In 1974, an enthusiastic conservationist, Alan Elliott, started working with the Presidential Elephants. He had succeeded Johnny Uys, who had been killed by an elephant, as Game Manager of the Hwange Estate and areas surrounding Hwange Safari Lodge.
Initially, there were 22 nervous elephants, night-drinking ghosts fleeing the relentless persecution of bygone years. This area had been used as a hunting training ground for National Parks recruits and other hunters. This is the same area where the celebrated hunter, Selous, had nearly met his end over 100 years ago. All this stopped with the development of the Hwange Estate. Slowly, with protection and careful management, the herd increased, still wary, still suspicious of human activity, but every day learning that vehicles and chatter did not bring wounding and death. This population prospered over the next 15 years and became known for their increasingly passive nature and tolerance of visitors in game-drive vehicle as a result the protection offered by Elliott and his dedicated team.
By the late 80s it had become policy within National Parks to conduct large-scale population reduction exercises known as culling. Then, in 1990, Elliott, concerned about the possibility of the Estate Elephants getting caught in the crossfire when venturing into the park approached the President requesting his patronage and special protection of this unusual herd. The President agreed to this unique proposal and from that time these became known as the Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe.
Even as far back as the 70s, some elephants were victims of accidental snaring by poachers who set their snares for buffalo and other animals as a source of meat. Although not large-scale this continues to this day and some hunting of elephants in the Presidential Elephant home range now takes place. Fortunately anti-poaching patrols take place and the Painted Dog research team are particularly effective.
The Presidential Elephants continue to prosper and an increasingly high percentage of calves can be observed. No doubt there has been some immigration of elephants on to the Estate from the National Park. Some might argue that the number of approximately 500 elephants may be too high but this seemingly is contradicted by their high reproduction rate. Sensational stories in the press of the elephants being poisoned or subjected to massive gunfire are absolutely groundless. No poisoning, capture of calves or culling has ever taken place. Nevertheless there is no complacency and all stakeholders remain vigilant.
Whilst Zimbabwe is appreciative of the concern and interest in these particular elephants, many negative, sensationalised, self-serving comments and opinions are from beyond our borders. Fuelled by bad press and questionable information, these assessments do our country and its wildlife an injustice, sparking unnecessary outcries and panic. It comes as a disappointment that the peddlers' of pessimistic rumours do not come and check the facts on the ground themselves before spreading unnecessary alarm. Experience is the best teacher, unbiased journalism, the best herald.
Allan Elliott is still in Hwange and proactive in heading up the Presidential Elephant Trust. His finger is firmly on the pulse and, together with key stakeholders in the photographic safari industry, has vowed to continue to protect this national treasure.
The Presidential Elephants are a good news story; come and experience them and their environment.