By Oscar Nkala
Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority says laboratory tests on the kidneys and livers of the 14 elephants found dead over the past two weeks in Hwange and Matusadona National Parks confirm that they were killed by cyanide-laced salt licks and fruit used as bait.
This suggests that poachers may be returning to launch large-scale cyanide operations two years after 300 elephants died in Hwange after drinking from water holes contaminated with cyanide.
According to Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency, 11 elephants and two black rhinos were killed by cyanide poaching in the country’s national parks and private game sanctuaries between January 2014 and March 2015.
Cyanide also took the lives of at least four vultures, a warthog, a Cape turtle, a sandgrouse, and various scavengers that fed on the poisoned corpses.
From January to July of this year, according to police, at least 49 elephants were killed in Zimbabwe’s national parks by poachers using firearms, traps, and snares.
Despite the global outrage caused by the 2013 mass cyanide slaughter of elephants, the chemical continues to be used by poachers who have targeted fewer animals at a time, presumably to avoid detection.
Speaking at a press conference in Harare on Tuesday, parks authority
spokesperson Caroline Washaya-Moyo said the three elephants found dead in Matusadona last week had eaten oranges laced with cyanide.
She said the tests, which were conducted at the University of Zimbabwe’s Biological Sciences Department, showed that poisoned salt licks had killed the 11 elephants in Hwange.
According to Washaya-Moyo, the carcasses of four female elephants and one
bull were found more than 30 feet apart near Dete, in Hwange National Park on September 25. Their tusks had not been removed, indicating that the poachers may have been disturbed and left in a hurry.
The carcasses of a second group, of three adult females and three calves—all de-tusked—were discovered on October 3 in an advanced state of decomposition near the headquarters of the parks authority in Hwange.
Commissioner Clement Munoriarwa, of the regional branch of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, said there has been a surge in elephant poaching in Hwange since the beginning of the year.
“Poaching cases are actually increasing daily, and most of these cases involve the use of firearms. We have many cases where we suspect cyanide poisoning.”
To date, no arrests have been made in connection with both cases.
Cyanide Use Spreading
Following its devastating debut in Hwange National Park in 2013, the use of cyanide by poachers has spread to other areas, including Zambezi National Park, near the resort town of Victoria Falls, where poisoned salt licks were responsible for the death of four elephants in July 2014.
This July, Assistant Inspector Nkululeko Nduna, of the Masvingo provincial police, told local media that at least ten elephants had been killed in a series of suspected cyanide poisoning incidents in Gonarezhou National Park during the previous eight weeks.
“We are investigating several cases of poaching in Gonarezhou where many animals, especially elephants, have been killed. So far, no arrests have been made but our investigations are in progress,” Nduna told The Zimbabwean, an independent publication.
In a report released in May detailing the difficulties government is facing in decontaminating the ecosystems damaged by the 2013 cyanide poisoning scourge, Mutsa Chasi, director of the Environmental Management Agency, said that more than U.S. $300,000 has been spent in cleaning up Hwange alone.
But, the report notes, there’s far too little money available for the agency to cope with the country-wide spike in cyanide poisoning cases.
Last month, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Oppah Muchinguri, said the government will deploy more resources to protect vulnerable elephant herds in Hwange, Mana Pools, and Gonarezhou National Park.
She said a recent Chinese donation of vehicles, camping equipment, water-pumping engines, two-way radios, and other equipment worth U.S. $2.3 million would enhance the parks authority’s ability to conduct effective anti-poaching operations.
Oscar Nkala is a Zimbabwean journalist based in Gaborone, Botswana. He specializes in African defense and aerospace news in addition to investigations of poaching crimes in southern Africa. He is featured as an investigator and consultant in the award-winning film When Giants Fall, by Matriarch Films.