Poachers poison watering holes with cyanide, killing 41 African elephants

elephants watering hole photo
CC BY 2.0 ilovetrees

Armed with guns and machetes, poachers have managed to decimate Africa's wild elephant populations, felling one of these iconic animals every 15 minutes. But as if those weapons weren't destructive enough, poachers have now turned to a far more indiscriminate tool to kill elephants -- poison.

Police in northern Zimbabwe are reporting that they recently apprehended a group of poachers possessing a large quantity of tusks taken from elephants on the grounds of Hwange National Park. Instead of using high-powered rifles to kill the animals, however, Chief Inspector Muyambirwa Muzzah says that the poachers laced their watering holes with cyanide.

Unfortunately, such broadly applied poison can easily lead to wildlife fatalities beyond its intended targets.

“What they were doing is very cruel because it does not end with the death of the elephants. We have what we call the fourth generation effect due to the potency of cyanide as a poison. Animals that feed on the dead elephants will die and those that feed on the dead animals will also die," Muzzah tells The Chronicle.

"It will go back on the food chain and hundreds of animals may end up dead.”

Last May, another poaching racket was found to have employed a similar method of poisoning elephants' drinking water and collecting the tusks from their corpses; the five-member group was sentenced to two years in prison for the crime.

Since then, says Muzzah, 69 elephants have been killed in this region of Zimbabwe. Despite conservation efforts meant to protect the species, elephants across Africa have been in steady decline due to poaching, fueled largely by the illegal ivory trade. At current rates, elephants are projected to be extinct in the wild in little over a decade -- though if mass poisonings become the prefered method among poachers, extinction could occur even sooner.

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