By Amar Toor
Poachers have begun using more subtle techniques to slaughter elephants in Zimbabwe, swapping rifles and machetes for industrial grade poison. Yesterday, a provincial court convicted three poachers on charges of using cyanide to kill scores of elephants in Zimbabwe's largest national park, sentencing each to at least 15 years in prison. Earlier this week, authorities confirmed that 87 elephants have been killed by cyanide in Hwange National Park, a total that includes the 41 poisoned animals discovered there earlier this month.
It's not entirely clear how the elephants were poisoned, though authorities believe poachers placed cyanide in areas where the animals are known to graze before seizing their valuable ivory tusks. Fifty-one tusks have been recovered thus far, officials told CNN, meaning that poachers may have escaped with more than 120. Investigations are ongoing, but officials believe the operation likely impacted other animals in the area, as well.
"Several other animals have also died, but we don't have the total number yet," Jerry Gotora, director of the Zimbabwe parks department, told AFP on Tuesday.
Elephant and rhinoceros populations have declined at alarming rates over the past few years, due in large part to surging demand for ivory in China, where the material is used for valuable carvings and traditional elixirs. Rising demand has sent prices skyward — one pound of ivory can fetch $1,300 on the black market — fueling a nefarious network of poachers across Africa. Reports suggest that ivory trade revenue has been used to fund wars and terrorist groups, including al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based militant group believed be behind last week's attack on a mall in Kenya.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) passed an international ban on ivory trading in 1989, but enforcing it has proven to be difficult. Experts believe tens of thousands of elephants are killed for their ivory every year, and evidence suggests that the trend is only worsening; in 2011, authorities seized more illegal ivory at ports than at any point since 1989, when record keeping began. More....