Isdore Guvamombe — THE elephant death toll from cyanide poisoning by poachers in Hwange National Park has risen to 64, amid indications the ecological disaster was the work of a syndicate sponsored by a South African businessman who used the deadly poison to kill elephants since 2009,albeit on a smaller scale, investigations have revealed.
Cyanide, is a fast-acting poison, that was stockpiled as a chemical weapon in the arsenals of both the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, and that requires up to a generation to bio-degrade on a large scale.
The poaching levels, however, reached fever pitch early this year as the nation focused on the constitutional referendum, the harmonised elections and United Nations World Tourism Organisation General Assembly, culminating in the horrendous poisoning that has claimed at least 64 elephants and other game in what Government has declared an ecological disaster.
Environmentalists say the effects of the cyanide are likely to take a generation to wear off as it is assimilated in crops and ground water to affect an even wider area from where it was administered.
The South African businessman who was only identified as Ishmael, reportedly used Chivhu farmer and businessman-cum-ivory buyer Farai Chitsa as his middleman to allegedly distribute 3kg of the deadly chemical among villagers in Pelandaba and Pumula areas of Tsholotsho.
Chitsa allegedly bought the cyanide at US$50 per kg through unorthodox means from a company in Bulawayo, circumventing laid-down dangerous substances procurement procedures that require a buyer to be licensed.
Chitsa allegedly recruited brothers, Sipho and Misheck Mafu, who in turn recruited other villagers into the syndicate that would enter the tinder dry Hwange National Park, make a salt, water and cyanide solution and either poison salt pans, where elephants normally dig holes to gambol on salty soil or fix into the ground metal and plastic containers with the deadly solution. Soon after drinking or gambolling on the solution, the elephants would die, within metres from the scene and there has been huge spiral effects befitting an ecological disaster, which has seen the death of primary predators such as lions, jackals and vultures, among others, after feeding on the contaminated carcasses.
In instances where the poachers used high concentrates of the cyanide, the level of carcass decomposition has been sporadic.
Buffalo and kudu that also frequent salt pans have been killed, although on a smaller scale.
Chitsa has since been arrested in Tsholotsho where he reportedly sought to collect elephant tusks, but ran out of luck, when a kombi he had hired to carry the contraband got stuck in the Kalahari sands.
A combined operation between police and National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority rangers has combed the communal lands and recovered 19 tusks, cyanide and wire snares.
Some of the suspects, including the Mafu brothers, have been forthcoming with information and have since been taken for indications.
"The Mafu brothers accounted for 18 elephants. But the total has come to 64. The other villager accounted for 15 alone. We discovered that some of the tusks had also been sold and for instance, the villagers were paid a paltry US$700 for nine tusks in one incident. They are doing it for that little.
"We took them for indications and they showed us all the cyanide traps and they knew each and every position. They were even leaving behind carcasses with smaller tusks," said Hwange Parks area manager My Trumber Jura.
Police Assistant Commissioner Micheck Mabunda yesterday said the joint operation with parks had been successful. "Our joint operation ended today. It was successful in that we managed to recover ivory, we managed to account for some of the culprits and we managed to get information that we can use in the future. That was very successful in my view. "Going forward, there is however, need to come up with a comprehensive patrol system which uses even helicopter flights. We need greater presence in the areas like what is done on the Botswana side.
"Our Pandematenga Border Post would be the most ideal place to operate flights from. At the moment, poachers run away from flights in Botswana and once they are in our territory, we cannot do the same. An aircraft is needed but of course, in the final analysis, ground patrols are the best for anti-poaching," he said.
This is the first poaching disaster of its kind in Zimbabwe and has forced Government to re-think and come up with new solutions to combat rampant poaching.