Poachers poison 10 more elephants in Zimbabwe

A SILENT KILLER::Cyanide, commonly used by local farmers to kill weeds, has become the killing method of choice for poachers, who do not want to alert rangers

The Guardian

Wed, Jun 21, 2017 - Page 6

Ten elephants, including a mother and her young calf, have been found poisoned in and around Zimbabwe’s premier game reserve, Hwange National Park. Six of the animals died in the south of the park last week; some had their tusks hacked off.

The others were found outside the northern sector of the park in state forestry land.

Park rangers responded quickly. A bucket of poison was found near the gruesome scene in the north and three arrests were made last weekend. One of those arrested was found in possession of ivory.

The first known case of elephant poisoning in Zimbabwe was a single massacre of more than 100 elephants in Hwange National Park in 2013.

Since then it has become a common means of poaching — not only in Hwange, but throughout the country’s protected areas, including the Zambezi Valley and Gonarezhou National Park.

It is not just elephants that are dying.

Predators and scavengers such as lions, hyenas, jackals and vultures endure a slow and agonizing death after eating poisoned flesh, while other animals such as antelope and zebra have been killed by drinking from contaminated buckets, waterholes and salt licks.

The poachers use a diluted sodium cyanide solution and, in some cases, paraquat, a powerful agricultural herbicide that is extremely toxic to humans as well as other animals.

Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery founder Roxy Danckwerts sustained kidney and lung failure last year after handling two elephant calves that had been poisoned with paraquat in Hwange.

She still has impaired breathing. The two calves, nicknamed Phoenix and Lucy, eventually died.

Both cyanide and paraquat are readily available in Zimbabwe. Paraquat, although banned in the EU, is used by farmers in Zimbabwe to kill weeds and grasses, while the cyanide-based solution is common with Zimbabwe’s hundreds of thousands of informal miners.

Poachers like such poisons because they enable them to kill large mammals silently, without the rifle shots that would alert rangers to their whereabouts.

The Zimbabwean National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority has responded to the problem with force.

Trevor Lane, cofounder of the Bhejane Trust, a non-profit organization that monitors poaching activities in the northern sector of Hwange, said rangers have been given a clear shoot-to-kill policy from the government for any poachers they find within a national park.

“Poachers lucky to be captured alive are immediately given a minimum jail sentence of nine years if they are found with ivory or poison,” he said.

The government had hoped that this approach would deter poachers, but the value of ivory and the desperation of many rural Zimbabweans seem to outweigh the risks.

Lane told Independent Online that he expects even more elephant poisonings “because people are so poor in this bad economic situation.”

A poacher would be able sell a single tusk for about US$320, a small fortune for any farmer.

However, it is not just impoverished villagers that are involved in the poisonings. Mining directors, top police officers and even disgruntled rangers have all been implicated in elephant poisoning.

Most of the poisoned elephant carcasses in Hwange were discovered by pilots of light aircraft conducting periodic game counts.