Zimbabwean police are bringing their investigations into the deaths of at least 64 elephants by cyanide poisoning in the Hwange National Park to an end.
They have revealed that a South African businessman is behind the killings and that he has been active in cyanide poisoning since 2009. Police named him only as Ishmael and that he used a Chivu farmer and ivory buyer Farai Chitsa to distribute stocks of cyanide to local people in Pelandaba and Pumula areas of Tsholotsho. Interrogations of those held over the poisoning case has revealed information that will be either acted on or stored for later use.
Chitsa was arrested when his truck became stuck in sands while collecting tusks from poachers. Two brothers – Sipho and Misheck Mafu – have also been arrested and have provided police and wildlife investigators with wide-ranging information. Police revealed that the poachers would mix up a combination of cyanide, salt and water.
This would then be poured onto salt licks at watering holes known to be frequented by elephants. At other watering holes the poachers would dig holes and place containers containing the deadly mixture into the holes.
The technique was so effective at killing elephants that when the poachers took police to the sites that had been contaminated there were bodies of elephants with small tusks still intact because it wasn’t worth the effort to take the tusks, The poachers were being paid as little as $700 for 9 tusks.
It was not just elephants that were killed by the cyanide but a wide range of other animals carcasses were found including buffalo, lions, vultures and jackals. The areas where the poison has been used have been declared an ecological disaster.
Some local environmentalists are being reported in local media as saying that the impact of the poisoning will last a generation as the cyanide works its way into groundwater and is taken up by crops. Claims are being made that it will be a generation of people and animals impacted by this poisoning.
This however seems a great exaggeration as the chemistry of cyanide means this is highly unlikely to happen. Dissolved cyanide will quickly either evaporate into the air as hydrogen cyanide or sediment out and quickly biodegrade. As the poison solution was either poured onto a salt lick or contained within a plastic or metal container the risk of the solution reaching a ground water source or expanding across to crops are negligible to non-existent.
Cyanide is highly toxic but it is generally short-lived in the natural environment. The case though has led to Zimbabwe planning on boosting its efforts against poaching. New policies are planned following a visit to the park by three government ministers over the weekend.
Police Assistant Commissioner Micheck Mabunda is also calling for the establishment of aircraft patrols in the Hwange National Park. He notes that poachers in neighbouring Botswana will quickly disperse when their aircraft patrol flies overhead. However when those poachers enter Zimbabwe there is no threat of being discovered. He suggests that Pandematenga Border Post would be an ideal location to base an air based patrol from.