Poisons and Poaching: A Deadly Mix Requiring Urgent Action

Darcy Ogada has studied the animals of Africa for a long time, but this might be the worst of times yet. She is fighting to document and put a stop to a new form of hunting and poaching: poisoning. The poisons make for easy money in selling animal parts to eastern Asian markets, but they have tragic consequences for any other animals that disturb the corpses of elephants and rhinos.

Last Sunday, two elephants silently succumbed to poisoning outside Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park in Zambia. In mid-July, four jumbos were poisoned in Zambezi National Park, Zimbabwe when their salt lick was laced with cyanide. This was reminiscent of the decimation of 103 elephants through cyanide poisoning in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe in October 2013.

One of four elephants poisoned for ivory in October 2013 in Zambia. Note some of the 476 vultures poisoned in the background. (Photo by E. Sayer)

Poachers used to favour AK-47s; now they favour poison.

Why? Because poison is cheap, highly effective, easy and legal to obtain, easily transported, and most importantly, no one will hear the impact of an elephant or rhino succumbing to poisoning. It will suffer in silence, its carcass only to be found days or weeks later, long after the perpetrators have hauled away their prize. Alongside the carcass will be the hundreds of scavenging vultures, hyenas, eagles and jackals that will never make the headlines.

I keep a database of wildlife poisoning incidents across Africa. I used to record only vulture poisonings, now I record everything. There’s not an elephant poisoning I’ve recorded where I haven’t also recorded at least one, but usually hundreds, of vultures killed. The use of poison is indiscriminate—it kills everything.

Elephant poisoned for ivory in Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe alongside 191 vultures in July 2012. Photo by R. Groom
Elephant poisoned for ivory in Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe alongside 191 vultures in July 2012. (Photo by R. Groom)

Ask anyone involved in the fight against poaching in Africa and you will hear a common refrain—the increasing use of poisons to kill elephants and rhinos. Hundreds have been killed in this way across East and southern Africa in the last year alone. The most commonly used poisons include cyanide, carbofuran, and aldicarb. The highly toxic compounds are sprinkled on pachyderm delicacies such as watermelons and pumpkins, poured into waterholes, and used to lace salt licks and arrowheads.

Elephant and rhino poaching is at record levels due to the insatiable demand for ivory and rhino horn from the Far East. It is set to get a whole lot worse now that poachers have turned to poisons. The time is now for African governments to enforce strict regulation of these potent chemicals. If not, my son will have to travel to the back streets of Hanoi and Shanghai to find the remains of his African heritage.

Read More By Darcy Ogada

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Darcy has worked for The Peregrine Fund’s Africa Program since 2010 and is based in central Kenya. Most of her current work focuses on the conservation of vultures and owls. She is particularly passionate about ending the scourge of wildlife poisoning and stopping the illegal trafficking of owl eggs for belief-based uses in East Africa. Prior to joining The Peregrine Fund she undertook a post-doctoral fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution based at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya. She has studied Mackinder’s Eagle Owls in central Kenya and conducted other research on birds and rodents. She volunteered for the Peace Corps in Niger in 1995 and got her start studying wildlife as a Bald Eagle Nestwatcher for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. She came to Kenya in 2000 where she has lived ever since. Before moving to Kenya she was an avid skier and ice hockey player, now she spends her free time swimming, birding, and hiking and exploring Africa’s mountains with her son. She’s actively involved in a host of local conservation issues as a member of Nature Kenya’s Bird Committee and the Kenya Wildlife Service Bird Taskforce.