A post on behalf of conservationist Sharon Pincott in Hwange:
She is huge and majestic. She is astonishingly gentle. And she is the most gracious and dignified of all. She is the adult presidential elephant who, almost 12 years ago now, I named Lady.
I’ve written about her often – ‘Lady of the Estate’; the first wild, free-roaming elephant who, over time, truly accepted me as having a place in her world, who ultimately consented to my touch and responded with genuine excitement to both my presence and my voice. Always utterly relaxed, just centimetres away, she crosses her back legs and rests her trunk in an L shape on the ground, while I sing Amazing Grace to her. She slithers her monstrous trunk inside the open window of my 4×4 and I rub my hands up and down its deep, rough grooves with delight. She personifies what the extraordinary Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe are, as seen in the 2011 documentary, All the President’s Elephants, in which she stars.
She has touched many lives over the past decade, none more than my own. She is – to quote W.H. Auden – my north, my south, my east and west, my working week and my Sunday rest. My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song. I thought that [it] would last forever. I was wrong…
The grand matriarch, Lady, is missing, feared dead.
It’s taken me a long time to be able to say that out loud; far less painful to pretend it isn’t so. It’s one thing not to be able to find an elephant family at all (which actually happened during the filming of the documentary). When there’s no culling activity in the vicinity I know the family group will turn up, eventually.
It’s something very different when you regularly stumble upon a family with just one member missing.
My land access in one of the L family’s preferred places, Kanondo, was restricted by those who had ruthlessly evicted me in 2010, trying relentlessly to put a stop to – or at least, frustrate – my tireless years of monitoring the Presidential Elephants in Hwange. Sightings of this favourite family were consequently reduced; the presence of their one guardian angel had been recklessly denied them.
Some devoted safari guides were no longer guiding, and despite some inflated claims of genuine Presidential Elephant understanding by a few others, no one else now knew, or cared, enough about this key family to register that Lady – perhaps the most renowned of all of the Presidential Elephants – was missing from her family.
Partial L-family sightings in the early months of 2012 had left me fretful, since only immediately after Lady’s sister, Leanne’s, unexplained disappearance/death in 2007 had I witnessed this close-knit family regularly split in this way. Matriarch Lady was never with the family members that I was stumbling upon.
In early July 2012, I caught my first late-evening glimpse of Lady’s youngest offspring, Lesley, Libby and Lantana, worryingly alone. Usually they were never without their mother. It wasn’t until September that I started encountering all L-family members back together again, but still, there was no Lady. It was as if they had suffered a profound tragedy that had torn the family apart; after which it took many months for them to once again form a cohesive unit.
I publicly flagged Lady as missing and issued identification documents. Some supportive lodges and a sympathetic portion of the guiding community kindly helped to look out for her, as did those participating in an annual 24-hour waterhole count. An anti-poaching unit kept a look out for carcasses, old and new. But, thus far, apart from one reported sighting which came with inconsistencies and nothing solid to back it up, it’s all been to no avail.
Still now, I’m not yet prepared to concede the absolute worst, despite knowing well that female elephants simply do not abandon their families. (I wonder constantly if she’s been shot? Hunted? Or fatally snared? What possible explanations are there? She’s too young to die of old age. Only once in 12 years have I recorded a female elephant disappearing for an extended period of time, only to miraculously turn up, back with her family, some 10 months later. This elephant was critically injured and died a few months later.
It’s still too terrible a thing to contemplate; too terrible for Lady’s family; too terrible for me as her trusted friend; too terrible for the Presidential Elephants as a whole; too terrible for Zimbabwe and its flagship herd. But the fact remains that I have now sighted the L family – with Lady missing – repeatedly, over much too-lengthly a period of time.
Every day now, still, I long for an unexplained miracle: for Lady to reappear, unhurt.
Please take a few minutes to read the short book extract about the extraordinary Lady on our facebook page, The Presidential Elephant Conservation Project.
…… And whisper a quiet prayer.
HWANGE, ZIMBABWE, November 2012