Imagine trading your life as a high-flying corporate executive to start a new, unpaid job with elephants in Zimbabwe.
That’s exactly what author and photographer Sharon Pincott did in 2001.
Remaining in the Hwange bush for 13 years, Miss Pincott from Queensland has dedicated her life to fighting for elephants, forming an enormous, life-changing relationship with them, described as one of the most remarkable relationships with wild elephants ever recorded.
While you might think Ms Pincott was fearless, and some might imagine that her time in Zimbabwe was a crazy thing to do during one of the worst periods in the country’s upheaval history, but she says she’s not a natural risk-taker:
“I’m not a person who likes to bungee jump or anything like that,” she explained.
She said: “The death of a close friend at the age of 38 made me think that life is too short, sounds like a cliché.
‘Seeing my first elephant was something I will never forget, and so when the opportunity came and helped them, I took it.’
Arriving at the Hwange bush with no training, Ms Pincott spent her early days establishing a base of friends, getting to know elephants and their various families, and getting used to her new life: “When I first got there, I will confess that I felt surrounded by these wonderful big grey things, but when I got to know them, they became my friends.”
Most days followed a standard pattern.
She would wake up early, do the laundry and cleans up before heading out in her 10 o’clock 4×4 in search of the elephants (Ms Pincott explains that elephants keep to themselves during the early hours, but they also stay together for life).
She would then learn about each elephant family by photographing their identifying features, such as their ears and tusks.
Once she had identified them as part of different families, she named each family:
She explains: ‘The family M’, for example, each has a name that starts with M. This means I can easily keep track of each elephant, and over time I don’t even need to look at them to know who they were.
‘In such a way that we can identify friends by how they walk, so I can also know who each elephant is from a distance.’
After a few years, Ms Pincott was accepted by the elephant, a moment she has not forgotten ever since:
“They would come to my door and nag as they did with other family members,” she said.
“It took three or four years for them to start, but it was amazing how the females would bring their three-day-old babies to my door.”
One elephant with whom Sharon Pincott has formed an extraordinary relationship with an elephant named Lady, the one she has spent a great deal of time throughout the years:
Ms Pincott explained: “I have a special place in my heart for Lady.”
‘She taught me a lot about her kind. She was the first elephant I touched, and while I didn’t go to Zimbabwe saying I was going to touch a wild, free-roaming elephant, I touched her trunk and would rub it by its end after a few years.
‘Having a five-ton elephant for you to do that, and accept me, is one of my highlights.’
However, that doesn’t mean Ms Pincott’s time in Zimbabwe was without danger and terrible times.
Ms Pincott explained: “There were constant threats and harassment.
‘Everybody, whether they were government officials or relatives of government officials, were out to cause trouble for me and the elephants – for their land and their lives.
‘The most heartbreaking moments were when elephants from a particular family went missing, and they were gone for over a week. Then you know that they passed away for good. ‘
And at the end of thirteen years there, Miss Pincott knew she had to leave Zimbabwe.
Describing the experience as being in a ‘violent marriage’, she said the decision was devastating but necessary:
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about the elephants,” she recalls.
‘There were times, especially when I was writing the book, where I couldn’t look at the pictures, it was impossible to go back.
‘I’d like to go back to a time when the political landscape has changed, but I feel like I can’t at the moment. One thing is for sure, I know I won’t go back to a 9-5. ‘
According to Sharon Pincott, there are now 400,000 elephants in the world, which sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t make any sense when you hear that one is ki.ll.ed every 15 minutes:
“About 30,000 elephants di.e every year,” she said.
‘We all need to do what we can to prevent this from happening.’
Ms Pincott advocates refraining from buying ivory, anything with elephant tail hair or elephant tusk:
‘If there’s no demand, there’s no need to kill them,’ she said.