The number of elephants that have died in Zimbabwe from cyanide poisoning in a continuing man-caused wildlife crisis throughout the Hwange National Park is now 102.
Poachers are killing elephants to hack off their tusks, which can lead to huge profits in the lucrative ivory black market in Africa and Asia. However, it is doubtful whether poachers realize the ecological and economical damage they are causing by using cyanide, a contaminate and deadly chemical that kills almost instantly. Lions, hyenas, and vultures have also reportedly died also from cyanide poisoning as they feed off the contaminated corpses.
Wildlife rangers often rely on the sight of soaring vultures to pinpoint an illegal kill by poachers in a nature preserve as the vultures are usually the first predators at a kill. However, because vultures are dying from feeding off of the tainted carcasses, rangers say it makes the poisoning hard to fight and control.
Two wells supplying water that elephants drink are also likely polluted with cyanide. Wildlife officials will most likely seal them off and drill new wells. "The magnitude of what we are witnessing today is much higher than what has occurred previous[ly]," Environment Minister of Zimbabwe Saviour Kasukuwere said on Monday.
Wildlife officials say poachers are spreading cyanide over flat "salt pans," or natural, mineral-rich salt licks that elephants frequent. The state Environment Management Authority will have to dig out the salt licks and remove the cyanide-tainted soil as well.
These clean-up efforts come with a cost. And for park rangers, this will be a difficult task seeing as Hwange National Park is cash-strapped, underfunded, understaffed, and poorly equipped due to Zimbabwe's troubled economy. Nine suspected poachers were arrested this month. Three men were sentenced up to 16 years in jail.
Cyanide, which is readily available, attacks the bloodstream and causes rapid decomposition. Photographs of the elephant carcasses in Hwange National Park show nothing but bones and skin, despite their fairly recent deaths.
Zimbabwe plans to intensify international efforts to curb the ivory trade, which has been declared illegal by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. According to Kasukuwere, wildlife officials will cooperate with international organizations such as Interpol to stop mass killing spree. "So the war is on," Kasukuwere said. "It's a war which we will win, we are not going to surrender."