Leonard Ncube Victoria Falls Reporter
POACHERS in Zimbabwe have substituted the gun for the more deadly cyanide poison in their illegal hunt for ivory. Through the chemical weapon, the poachers have in the past three weeks killed close to 40 elephants. They are lacing water sources frequented by jumbos in Hwange National Park and Matusadona in Kariba.
Eleven jumbos died between September 27 and October 10 in Hwange National Park at Sinamatela and Main Camp while some were found dead at Matusadona in Kariba. The first carcasses were found at Caterpillar Camp near Hwange Main Camp and Deka Tail Camp in Sinamatela in the Hwange National Park a fortnight ago.
Four females and one bull were found lying dead 10m apart. The second batch comprised de-horned elephant carcasses made up of three adult elephants and three calves. These were at an advanced stage of decomposition.
Authorities fear that several animals could have died from consuming poisoned elephant carcasses after two vultures were found dead near a water source.
A visit to Hwange National Park recently by Chronicle Features showed that the area was generally dry and had high temperatures. Animals are driven to the water sources to quench their thirsty. This makes it easy for poachers to administer cyanide at the water holes. The poachers are also administering cyanide at salt pans.
The water situation in the dry game park is so critical that the Parks and Wildlife management team and its partners who operate different camps dotted around the national park have to keep water engines running 24/7 to provide water to the animals. Hardly half an hour passes without a huge herd of elephants, sables, zebras or buffaloes tracking to a nearby water hole at most camps.
African Bush Camps public relations officer, Shelley Cox puts the number of elephants that drink water at Somalisa Camp to at least 500 per day.
She said sustaining wildlife was an expensive venture, hence the need for everyone to participate in preserving it. “After the death of Cecil (the Lion) our director spearheaded an initiation of a Conservation Wildlife Fund in collaboration with photography operators in the Hwange National Park with the aim of sustaining wildlife,” said Cox.
There are over 60 boreholes around the national park and these have influenced the animals to adjust their movement as they head towards water sources.
Rangers recently bumped onto carcasses of 26 elephants at Sinamatela Camp and Dzibanini near the border with Botswana. Some of the jumbos had already been dehorned. Parks and Wildlife say all incidents involve cyanide. Cyanide is an industrial substance used in gold mining which is lethal when swallowed.
Images of elephants lying dead in the country’s two game parks in Hwange and Kariba are tormenting environmentalists and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. They fear that there could be a renewed chemical war between man and wildlife
This follows similar incidents that left more than 300 jumbos dead in separate incidents in 2013 in the Hwange National Park. A few individuals were convicted for poaching and illegal use of cyanide. Such incidences, authorities say, hurt tourism. They say wildlife provide natural beauty to the environment, downstream employment from policy making level to an animal tracker and skinner on the deep end of the ladder.
“If no urgent measures are taken to curb reckless and heartless killing of the wild, the country risks losing its natural environment, ecosystem and wildlife population. It will also lose the much-needed revenue generated from tourists who come to see our wildlife,” said a safari operator in Victoria Falls.
Officer commanding Police in Matabeleland North Province, Senior Assistant Commissioner Clement Munoriarwa, said the police will not tire in tracking down the culprits. “Two suspected incidents of cyanide poisoning were recorded and investigations have been opened. So far no arrest has been made but we’ll leave no stone unturned in our effort to bring to book those involved,” said Snr Asst Comm Munoriarwa recently.
Parks and Wildlife officials say similar incidents have been recorded on the Botswana side of the game park at Point 2.2 Camp. It appears, however, some of the poaching cases are brewed by players within the parks and wildlife sector. Last week authorities intercepted 62 tusks at the Harare International Airport which were destined for sale allegedly on the black market in China. Investigations linked the consignment to Hwange Main Camp ecologist Edwin Tendai Makuwe who had signed for four of the tusks worth $14,125 from the camp’s storeroom.
Makuwe, who resides at the Hwange Main Camp, allegedly committed the crime in connivance with two rangers, John Pedzi and Masimba Nyoni. Parks and Wildlife are investigating the matter further.
Makuwe has since appeared before the Hwange court and was released on $600 bail applied for by his lawyer Thulani Nkala of Dube and Company. The case continues in court while efforts are being made to trace the origins of the other 57 tusks. Zimbabwe could be losing millions of dollars due to smuggling of ivory outside the country. In July this year, South African authorities at OR Tambo International Airport seized more than 200kg of Zimbabwe’s ivory valued at R4 million. The ivory was found in the cargo section destined for Vietnam.
The cyanide chemical war is not confined to Hwange National Park only. Last week three zebras, a warthog, a cheetah as well as hundreds of different species of birds died after drinking water laced with cyanide at a pond at Dingwall Ranch owned by Thandi Bower.
Besides cyanide poachers, the country also has to contend with villagers from communities around game parks who hunt different kinds of animals using dogs or trap them with wires and snares. A member of the anti-poaching unit in Gwayi conservancy, Mfundisi Sibanda, said they were fighting running battles with poachers.
“My job is to conserve wildlife at Gwayi 3 and we monitor movement of illegal hunters as we each day have to remove snares and traps set by these poachers. When we catch such culprits we hand them over to the police,” he said. It is, however, the cyanide poachers who are causing the biggest threat to the country’s wildlife, environment and tourism.
An ecologist in the Hwange National Park, Brent Stapelkamp, said it takes less than 20 minutes for vultures to swarm a carcass from the time an animal is killed.
The chain of casualties who feed from a poisoned animal’s carcass includes hyenas, wild dogs, jackals, lions, and other “cats” of the forest. Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) spokesperson Sugar Chagonda said there can be no tourism without mentioning wildlife. “We don’t condone such unfortunate incidents in terms of our brand as a tourist destination. There can be no tourism in Zimbabwe without mentioning wildlife and nature. All we can hope for is that the law prevails by making sure such cruelty is curbed,” he said.
Chagonda said it was everyone’s responsibility to conserve the environment including wildlife. “As we speak a number of vehicles have been commissioned to the Ministry of Water, Environment and Natural Resources from India. We hope some will be allocated towards conservation. Such efforts will go a long way in ensuring that our wildlife is protected and preserved.
“We should all stand up and fight poachers because wildlife is our heritage. We all need our tourism to boom,” said Chagonda. Steady Kangata, the EMA spokesperson said it was unfortunate that a lethal substance like cyanide is being allowed into the hands of unlicensed people.
“Cyanide is a legal chemical when it’s used with a licence. The problem is there are unscrupulous businesses that are passing it to unlicensed people. Cyanide is a very lethal substance and just a small dose of it can cause massive destruction,” said Kangata. EMA has the responsibility of following up incidents of cyanide poisoning that occur anywhere in the country. They have to move in quickly to decontaminate the affected area.
Kangata said the process is very intensive as they have to make sure no elements of the chemical remain anywhere. Interestingly, Kangata said cyanide does not kill predators or scavengers by simply eating carcasses of poisoned animals. He said cyanide has an equifinality element, that is, where one phenomenon can be explained in several ways.
Animals die when they feed directly on the substance or drink the same contaminated water, he said. “The process is quite intensive because we’ve to ensure we neutralise so no other species continue to succumb. The scientific fact about cyanide is that it doesn’t accumulate and move from one animal to another as is the case with other chemicals like mercury. Those secondary predators like vultures could have eaten a carcass laced with the substance or drank from the same poisoned water,” said Kangata.
Authorities say cyanide poisoning affects the country’s environment and image. They say it has detrimental repercussions to the tourism industry. Kangata fears the lethal chemical would find its way into communities and result in loss of human life. He said EMA would remain steadfast in dealing with the handling and use of cyanide.
The environment agency is planning a swoop on licensed cyanide users to establish where the leakage is. It is also suspected that sometimes villagers in communities around national parks would kill animals in anger after losing their livestock or human life. Stapelkamp said villagers could make use of sustainable and conservation based mitigation like the use of a vuvuzela to chase away lions than to kill them.