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Poachers Just Killed Some More Elephants With Cyanide in Zimbabwe

Although the country is no longer consumed by the violence and inflation of the early 2000s, a widespread lack of economic opportunity is fueling the poaching trade.

by Eva Hershaw
Oct 27 2015, 9:35pm

A bird flies near the carcass of an elephant, which was killed after drinking from a poisoned water hole, in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, about 522 miles east of Harare, September 27, 2013. (Photo by Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

With the discovery on Monday of 22 poisoned elephants in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, the number of elephants poached in the country during the month of October alone has risen to 62, according to the Associated Press.

Rangers found the carcasses in the north-central region of the park, the national park's spokeswoman Caroline Washaya-Moyo told the AP. She added that there were young elephants found among those killed.

Over the weekend, nearly 400 pounds of ivory — worth an estimated $43,000 — was seized at the international airport in the capital Harare. That bust and the 22 elephant deaths this week come on the heels of park rangers finding in early October a kilo of cyanide in the park and seizing an undisclosed amount of ivory from Hwange park officials at the airport.

"The rate at which we are losing animals to cyanide is alarming," Washaya-Moyo told the AP. "We are appealing to people in communities close to national parks to cooperate with authorities."

The reports add to mounting concern about poaching in the country, which remains high after peaking in July 2013, when more than 300 elephants were killed from cyanide poisoning in the park.

"Cyanide — unlike bullets — is a silent and indiscriminate killer," said Rachel Kramer, wildlife trafficking expert at World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "The tragic effects of poisonings extend beyond animals poached for the illegal trade and those targeted in retaliatory killings. Unless carcasses are found immediately, scavengers including vultures, lions, hyenas, and other species can also die."

Related: American Trophy Hunters Pay Top Dollar for Lion Heads — But Asia Wants the Skeletons

Zimbabwe is considered one of the world's largest remaining reserves for elephants, with an estimated population of 100,000 in its territory. Of these, more than half are estimated to reside in Hwange National Park, along the country's western border with Botswana. Earlier this year, the park became the object of international attention — and outrage — when an American dentist killed a 13-year-old lion named Cecil, one of Zimbabwe's best-known animals, during a hunting trip near the reserve.

The Great Elephant Census, which surveyed all major elephant populations in Africa last year, found that Zimbabwe had lost 75 percent of its elephant population in the southern Zambezi Valley, and a 40 percent decrease in the middle part of the valley. The report also found that Zimbabwe formed part of a larger, regional decline. Tanzania lost 60 percent of its elephants between 2009 and 2014, while Mozambique lost approximately 50 percent of its population during the same period.

But Lauchlan Munro, a socio-economist at the University of Ottawa, urged looking at Zimbabwe's broader economic context in order to understand the rise in poaching.

"The level of national income per head in Zimbabwe is the same as it was 60 years ago," he said. "There are very few countries on Earth where you can say that. There has been a hollowing out of the formal employment sector through the decades."

Although the country has recovered from the violence and dire inflation rates that plagued it in the early 2000s, Munro explained that whatever economic growth has occurred has not created employment for most people. At the same time, the returns on the poached commodities can be quite high.

"There is an international demand for products from large African game ­— elephant tusks, lion heads, rhino horns, etc., and a large part of the poaching is driven by the fact that you can make an awful lot of money," Munro said. "The rest of the world is involved in the destruction of Zimbabwean and African wildlife."

Related: Cecil the Lion's Killer Will Not Be Charged in Zimbabwe

And while local authorities work to stop poaching and the smuggling of ivory on the ground, they are also looking to authorities in the country's driving demand to develop policies that will encourage regulated, legal trade of these products.

On Monday, Zimbabwe's Environment, Water, and Climate Minister Oppah Muchinguri repeated a call to the United States to reverse its ban on ivory imports. Legal hunting of elephants, she said, generates an estimated $14 million a year and helps control elephant populations that damage farmland across in the country.

"'All this poaching is because of American policies, they are banning sport hunting," Muchinguri said earlier this month, explaining that regulating the sport would provide more funds for conservation. "An elephant would cost $120,000 in sport hunting but a tourist pays only $10 to view the same elephant."

Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva

Watch US government officials crush a ton of ivory in Times Square:

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