AT least 500 elephants have been killed by poachers in the past five months at Hwange National Park and surrounding areas in a scandal that is said to involve senior government officials now battling to cover their tracks, investigations by The Standard have revealed.
Sources said the senior government officials, including cabinet ministers, are now threatening villagers, whom they sent to kill elephants on their behalf, so they don't reveal their names.
Some villagers are said to have been offered money to buy their silence.
"There are five ministers [names supplied] implicated in this saga, but it's difficult to nail them down because they have used threats and money to cover their tracks," said.
one source. "Some of them are said to have actually supplied cyanide to runners who in turn gave it to villagers to poison water sources."
Another source said there are "tigers and flies" in the elephant-cyanide death scandal, with the net targeting the flies, who are the villagers that were used by powerful politicians to poison the elephants on their behalf.
"The scale of the killings does point to a well-organised syndicate that cannot involve villagers alone," said the source. "It involves villagers, law enforcement agents and senior politicians but when such things break out, you don't hear about the big fish."
Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF) chairman, Johnny Rodrigues also said the extent of the elephant-poisoning scandal involved a sophisticated network of poachers that included top government officials and law enforcement agents.
"There are big fish involved," he said. "If government wants to get to the bottom of the matter, it must find a proper investigator, otherwise everything is going to be swept under the carpet and a few villagers will be sacrificed."
Already, some villagers have been jailed for 15 years for poaching.
Government says about 100 elephants have so far died of poisoning but others said the figure was too conservative.
Rodrigues said 300 elephant carcases were discovered in Tsholotsho in May, 15 in Nyagoma and 10 in the Dete area.
"There is a possibility that more will be found," he said.
MDC-T Shadow Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Thamsanga Mahlangu alleged that the poachers were connected to well-known senior Zanu PF members, the Zimbabwe Wildlife Management Authority officials and police officers.
He also claimed that some of the villagers that were arrested had been paid "as little as US$500 by the well-linked Zanu PF syndicates" to poison the water wells with the cyanide chemicals.
"While authorities have left no stone unturned in arresting villagers, they have cast a blind eye on the major players connected to government that are involved in this international syndicate of illegal trade in ivory," he said.
Police spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner, Charity Charamba denied knowledge of the involvement of senior government officials in elephant poaching.
"I don't know that [senior government officials are involved]. I am hearing it from you," she said. "What I know is a number of people have been arrested. I don't have the figure with me here."
National Parks and Wildlife Authority spokesperson, Caroline Washaya-Moyo could not be reached for comment over accusations that some of the authority's members were part of the poaching syndicate.