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Cyanide Poisoning Wreaks Havoc on Zimbabwe Elephants, Ecosystem

  • Friday, November 1, 2013
  • Livingstone, Zambia
Elephants at a watering hole in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Photo by Perrin Banks

Elephants at a watering hole in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Photo by Perrin Banks

Horrific poaching incident inside Hwange National Park underscores the need for engaging communities living near national parks

LIVINGSTONE, Zambia—Recent reports suggest more than 300 elephants have died in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park as a result of poachers lacing the park’s watering holes and salt licks with cyanide poison. Initially the number of elephant deaths had been pegged at about 40, with numbers climbing to more than 100 in early October. Most recently, however, aerial surveys over the park have revealed what looks to be the carcasses of more than 300 dead elephants. In almost all cases, the elephant tusks were removed, underscoring the fact that this was a coordinated poaching attack.

“It’s one more horrific chapter in the tragic story of the African elephant,” says Philip Muruthi, senior director of conservation science at the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). “Though elephants may have been the target, poison is indiscriminate in who or what it kills. Lions, hyenas, vultures, kudu, and other wildlife, in addition to elephants, have fallen victim.”

Pointing to the more than 400 elephants that were killed last year in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park, Muruthi stresses the devastating effects these types of mass slaughters have on the ecosystem.

“These weapons poachers are turning to might as well be weapons of mass destruction,” says Muruthi. “They wipe out large numbers of a keystone species—the intended target—and lay waste to whole ecosystems. Like the aftereffects of a weapon of mass destruction, poison used in this way has dealt a devastating blow to wildlife and the environment in the short and long-term.”

As authorities in Zimbabwe continue to make arrests and uncover those involved in the poisoning, reports suggest some of the poachers came from local villages near the park.

“Too often people from local communities turn to poaching as a source of income because there are limited opportunities for employment in their area,” says African Wildlife Foundation Director of Conservation Enterprise Brian McBrearity. “With the poisoning in Hwange, it’s obvious there’s no shortage of methods for killing wildlife. What there is a shortage of are jobs. That’s why we partner with communities in wildlife-rich areas to establish businesses.”

In several of AWF’s priority conservation landscapes, including the Kazungula landscape where Hwange National Park lies, AWF has partnered with communities to develop everything from high-end, community-owned safari lodges to conservation-friendly agriculture enterprises.

Communities with access to economic opportunities and other social benefits resulting from their partnership with a conservation group are less inclined to turn to poaching and more likely to help catch poachers and traffickers. This kind of community cooperation will be critical as authorities try to locate the ivory from Hwange’s elephants.

“We have information that some of the stolen ivory from Hwange could come across the Zambezi River and transit through Zambia on its way to the east,” says Jones Masonde, African Wildlife Foundation’s ecologist in the Kazungula landscape, where AWF has been working with the local Sekute community to protect elephants. “We hope to block the Sekute area from being used as one of the transit routes. From the Zambia side, government agencies, as well as Sekute village scouts, are all on high alert and watching for any movement of ivory.”

In April 2012, Sekute village scouts followed and gathered information on suspected elephant poachers before turning them over to Zambia Wildlife Authority. The poachers were arrested and 41 pieces of ivory recovered from at least 21 adult elephants from Botswana and Zimbabwe.

“When local people benefit from living near wildlife, they will take ownership of and defend their natural resources,” says African Wildlife Foundation’s Muruthi.

So far the Zimbabwe Wildlife Authority has made several arrests, including the distributor of the cyanide—which is often used in gold mines—and four poachers who were each sentenced to 15 years in jail. Some of the ivory was also discovered by authorities and confiscated, though not all.

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About African Wildlife Foundation

Founded in 1961, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) is a leading conservation organization focused solely on the African continent. AWF’s programs and conservation strategies are based on sound science and designed to protect both the wild lands and wildlife of Africa and ensure a more sustainable future for Africa’s people. Since its inception, AWF has protected endangered species and land, promoted conservation enterprises that benefit local African communities, and trained hundreds of African nationals in conservation—all to ensure the survival of Africa’s unparalleled wildlife heritage. AWF is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Kenya and registered as a 501(c)(3) in the United States. For more information, visit www.awf.org and follow us on Twitter @AWF_Official and Facebook at facebook.com/AfricanWildlifeFoundation.

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