A policeman has died after he was accidentally shot in western Zimbabwe during a chase of four men suspected of killing elephants with cyanide, a conservation group said on Monday.
The officer, whose name has not yet been released, was hit when a colleague’s gun accidentally went off as they were pursuing the suspected ivory poachers near Sinamatella, the Bhejane Trust said in a statement.
The death has not yet been confirmed by the authorities.
“Very unfortunately the one detail had an accidental discharge in the chase vehicle, and hit the other ZRP [Zimbabwe Republic Police] detail, who has subsequently died,” the trust said.
The incident happened on Saturday night. The policeman reportedly died on Sunday morning.
Four elephants and a number of small birds were found dead at a waterhole near Sinamatella in Hwange last week in what appeared almost certainly to be another case of poisoning with cyanide.
Poachers lace waterholes or salt-licks near waterholes with the deadly poison, which acts almost immediately. Zimbabwe lost at least 200 elephants this way in Hwange in 2013 and another 60 or so last year.
The most recent cyanide poisoning was reported in May in Gwaai Forest, near Hwange. Since then there have been no recorded cases of this type of poisoning so this report will worry conservationists. Many of the cyanide poisonings in the past have taken place in the last four months of each year, when the land is at its driest.
“The poisoning wasn’t in the [Hwange National] park. It was just outside the park, on the Lukosi River,” Trevor Lane of the Bhejane Trust said.
Zimbabwe’s national parks and wildlife management authority is investigating the tragedy.
It will revive memories of two Italians shot dead earlier this year in Mana Pools when they were mistaken for poachers by state rangers. The father and son were helping out with an anti-poaching operation.
President Robert Mugabe’s government insists that Zimbabwe has too many elephants, putting the total at more than 80 000. But high levels of poaching in some areas are a huge threat, with one report suggesting that the overall elephant population in the country had gone down by 6.8% between 2011 and 2014.