Officials in Zimbabwe recently apprehended six of the responsible parties in the nation’s worst poaching incident to date, which killed 41 elephants. The accused men were found with 17 tusks, adding up to around $120,000 worth of ivory. Because the incident was so gruesome, many international news agencies have picked up the story, many noting that poaching is on the rise despite the best efforts of rangers and other officials to protect Africa’s natural resources.
Elephants are some of the most beautiful and amazing animals on Earth, and unfortunately, they’re under serious threat in the wild, where they’re hunted for the precious ivory they bear. Even though it has no medicinal value and a growing number of people recognize that ivory jewelry is cruel, not fashionable, elephants continue to die. Historically, elephant poachers have chased their prey deep into protected areas, national parks and other regions, pursuing elephants with an arsenal that includes a wide variety of firearms. Now, another weapon has entered the arena: poison.
That was the culprit behind the recent deaths in Zimbabwe, which occurred when poachers laced watering holes with cyanide and then waited for elephants to die after drinking. In addition to being a terrible killer, poison is also indiscriminate; any animal that shared the watering hole would have died, and any scavengers that fed on the dead elephants could be severely sickened or killed by traces of cyanide in the bodies, as would predators that feed on those scavengers. This makes the rise of poisoning as a tool of choice for poachers a serious concern for conservationists who are worried not just about elephants, but also other animals that call Africa home.
Poisoning incidents have occurred already in Zimbabwe and some other African nations. When possible, the wrongdoers are caught and sent to prison, but fighting poachers can be an uphill battle, especially when conservationists are trying to secure a large stretch of land. Tightly controlling cyanide supplies to make the poison hard to access in large quantities is a start, but may be difficult given the flexibility of financial markets that could make it easy for poachers to access the poison in illegitimate ways — people with experience on the ivory black market can certainly obtain chemicals to kill elephants with relative ease.
Unfortunately, despite outreach campaigns to discourage the use of ivory and stress the fact that it is an illegal substance, the customer base for poached ivory remains strong. It’s especially popular in traditional medicinal preparations, where it is used by people who believe it helps purge their bodies of toxins and purify their complexions. Changing the thinking on ivory requires challenging very old and valued systems of traditional medicine and providing people with a viable alternative that will still be in line with their cultural traditions.
Meanwhile, with poison entering the toolkit of poachers, conservationists are facing a potential nightmare. Not only do they need to worry about elephant deaths, they also need to be concerned about collateral damage from a ruthless poison that can spread quickly to other species through watering holes, spoiled meat and predation on higher levels of the food chain.
Photo: Derek Keats.