Poachers In Zimbabwe Poison 87 Elephants For Their Ivory

By Josh Lieberman on September 26, 2013 12:26 PM EDT

elephant baby
Poachers laced watering holes in Zimbabwe with cyanide, causing the death of 87 elephants. Elephant carcasses were found stripped of their tusks, which are illegally trafficked for their ivory. (Photo: Reuters)

Poachers at Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park have poisoned scores of elephants by lacing the park's salt licks with cyanide. 87 elephant carcasses have been found in the park stripped of their valuable tusks, which are illegally trafficked for their ivory. Of the 174 tusks authorities believe were taken, 51 have been recovered by police searching nearby villages.

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"Industrial cyanide used in gold mining was put in remote water holes and on salty ground that the elephants like to lick after drinking the water," park spokesperson Caroline Washaya-Moyo told NBC News. "The poison was killing them and they were taking the tusks."  

The 5,657-square-mile Hwange is home to an estimated 80,000 elephants and is one of the few places in Zimbabwe where the elephant population hasn't dwindled. The park's elephant population is protected by security forces; in July, when security was pulled from the park to assist with Zimbabwe's general election, the poachers struck.

A number of other animals have died from the cyanide, including buffalo, lions and antelopes. A spokeswoman for that Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force also worried that more animal deaths are forthcoming.

"When other animals and birds feed on the rotting elephant carcasses, they will also die from the poison. Hundreds of animals are now at risk," said Johnny Rodrigues, the Task Force's chairman.

Saviour Kasukuwere, the country's environment minister, said the poachers will be aggressively pursued. Indeed, earlier today three of the poachers were sentenced to up to 16 years in prison. They were convicted of discharging a hazardous substance and possession of ivory.

"We are declaring war on the poachers," said Kasukuwere. "We are responding with all our might because our wildlife, including the elephants they are killing, are part of the natural resources and wealth that we want to benefit the people of Zimbabwe."

Africa's elephant population, once numbering three to five million, shrunk in the 1980s as 100,000 elephants were killed each year for their ivory, bringing the population down to 600,000 by 1987. With Asia's demand for ivory still strong, elephant poaching in southern and eastern Africa remains a problem. The problem is particularly acute when poachers kill old matriarchs. These oldest females of a herd provide a "social glue" for the herd and, attractively for poachers, have the largest tusks. The death of an old matriarch can lead to the disruption or even breaking apart of a herd.

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