Recently in Zimbabwe while the country was preoccupied with its general elections, the press almost completely ignored a catastrophic chemical poisoning of animals. Ivory poachers killed more than 80 elephants by poisoning water holes with cyanide. The elephants had constituted one of the world’s biggest herds, and were slaughtered in Zimbabwe’s largest park, the Hwange National Park, which is located just south of the Victoria Falls.

Because security forces were focussed on maintaining calm during and after the elections, police and rangers were slow to react and only succeeded in recovering 19 tusks, cyanide and wire snares after a sweep through villages close to the park.

“We are declaring war on the poachers,” Saviour Kasukuwere, the country’s environment minister, said. “We are responding with all our might because our wildlife, including the elephants they are killing, is part of the natural resources and wealth that we want to benefit the people of Zimbabwe.”

The first time water holes were poisoned in Zimbabwe was in June 2013, when nine elephants had their tusks removed and at least 21 other animal carcasses were discovered. The sheer lunacy of chemical poisoning is the unintended consequences. All animals and birds of prey that feast and ingest the meat of the poisoned animals are themselves poisoned and die. This chain reaction is aggravated because the elephant corpses are left to rot in the veld once the tusks are removed, as are the carcasses of the other animals. As it is often customary for local communities to cook and eat the meat of these poached animals, they too stand the risk of being poisoned. Drinking water from these water-holes would kill humans as well.

In the first case of chemical poisoning, the poison was named as “two-step”. “Sometimes [it is] called ‘two step,’ meaning the animal — once it consumes water with the poison in it — takes two steps, then it dies, very potent, and that would mean the water in which it has been placed is permanently poisoned. It’s very likely the mud itself is contaminated,” said Peter Henning, who is involved with wildlife management in south-eastern Zimbabwe, according to the Voice of America.

Chemical poisoning of animals in Asia has been going on for some time. In January this year the carcasses of 10 endangered pygmy elephants were found dead in the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve in Malaysia’s Sabah state on the island of Borneo. The reason poisoning was suspected was that the animals still had their tusks, indicating that they had not been killed by poachers, and none had gunshot wounds.

All the animals were found near each other over the space of three weeks and had suffered internal bleeding.

“It was actually a very sad sight to see all those dead elephants, especially one of the dead females who had a very young calf of about three months old. The calf was trying to wake the dead mother up,” a park veterinarian said.

There are thought to be less than 1 500 Borneo pygmy elephants still left in the wild.

On August 29, 2013, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported on the chemical poisoning of over 600 vultures in the Bwabwata National Park, in Namibia, after they had ingested poisoned elephant and Rhino corpses. According to them, these vulture poisonings were not unintended consequences, but rather intended by the poachers to stop law-enforcement officials in their tracks. By removing the vultures, which usually flock around the poached animals, wildlife rangers are denied a useful visible clue which could lead them to kills. Most of the vultures poisoned were African white-backed vultures (or Gyps Africanus), which are listed as being endangered. Aggravating matters, most of these vultures were in the middle of their breeding cycle, resulting in many orphaned chicks likely to starve without adult care.

“By poisoning carcasses, poachers hope to eradicate vultures from an area where they operate and thereby escape detection,” said Leo Niskanen of the IUCN in a press release. “The fact that incidents such as these can be linked to the rampant poaching of elephants in Africa is a serious concern. Similar incidents have been recorded in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia in recent years.”
According to the same report, agricultural poisons such as diclofenac, which are readily available to farmers and veterinarians are aggravating the problem. These chemicals, which build up in their hosts bodies, lead to kidney failure and have decimated vulture populations in India and resulted in an 85% decline in West Africa’s populations of the Ruppell’s vulture.

Obviously poaching occurs to satisfy a huge and rising demand for ivory and for rhino horn. China and some of its neighbours in South East Asia are the main markets and destinations for the harvests of these atrocities. Escalating demand particularly from a rapidly growing middle class in China and Vietnam are impelling poachers to become more brazen and ruthless in their methods. According to the Wall Street Journal, as most of the trade is illegal, the scale of it can only be assessed from customs and police confiscations and seizures.

“A container ship from Malaysia was seized in Hong Kong with cargo of African ivory worth $1.6 million. And in another example, China and Hong Kong seized more than 6500kg of ivory over the past two years. The increase in ivory smuggling is blamed on the growth in China’s huge middle class means the market for ivory has grown exponentially because more people are now able to afford it. China’s growing presence and investment in Africa has opened the door to new possibilities in illicit trading.”

Despite the best efforts by wildlife conservation groups, they wage a Sisyphean struggle due to constant wars, civil strife, political turmoil, food scarcity, famines and corruption. In many countries with large herds of elephants like the Central African Republic and Zimbabwe, animal protection has been neglected and has invariably become a secondary concern for governments struggling to exert control over vast areas. Even in well-governed countries, with well-financed game reserves, the war against poachers is reaching unprecedented ferociousness. South Africa is experiencing its bloodiest year in recorded history, with more than 700 rhinos already killed by poachers, compared to 668 for the whole of last year and only 13 in 2007.

Farmers, wildlife authorities and wildlife NGOs have to act with unparalleled haste to improvise and resort to new methods to save these animals from extinction. Anti-poaching efforts are turning to technology, such as drones, security cameras, dehorning and injecting chemical agents into the horns as well as attempting to elevate the problem from a conservation to a national security issue.

Mankind has felt entitled to harvest natural resources and has bequeathed itself a role of curatorship over the natural world. Whereas our forebears revered nature, because it completely sustained them. After the industrial revolution humankind ceased to coexist with the natural world. Pollution, being one of the consequences of industrialisation, led inexorably to the erosion of the concept of the “sacredness of nature”. Since that defining moment, no place on earth became safe from mankind on its quest to control nature and acquire wealth. Mankind is on an inexorable path to destroy the earth’s most precious creatures and thereby forfeiting its role of curatorship!


  • Ben studied at Wits, the Hebrew University, London School of Economics and University of Pretoria. He has two master’s degrees and has written four books on anthropology. He was the founding member of Jews for Justice, which took a stand against apartheid and provided assistance to victims of violence in Crossroads. He started Boston House College, a multiracial school in 1979. He currently serves as chairperson of the SA Zionist Federation in the Cape Council. He is married with four children.


Ben Levitas

Ben studied at Wits, the Hebrew University, London School of Economics and University of Pretoria. He has two master’s degrees and has written four books on anthropology. He was the founding member of...

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