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Elephants Targeted with Cyanide in Zimbabwe

Poachers in Zimbabwe have killed at least 40 elephants in recent weeks using a particularly cruel and efficient method: cyanide poisoning.

The Washington Post reports that poachers have used industrial-grade cyanide to poison watering holes and salt licks favored by elephants in Hwange National Park, a Connecticut-sized reserve located on the border with Botswana. Cyanide-laced oranges have also been used, and species not targeted by poachers were among the victims.

Park rangers found the carcasses of 26 elephants on Tuesday, a week after 14 other animals were found poisoned. No arrests have been made in the case.

“Any person with wildlife at heart would be worried about the method with which these poachers are killing wildlife,” Caroline Washaya-Moyo, a spokeswoman for Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, said in an interview with the Post.

In addition to its lethality, cyanide is also readily available, given that it’s used in mining to separate gold from ore (gold is the second-largest mineral export from Zimbabwe after platinum).

“As a poacher, poisoning a single waterhole with cyanide gives you a cheap, low-stress way of killing a lot of elephants,” Adam Welz, WildAid South Africa’s campaign chief, told Motherboard. “Once the cyanide takes effect, you can walk around in a small area of bush and chop out a lot of ivory.” 

Zimbabwe also made news this week after a hunter paid over $60,000 USD to legally shoot one of the largest elephants ever seen in the southern African nation. Preliminary reports speculated that the elephant killed was a well-known tusker named Nkombo from South Africa’s Kruger National Park, though NGOs on the ground have since concluded the animal was a bull of unknown origin. 

Cyanide poaching is not a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe. In October 2013, conservationists estimated that about 120 elephants had been poisoned in Hwange, with an unknown number of lions, hyenas and vultures dying after feeding on the carcasses. Buffalo and kudu (an antelope species) attracted to the watering hole were also among the animal victims.