The use of poison by poachers has increased substantially in Zimbabwe, where cyanide and paraquat are easy to obtain.
Because elephants are strong and powerful animals, an increasing number of poachers are beginning to use poison to kill the beasts for their ivory tusks. Such is what recently happened at Zimbabwe’s premiere game reserve, Hwange national park, resulting in park rangers discovering the carcasses of ten elephants — including a mother and her calf.
Shortly after making the discovery, park rangers found a bucket of poison near the scene. The Guardian reports that six of the animals died in the south of the park; some had their tusks sawed off. Others were found outside the northern sector of the park on state forestry land. Since the tragedy, three poachers have since been arrested with one found to be in possession of ivory.
The first known case of elephant poisoning in Zimbabwe occurred in 2013 and resulted in a massacre of over 100 elephants in Hwange national park. Since then, the tactic has been employed more heavily — in areas outside of Hwange National Park, as well. And, it’s not just elephants that are dying. Hyenas, lions, jackals and other vultures endure a slow, agonizing death after eating poisoned flesh. Animals such as antelope and zebra have also been killed by drinking from contaminated buckets, salt licks, and waterholes.
Because poachers are using a diluted sodium cyanide solution, the mixture is dangerous to animals and humans. In fact, Roxy Danckwerts, founder of Zimbabwe Elephant Nursey, now suffers impaired breathing after enduring kidney and lung failure last year. She had been handling two elephant calves that were poisoned in Hwange national park when she became ill. Sadly, the two elephant calves died. Reportedly, it is very easy to obtain both cyanide and paraquat in Zimbabwe.
Conservationists and government officials have responded to the problem with force. According to Trevor Lane, co-founder of the non-profit Behejane Trust, park rangers have been given a clear shoot-to-kill policy from the government for any poachers they come across within a national park. Lane said that any poacher captured alive is “lucky,” and that they “are immediately given a minimum jail sentence of nine years if they are found with ivory or poison.”
The government hoped the shoot-to-kill policy would deter many poachers, but it seems desperation has won out over common sense. Lane said “people are so poor in this bad economic situation” that he expects more elephant poisonings in coming months. The price for a single tusk (£250) is a small fortune to any farmer.
Most of the poisoned elephants were found in the remote south and north-eastern areas of the Hwange park. Colin Gillies, the vice-chair of the Matabeleland branch of Wildlife & Environment Zimbabwe, an organization that conducts elephant counts in the park each year, said the locations are notoriously difficult for rangers to patrol.“The few crude vehicle tracks there are difficult to negotiate at the best of times but they become completely inaccessible during the wet season,” said Gillies.
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