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Rangers in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park found the dismembered bodies of 26 elephants on Tuesday, raising the tally of elephants poached in the African nation over the past month to at least 40.
Like 14 elephants discovered dead and stripped of their tusks last week, 11 of them also in Hwange, the animals found Tuesday had been poisoned with cyanide.
“Any person with wildlife at heart would be worried about the method with which these poachers are killing wildlife,” Caroline Washaya-Moyo, a spokeswoman for Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, told The Washington Post.
The poachers used blocks of industrial-grade cyanide to poison watering holes and salt licks favored by Hwange’s elephants, she said.
“Aside from the elephants they are targeting, there other species that they have no interest in that are also dying,” Washaya-Moyo said.
So far, no one has been arrested in connection to the 40 elephant killings.
Washaya-Moyo called for international assistance in stemming the surge in elephant slaughter.
But her comments came just three days after her boss, environment minister Oppah Muchinguri, blamed the United States for Zimbabwe’s most recent poaching outbreak.
Although 26 elephants died in the most recent bout of poisoning, poachers only made off with seven of the precious tusks, Washaya-Moyo told The Post via telephone from Hwange National Park. The bandits, likely startled by a patrol plane, left behind 14 tusks. Meanwhile, several of the dead elephants were too young to have tusks.
The surge in elephant slaughter is startling but not unprecedented. In 2013, as many as 300 elephants were killed in Hwange after poachers laced salt licks with cyanide.
Washaya-Moyo wasn’t clear why poaching had returned in such force all of a sudden.
“I think there are pressures building now,” she said. “It had been down [for the past two years]. It had been quiet for some time. Now it has started rearing its ugly head.”
Her boss, environment minister Muchinguri, didn’t mince words on Monday, however, when she laid the blame at the feet of the United States.
“All this poaching is because of American policies,” she said, apparently in reference to a 2014 U.S Fish & Wildlife Service ban on the import of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe. After the death of Cecil the lion, America’s three largest airlines also banned the transport of lion, leopard, elephant, rhino or buffalo killed by trophy hunters.
“They are banning sport hunting,” she added, according to the Guardian. “An elephant would cost $120,000 in sport hunting but a tourist pays only $10 to view the same elephant,” depriving the country of revenue to fight poaching.
Washaya-Moyo said she couldn’t comment on her boss’s statement, but she agreed with Muchinguri that Zimbabwe is in sore need of resources to fight poaching.
“As an authority we are financially constrained,” she said. “Our resources are constrained.”
“Hwange is huge, really huge,” she said. “There is only one plane that is carrying out aerial surveillance. Imagine if we had two or three. The poachers wouldn’t have the guts to go into Hwange and carry out these illegal activities.”
Hwange Park rangers look at a rotting elephant carcass on Sept. 29, 2013. That year, almost 300 elephants were poached in the park. (AP Photo)
Washaya-Moyo said Zimbabwe had been harshly judged for recent incidents of poaching, including the July 1 killing of Cecil the lion by American dentist Walter Palmer.
“We managed to conserve Cecil for a good 13 years,” Washaya-Moyo said. “We should be given some credit for that matter.”
She added that Zimbabwean hunter Theo Bronkhorst, who helped Palmer kill Cecil, is appearing in court Thursday on charges relating to the lion’s poaching. “We wait to see the outcome of that particular court case,” she said.
“If we are criticized, let me now appeal to the international community,” Washaya-Moyo added. “Zimbabwe is now [prepared] to take care of its wildlife for its own people, that is, for domestic tourists. We are now taking care of wildlife for the region and for the international community. So that responsibility should expand to the international community that is criticizing us when we are operating under very difficult circumstances. They [should] come on board and help us with the resources.”
Hwange sits along the border with Botswana, she pointed out.
“That unto itself should serve as a wake-up call to say to regional forces that as managers of wildlife, we really need to share information,” she warned. “We really need to share intelligence… so that it doesn’t spill to other countries.”
Washaya-Moyo also bridled at mention of Zimbabwe’s recent decision to sell almost 200 young elephants to China for use in circuses.
She claimed that similar reports of other countries in Africa selling elephants abroad had not elicited the same international outrage.
“It doesn’t matter if it is Zimbabwe, Swaziland, South Africa or any other country for that matter,” she said. “As long as we meet the rules and regulations, and as long as we are allowed to sell elephants, it doesn’t matter which country we sell them to. I think we should be allowed as part of the conservation effort. You should see the amount of destruction these elephants are causing in Hwange.”
At the same time, Washaya-Moyo admitted that part of Zimbabwe’s poaching problem is the struggle by officials to persuade citizens to think of wild animals as a precious resource, rather than mere pests.
“The starting point is that communities have to realize the useful benefits of wildlife,” she said. “The minute that they do that, they are going to act as security around this wildlife. But if they continue to complain that their fields are being disturbed by elephants, their livestock is attacked by lions, they will see no reason why they should protect these animals.”
The Hwange spokeswoman said that Zimbabwe could also address the surge in elephant poaching by cracking down on access to poison.
“Cyanide comes into the country specifically for mining purposes,” she said. “Individuals are now repackaging that illegally. So we need to work on a system or laws that deter people from illegally repackaging cyanide.”
Joyce Poole, co-founder of ElephantVoices, a Kenya-based research and advocacy organization, said she hoped Zimbabwe would take the recent elephant deaths seriously.
“Elephants have extremely good sense of smell, so it is surprising that they are not able to detect [the cyanide],” Poole said in an email to The Post. “Perhaps they have not yet learned to associate the smell/taste with danger. Whatever the reason, it is an extremely worrying trend.
“The Zimbabwean authorities will have to deliver harsh sentences for those behind this,” she warned, “otherwise it could easily get out of control and spell disaster for elephants and wildlife in general.”