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Cyanide Kills Elephants, Ecosystem

Elephants at a watering hole in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Credit: African Wildlife Foundation
Elephants at a watering hole in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Credit: African Wildlife Foundation

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Joe DeCapua
Last month, poachers killed 300 elephants in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park by poisoning their water supply and salt licks. Wildlife groups say cyanide not only kills a large number of animals in a short time, but also can have disastrous consequences for the environment.


Philip Muruthi calls the poaching attack in Zimbabwe “one more horrific chapter in the tragic story of the African elephant.”

The senior director of conservation science for the African Wildlife Foundation, said, “Once the water or whatever has been laced with cyanide or any other poison it’s very hard for the authorities to detect until they see the animals dead. So, one ramification is that it hinders the ability to detect until the damage has been done. The second ramification is that they killed not only the animal targeted, but also non-target species. So, if elephants have been targeted for their ivory, but the water has been poisoned with cyanide, it means any other animal that drinks of that water will basically die.”

Chemical dips used to treat cattle have also been used to kill lions in some countries. As a result, raptor-type birds that come to feed on the carcasses also die.

He said, “Another ramification is really massive, massive, massive killing within a short period.”

Cyanide kills big and small alike.

“We even don’t know of the small things, you know, the small species, insects, other things that are dying off. Those have not been documented. Of course, what we end up seeing is the large ones,” he said.

If the insects killed are pollinators that can adversely affect trees and plants.

“The disappearance of elephants, if this continues, or the disappearance of lions, will have cascading effects on the ecosystem. Species, for example, that depend on elephants to clear the environment and provide for grazing – those species will be affected by this kind of action, including species such as zebras, such as wildebeests, such as all the other grazers, that depend on this important species – these ecosystem architects, so to speak,” he said.

What’s more, many park rangers have been killed by poachers.

The African Wildlife Foundation official said it may be possible to partially clean the environment after a cyanide poisoning.

“In many cases, these water holes are troughs. In many cases they are water holes that can be emptied and new water can be pumped in. You’ve got to keep the wildlife away. Depending on the chemical that is used, some of these chemicals can remain in the environment for a long time. It is not possible to remove these chemicals entirely from the vegetation and from the soils.”

Muruthi added that in many countries the penalties for poaching are just not tough enough.

“Let me give you an example,” he said, “The more arrests that are made, the more elephants die. The more arrests that are made, the more rhinos die. And that just tells me it is not deterrent enough. It is not something to cause somebody to say, well, I don’t even want to dare being arrested. You get arrested you get a tap on your shoulder and you go back to doing the same business. Most of the poachers are known to be repeat offenders.”

A number of arrests have been in the Zimbabwe elephant mass killing, including the alleged distributor of the cyanide. The chemical is often used in mining to extract gold from rock. Four convicted poachers have each been sentenced to 15 years in jail. Some of the ivory tusks taken have been confiscated.

Muruthi said authorities, the private sector and NGOs all have a stake in protecting elephants, rhinos and other endangered wildlife. He says incentives should be given to local communities to make them custodians of wildlife.

Muruthi praised recent initiatives targeting poaching. In September, an $80 million effort was announced by African nations, NGOs and the Clinton Foundation to boost law enforcement. And the Obama administration announced a $10 million campaign in July. Authorities say money from poaching can fund organized crime and terrorist groups.

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