from Africa in Transition

Tracking the Traffickers: Cyanide as Poachers’ Weapon of Mass Destruction

November 12, 2013

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This is a guest post by Emily Mellgard, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.

Reports began appearing in Zimbabwe in July and August that entire elephant herds were dead at watering holes. A recent aerial survey from professional hunters increased initial government estimates of the number of dead elephants from eighty-nine to over three hundred.

Further investigation revealed that cyanide, which is available relatively cheaply in Zimbabwe due to local gold mining practices, had been mixed into water sources and salt blocks. Driven by skyrocketing international demand for ivory, local poachers have begun mass, indiscriminate poaching through poisoning.

This incident in Zimbabwe’s largest national park, Hwange, presents a terrifying innovation in elephant poaching. Poisoning water holes is an entirely indiscriminate mass killing tactic. All the animals who drink the poisoned water die, normally only yards away from the water’s edge, all the animals who feed on the poisoned carcasses die, and so too do those who feed on them. As such, it poisons the entire food chain, amounting to a weapon of mass destruction against Africa’s wildlife.

The carcasses of lions, hyenas, vultures, and other animals were all found alongside the poisoned elephants in Hwange. Tom Milliken of the conservation organization TRAFFIC, along with other conservation campaigners, report an escalation in incidents of poisoning. From the poachers point of view cyanide dramatically increases returns and simultaneously reduces the risk of harm to themselves or detection by park rangers.

Poachers have also been known to poison the carcasses of their kills after shooting them. This ensures that any vultures that come to feed will die without alerting park rangers of the poaching kill. In Namibia, more than six hundred vultures died beside a single kill. Vultures are an essential factor in keeping harmful bacteria and germs out of the environment.

The illegal elephant ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007. It is largely driven by Asian markets, especially China. However, according to a recent infographic, “Boneyard: Three At-Risk Animal Species in Africa,” which dramatically displays the extent of poaching on elephants, rhinos, and lions, the United States remains the second largest market for illegally trafficked wildlife, including ivory. Together, ivory and rhino horn are a U.S.$8-10 billion trade worldwide. A pound of rhino horn sells for nearly U.S.$30,000, more than cocaine or gold.

National parks and reserves in Africa are often extremely underfunded and unable to adequately protect the land and animals in their care. "We’re understaffed; we’re under resourced; we’re finically constrained,” said Caroline Washaya-Moyo, public relations manager for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. “For us to contribute meaningfully to protecting wildlife in this country we need a minimum of U.S.$40 million."

This is not only an African tragedy, it is a global tragedy. It demands a global response.

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