Cyanide poisoning by poachers to the death of more than 300 elephants since 2013. Ivory harvested from the killings is intended for the international black market, and Hwange National Park has become the country’s most targeted conservation area.
Cyanide is commonly used in illegal gold mining in Zimbabwe to separate gold from the ore. However, criminals now use this poisonous substance to commit crimes in the wildlife industry. Zimparks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo says poachers are using sophisticated methods to silently kill the elephants by poisoning the last water sources and salt licks in game reserves.
“These ruthless animal killers take advantage of the dry seasons to poison the remaining water sources and salt licks to their advantage, without being spotted by park rangers,” says Farawo.
In most of the deaths, elephant carcasses were found within 100 metres of the poisoned source.
Farawo says cyanide poisoning has become a conservation disaster as other animal species drink the same water.
“Scavenging animals such as vultures have been reported dead due to cyanide ingestion, and other species such as buffalo, giraffe and kudu have also been killed,” says Farawo. Mashonaland West wildlife vet Dr Jonathan Muzavazi says death is certain for any mammal when a considerable amount of cyanide is ingested. “Cyanide collapses all the vital organs in a mammal by starving them of oxygen, resulting in a silent but painful death,” says Muzavazi.
The first case of cyanide poisoning in Zimbabwe was reported in 2013 at Hwange National Park, which has the highest elephant population in the country. The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) and the wildlife conservation community in Zimbabwe have since lobbied for prison sentences of up to 25 years for those involved in the killings.
A kilogram of ivory is reported to fetch around US$1 500 on the Asian black market. A single elephant tusk of 1,5–2,4m can weigh up to 45kg, and fetch between US$34 500 and US$67 500.
Farawo believes the Zimbabwean government should set up and legitimise ivory processing departments that can benefit the national fiscus considering the high demand for ivory products on the international market.
Nevile Gengezha, an active member of the elephant count community in Mashonaland West, alludes that foreign and local organised crime syndicates lure poverty-stricken communities into criminal activity.
“These criminal activities have always been sponsored by the underworld crime gangs involved in illegal wildlife trade. They have taken advantage of the marginalised communities in the less economically active parts of the country to perpetrate these heinous crimes,” says Gengezha.
Written by Richard Kawazi
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