The deliberate poisoning of more than 40 elephants in the Hwange National Park has sparked outcry across the world, with a growing chorus of voices demanding that stricter poaching penalties be implemented.
The elephants died after members of a suspected poaching syndicate laced salt with the toxic chemical cyanide and distributed the salt in a drinking pool used by elephants in Hwange. The carcasses of the animals were discovered late last month after park rangers heard gunshots within the park.
Investigations by the police resulted in the grisly discovery of the elephants, with their tusks removed. Further investigations led the police to nearby Mafu homestead, where six suspected members of the poaching gang were arrested and 17 elephant tusks were recovered.
The story has made international news headlines and around the world people have been calling for tough measures to be taken to punish the poachers and prevent a further incident like this from happening.
Johnny Rodrigues, the Chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, said that current poaching penalties are “very lenient,” and often “nothing more than a slap on the wrist.” He told SW Radio Africa that while stricter anti-poaching laws are necessary, this was only part of a much bigger problem.
“The main problem we have is with high unemployment. There is a market for people to be paid by syndicates to kill the animals, in return for ready money,” Rodrigues said.
He explained that it is desperation more than criminality that is fuelling the poaching crisis, with even National Parks staff (who have not been paid in many months) sometimes being implicated in providing poachers with information, in return for cash.
“There’s a thriving market in Zimbabwe for poaching syndicates and it is disgusting. This (the incident in Hwange) will have a huge impact on other animals, especially your scavengers like vultures who eat the meat and then also die,” Rodrigues said.
He added: “There is also a human side, because people, if they find it, will take the meat and eat it. So it’s not just the animals at risk here.”
Although it cannot be confirmed where this syndicate accessed the cyanide, observers who spoke to SW Radio Africa said it was no coincidence that many of the gold mining firms in Zimbabwe are Chinese run and cyanide has been used for years in Zimbabwe’s gold mining industry. The highly toxic substance is used to separate the gold from the ore it is contained in.
And, as Rodrigues said: “There are so many Chinese in Zimbabwe with ready money who are interested in getting their hands on the ivory.”