in Australia since 2014, Sharon now spends her time writing and educating people about the plight of elephants. She has authored five books and is one of only a few people who have worked on a full-time basis undertaking in-depth monitoring of a single clan of wild elephants.
Her conservation work and deep connections with elephants in Africa are also now the subject of an award-winning international documentary.
“In Africa, my most valuable items were a tyre compression pump,” she said, explaining that acacia thorns in elephant dung meant up to five flat tyres a week. “My jumper leads – as there’d regularly be a pride of lions under a tree which prohibited walking, plus a can opener, my camera and my binoculars.”
Now that she’s back in Australia she thinks her most valuable commodity is time. Time to write, time to think about her next move, time to spend raising awareness.
Although for Sharon, that too may be something in short supply. She was recently diagnosed with an auto-immune disease which requires ongoing treatment, resulting in a big impact on her ability to keep on keeping on.
That’s not stopping her from going back to southern Africa though – with a visit planned this year.
“I want to just take time to enjoy and be with elephants,” she said.
“Elephants are amongst the most intelligent of animals and have human qualities. They are deeply caring and joyous animals. Their bonds are strong and females stay together for life as an extended family. They grieve their dead and communicate over immense distances,” she said.
“What I learned over there is that you can’t always change the world, but you should do what you can,” Sharon said.
“One person can make a difference.”
In Africa where Sharon worked, in the local language ‘Mandlovu’ means Mother Elephant, so this International Womens’ Day, we’d like to acknowledge the incredible work of our own Mandlovu, Sharon Pincott, who has been blazing a trail for elephants as well as women working in conservation.
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Sharon’s book Elephant Dawn was published in 2016 by Allen & Unwin and you can read more about her work at sharonpincott.com or watch the trailer for the documentary which covers her work: