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Ivory Without a Single Gunshot: The Hidden World of Cynanide Poaching

Cyanide is everywhere — in plastics, almonds, the pits of apricots and peaches — but it’s only deadly when consumed in large doses. Over the past few weeks, poachers in Zimbabwe have killed nearly forty (40) elephants by poisoning their water supply and salt pans with a lethal amount of cyanide in Matusadona and at Hwange National Park.

Postmortem reports determined the cause of death for these elephants was indeed an overdose of cyanide, and some were found with their tusks removed. Others still had their tusks, suggesting the poachers were somehow disrupted during their heartless mission.

Two vultures were also found dead, possibly from scavenging a poisoned elephant, though it is uncertain whether any other animals have been affected.

Photo Credit: Gary M. Stolz/USFWS

Photo Credit: Gary M. Stolz/USFWS

Although this news is shocking, it’s certainly not original.

In 2013, also at Hwange, poachers killed over 300 elephants with cyanide, and an unknown number of other animals in one of the worst wildlife massacres in recorded history.

Zimbabwe’s Water and Climate Minister, Oppah Muchinguri, places the blame for the most recent elephant poisonings on the United States.

According to the U.S. News and World Report, Muchingui said, “All this poaching is because of American policies — they are banning sport hunting. An elephant would cost $12,000 in sport hunting but a tourist pays only $10 to view the same elephant.”

Muchinguri is referring to the April 2014 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to put an indefinite suspension on the import of wildlife “trophies” from Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

This of course occurred after the mass elephant slaughter of 2013, and Kenya — the only country in Africa to outright ban trophy hunting — has seen much greater profits from ecotourism than Zimbabwe sees from sport hunting, according to an IUCN report.

Photo Credit: Gary M. Stolz/USFWS

Photo Credit: Gary M. Stolz/USFWS

Since more money can be made from ecotourism than trophy hunts, it’s still unclear what Muchinguri’s motivations are for allowing, and even encouraging the deaths of elephants.

The assailants of the most recent case of cyanide poaching remain at large. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s other elephants continue to be in danger of death by poachers and exploitation by the Zimbabwean government.

You can help. If you want to directly donate, just $5 will help fund anti-poaching coalitions. We also offer the free action of signing a petition to end Zimbabwe’s sale of kidnapped elephant calves. Or you can share this post to raise awareness and empathy for elephants, which they need now more than ever. Choose below to help stop the madness.

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Matthew M. Sullivan holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Grand Valley State University, with emphases in fiction and nonfiction. He lives smack-dab between some railroad tracks and Grand Rapids Michigan's third-busiest road, and spends his time studying film and literary fiction.