Nearly 100 elephants have been killed with cyanide over the last few months in western Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, leaving anti-poaching agencies worried about the broader implications of poachers turning to poison in order to collect ivory.
In September, ten poachers were arrested in what anti-poaching advocates say was the largest single killing of elephants in Zimbabwe's history. Since May, 90 elephants have been killed after feeding from salt licks that have been poisoned with a mixture of cyanide and lead.
Three of the poachers have already been convicted, receiving sentences of 15 to 16 years and major fines. The remaining seven are set to go to court this month. More arrests are possible.
Caroline Washaya-Moyo, the public relations manager for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, is shocked by this new form of poaching is shocking and is worried about its potentially wide-reaching consequences.
"We were used to them putting snares, used to them shooting the elephants, we're used to them using the traditional way of poaching. But this is new and it is indiscriminate…anything that then feeds on the elephant, dies," pointed out Washaya-Moyo.
Cyanide shuts down cellular respiration; the poison puts the body into a coma with seizures and cardiac arrest. Death occurs quickly after ingestion.
Along with elephants, one lion, two water buffaloes, one kudu, two painted dogs and several vultures have been killed by the poison.
Tom Milliken heads the elephant and rhino program for TRAFFIC, an organization that monitors the illegal trade of ivory. He noted that the use of chemical agents to kill wildlife opens a new front in the battle against poachers.
"It’s really a crime against ecology really. You've got a poisoned food chain….We also see it in the rhino wars where certain agricultural chemicals have been put into oranges and melons and things and left out for rhinos sometimes elephants. The advantage to poisoning, from a poacher's perspective, is that with no gunshot you're not drawing attention to yourself….We're seeing more of this," said Milliken.
The cyanide and lead mixture that was put into salt licks in Hwange also traveled into watering holes.
The parks authority has been working with the country's Environmental Management Agency to clean up the poisoned areas and neutralize any leftover cyanide.
Washaya-Moyo says Zimbabwe's parks system, which is already struggling financially, now has to begin to stretch its resources even further to address another form of poaching.
"For starters, we need to train our rangers, to manage the park. By that I mean to say to how then do they identify that a salt lick has been poisoned… How do they test for cyanide? Obviously it changes a lot of things… So we are on high alert in all other national parks. We are insuring that our rangers also take care of themselves when they go out, not to just drink water from any natural sources within the park," said Washaya-Moyo.
Milliken says that as the demand for ivory has grown, and as certain elephant and rhino populations have been drastically reduced, poachers are moving south.
"One of the things that concerns me is that the killing fields of Central Africa are really depleted now, and I think we're really going to see attention turned to those countries that have large elephants population like Zimbabwe, possibly Botswana, Namibia, where poaching has been on a much [smaller] scale than elsewhere in Africa," said Milliken.
With these areas being targeted more, the Zimbabwean parks system will need more help than ever, but Washaya-Moyo claims they are lacking; she says the park should have at least 700 employees on staff, but has only 140. Staff don't have two-way radios, lack uniforms, and don't have enough firearms or vehicles. Each officer is tasked with protecting 200 square kilometers of park.
"We're understaffed; we're under resourced; we're finically constrained. For us to contribute meaningfully to protecting wildlife in this country we need a minimum of $40 million United States dollars," said Washaya-Moyo.
Milliken worries that the only way to stop such poaching is for international law enforcement to target the kingpins of poaching, rather than the street-level poachers, who can easily be replaced.