Cyanide killing: The last step of elephants

THE deepening Hwange National Park poaching scandal is a cause for concern.

View Point with Wisdom Mdzungairi

This is alarming in that the number of African elephants dying from the cyanide poisoning continues to rise by each day, affecting the whole food chain resulting in scores of vultures, jackals, lions, baboons among others dying en masse.

How do we save our African elephants from extinction? African elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory as a surprising consequence of the rise of Asian economies.

Symbolic of wealth and prestige, ivory was once only affordable to a few. Now, with hundreds of millions of newly rich people locally and in Asia, demand has outstripped supply and elephants are being killed at a rate that will drive them to extinction in less than 15 years.

Indications are that since January, over 230 elephants, including those killed by cyanide poisoning have died.

Since 2009, about 1 000 jumbos have been poached by local poaching rings using various methods, the most heinous of which was cyanide poisoning.

The natural mortality rate of elephants is thought to be 5%, so the number of jumbo deaths spiralled to over 1 500 animals in five years. Almost 50 endangered rhinos were killed, 300 buffaloes, 30 lions, 150 zebras and thousands of plains game too numerous to mention.

Some 35 000 jumbos on the continent were lost in 2012 alone. The poachers also threaten the lives of park rangers. At least 1 000 rangers have been killed in the line of duty over the past 10 years.

Can this be sustainable in a country like ours? Sadly, all other game species killed by the poisoning were simply left to rot in the giant Hwange National Park as the poachers harvested Africa’s flagship wildlife species. Apparently the elephant, lion, buffalo and rhino are among the country’s big five animals —themselves tourist pullers.

It appears the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) has still not done its job to “detoxicate” salt licks in the country’s flagship national park. It’s a question of a lackadaisical approach to a situation requiring urgent attention and swift reaction.

It has been disclosed that poisoning of elephants has been ongoing for over five years now, yet the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority had reportedly no clue to the heinous activities under their nose.

The modus operandi showed to all and sundry that it was not executed by mere villagers, who now claim they poisoned the jumbos to eke a living.

In many cases, poor people are used by the rich, and it is hoped that conclusive investigations will be carried out, and that they would expose what exactly went on in the ‘dead of night’ for years.

Already, a detective police assistant inspector and his subordinates appeared in court for this poaching. Whether guilty or not, this should simply arm Zimparks or Environment minister Saviour Kasukuwere with necessary information to improve systems or make huge changes in the way things are happening at state institutions tasked with protecting our heritage.

Certainly, it can’t be business as usual after this sordid massacre of our elephants. Kasukuwere should appreciate that this annihilation shows African governments are unable to stop the poaching. The price of ivory is driving impunity, corruption and is now under control of criminal cartels.

This talk that Kasukuwere assured the villagers that Home Affairs minister Kembo Mohadi had agreed to pardon them is hollow. On his appointment, Kasukuwere declared war on poachers, now hardly 60 days in office he’s talking of pardoning poachers.

How do we stop this? What will it take to reverse this poaching trend? Do we need to change cultures? Do we need to appeal for compassion in China, Thailand or Philippines? Is it about law enforcement?

Government should be transparent in handling this matter by investigating possible links of politicians and influential businessmen to international ivory smuggling rings operating in Zimbabwe.

Because the discovery of over 100 elephant carcasses killed by cyanide in Hwange national park, and still counting shows that there is a sophisticated group of people involved in poaching.

If Zimbabwe does not find long term solutions to stop poaching, the country’s ecological system will be severely compromised as much as it has already been disfigured by this act. What boggles the mind is the fact that cyanide as a controlled substance cannot be bought without producing a gold mine permit.

No one should speculate on who could be involved — that’s Kasukuwere’s brief, but to say 240kg of cyanide was confiscated from Tsholotsho villagers speaks volumes about the country’s controls of hazardous substances.

Obviously, what will happen if the country has a tonne of cyanide floating somewhere in the village — they may even end up poisoning each other. Kasukuwere, we need some bright ideas from those who love the African elephant and who know how to cause change in Zimbabwe, Asia, everywhere.

Why not take the initiative to benefit from the $80 million commitment to protect elephants?

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