While African heads of state made measured long-range commitments to intensify anti-wildlife poaching measures at a UN summit in New York this week, conservation authorities in Zimbabwe were continuing to count the cost of what could be the single worst poaching incident on the continent in living memory.
By yesterday 91 elephant carcasses had been found in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, victims of cyanide added to salt licks at watering holes inside the reserve.
Meanwhile, reports have indicated the poison has led to widespread devastation of the ecosystems in the area, with large though at this stage untallied numbers of other wildlife including lions, zebras, wildebeest, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs and several species of birds also included in the list of victims. Especially vulnerable have been vultures feeding from elephant carcasses.
“This is the worst ecological disaster we have seen, and the fallout is going to be massive,” said Johnny Rodrigues, Chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.
“Watering holes and the ground are contaminated, and the entire wildlife food chain is threatened.
“Already predators and vultures and other bird-life species are dying from the chain reaction or secondary poisoning, and a lot more animals are going to suffer and die.”
Conservationists believe the final tally – which has steadily risen after the discovery of some 40 carcasses in August – could climb to three figures before the poisons introduced into the watering holes lose their toxicity.
Hwange covers an area of 14 650km2 and is Africa’s third largest wildlife sanctuary. The Zimbabwe Wildlife Authority employs just 50 rangers to protect the park where earlier this year it was reported the last southern white rhino at Hwange had been poached.
Hwange received no mention at this week’s UN-hosted deliberations in New York, where Gabon’s President Ali Bongo called for the appointment of a UN rapporteur on wildlife crime, a call supported by the UK and Germany among others.
Somewhat more proactive were the Zimbabwean prosecutorial authorities, arresting eight suspected poachers since August in connection with the cyanide outrage, and securing confessions from at least two suspects that elephants had been targeted for their ivory in poisoning the watering holes.
This week three of the suspects were convicted in the Hwange Regional Court. Two were sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, and an order for the restitution of $600 000 (R5.9 million) to the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe. The third was handed down a 16-year sentence with labour, and an order for restitution in the value of $200 000.
Zimbabwe’s political responses have been less pertinent, however, with Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF blaming Western sanctions for the poaching crisis. Claiming it had conducted a week-long investigation into the cyanide poisoning, government mouthpiece the Zimbabwe Herald said last week it attributed the elephant killing to “the West’s illegal economic sanctions that affected Zimbabwe’s once-vibrant wildlife management system”.
Conservation authorities have pointed out that cyanide is a highly controlled substance, and virtually unobtainable. The single exception lies in the mining sector.
In recent years, several gold mining concessions in the Hwange region have been handed out – nearly all of them to Chinese interests.
While investigators of the Hwange atrocity have not connected the provision of the cyanide to mining operators in the area, circumstantial corroboration is lent to the suspicion by organic chemist and toxicologist Gerhard Verdoorn.
According to Verdoorn, the Chinese “colonisation of parts of Africa” has led to a situation where a “very large quantity of unregistered and uncontrolled Chinese pesticides and other toxins enter Africa without any control”.
Verdoorn says the use of poisons in poaching goes back some years, and that in the past two years he has received several reports of mass poisonings of wildlife in Zimabwe, Botswana and Namibia, but has been under pressure from investigations authorities to “keep a lid on the information” in the light of ongoing investigations.
Ivory trafficking has become one of the world’s most lucrative criminal industries, with an estimated value of $7 billion to $10bn a year, nonprofit advocacy groups say.
Since 1980, the estimated population of African elephants has fallen from 1.2 million to less than 420 000. In 2012 alone, 35 000 elephants were slaughtered, data shows.
Ivory seizures data indicates that most ivory smuggled from Africa goes to China, according to Tom Milliken, an expert from world wildlife monitoring network Traffic.
Bulawayo’s Milliken, who runs the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), has tracked the illegal flow of ivory from Africa for the past 22 years.
“In every analysis that we’ve done since 2004, illegal trade in ivory has been escalating. The last time we did a major assessment, in 2009, it was escalating at a rate faster and greater than we had seen previously. Looking at large-scale ivory seizures in 2011, it’s going off the charts. There were just 13 seizures that generated over 23 tons of ivory,” he said.
On Thursday in New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a new global effort to protect Africa’s wild elephants from poaching, part of a personal crusade.
“Unless the killing stops, African forest elephants are expected to be extinct within 10 years,” Clinton said. “I can’t even grasp what a great disaster this is ecologically, but also for anyone who shares this planet to lose a magnificent creature like the African forest elephant seems like such a rebuke to our own values,” she said. - The Sunday Independent