Poison Poaching

Updated: Mar 27, 2018

By Ananszah Goodie, Writer

While the fight to end poaching continues, poachers are finding new ways to kill their targets and avoid capture.

Poachers are now using poison as a more covert means of killing animals for their ivory and furs (1, 2, 3, 4). This new form of illegal hunting makes it harder to track poachers and also threatens other animal populations and their environments.

Since 2000, some African nations, including South Africa (2), have made increased efforts to control firearm sales in their countries. This ever-increasing crack down, coupled with the ease of recognizing the sound of rifle fire and an increased ability for law enforcement to track poachers with ballistics, is leading poachers across the African continent to look for more covert techniques like cyanide to kill with.

These deadly chemicals have been found in the watering holes of wild and reserve animals, leading investigators to suspect poachers are the cause. This deadly tactic is indiscriminate, not only killing the targeted animals but killing the entire ecosystem around them. Unlike conventional poaching with rifles, this tactic kills en masse. In 2013, 115 Elephants were poisoned in a single incident in Hwange national park in Zimbabwe.

Poisoning just one watering hole can kill dozens of lions, elephants, hippo and other large bodied mammals alongside hundreds more scavenging animals who die from eating the remains. Dr Darcy Ogada of the IUCN Vulture Specialist Group and Assistant Director of Africa Programs at The Peregrine Fund, reported, at the UN Environmental Assembly in 2016, that a single elephant poisoning had resulted in the death of approximately 500 endangered vultures. With the rise of cyanide-laced carcasses, it’s approximated that some vulture species could go extinct in the next 55-62 years (12).

“Vultures and other birds play a critical role in maintaining healthy ecosystems,” said Simon Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. “Their decline can have serious knock-on effects on other species and the many benefits provided by nature..”

Given vultures consume up to 70% of a carcass, the absence of vulture populations results in carcasses remaining for far longer periods of time. Between 1993 and 2006, India experienced an almost complete loss in vulture populations due to chemical poisoning, resulting in cow carcasses remaining for longer periods of time (6, 7, 8). This subsequently lead to other scavenger populations rising, and an increased outbreak of human-borne diseases bolstered by the increased presence of rodents, other scavengers, and the bacteria they carry (6, 7, 8). Costing an estimated $34 billion in health costs (5).

Under Zimbabwe’s Hazardous Substance Act, cyanide can only be sold by accredited chemical substance dealers to customers in the mining and chemical industry. The customers, mostly gold miners, are then required to produce written proof that they’re authorized to handle and use it. Other African nations including South Africa also have similar laws and procedures.

While substance control laws for cyanide and similar chemicals should make it more difficult to get ahold of these poisons, they have proven to be ineffective. The laws are mainly for accidental industrial spillage rather than purposeful poisoning. In addition, many countries in Africa don’t monitor the chemicals after they have been purchased, which has played into the copious availability of cyanide in Africa’s black market.

To discourage poachers from using cyanide, changes in substance law are needed along with tougher enforcement. With tighter chemical laws, it will be harder for these criminal vendors to get product, forcing poachers to look overseas for a supplier. This would increase the difficulty for poachers to access the poison and increase law enforcement’s chances of catching them.

These poisoning events are a threat to both humans and animals alike. Though rangers work together to handle contaminated watering holes and repair the damage, their work can’t be done in isolation.

If nothing is done to limit this cyanide abuse than the wildlife of Africa face a silent genocide.


1. Cruise, A. 2017 “Ten more elephants poisoned by poachers in Zimbabwe”. The Guardian. Accessed 16/11/2017. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/20/ten-more-elephants-poisoned-by-poachers-in-zimbabwe

2. Nkala, N. 2015 “How black-market poison is helping poachers kill animals”. National Geographic. Accessed 16/11/2017. URL: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/11/151124-zimbabwe-elephants-cyanide-poaching-hwange-national-park-africa/

3. France-Presse, Agence. 2017 “Nambia says anthrax could be to blame for deaths of more than 100 hippos”. The Guardian. Accessed 16/11/2017. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/09/namibia-hippos-anthrax-national-park

4. Thornycroft, Peta. 2013 “Poachers kill 300 Zimbabwe elephants with cyanide”. The Daily Telegraph. Accessed 16/11/2017. URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/zimbabwe/10390634/Poachers-kill-300-Zimbabwe-elephants-with-cyanide.html

5. Markandya, A., T. Taylor, A. Longo, M. N. Murty, S. Murty, and K. Dhavala. 2008. Counting the cost of vulture decline—- An appraisal of the human health and other benefits of vultures in India. Ecological Economics 67:194–204.

6. Pain, D. J., A. A. Cunningham, P. F. Donald, J. W. Duckworth, D. C. Houston, T. Katzner, J. Parry-Jones, C. Poole, V. Prakash, P. Round, and R. Timmins. 2003. Causes and effects of temporospatial declines of Gypsvultures in Asia. Conservation Biology 17:661–671

7. Green, R. E., I. Newton, S. Shultz, A. A. Cunnignham, M. Gilbert, D. J. Pain, and V. Prakash. 2004. Diclofenac poisoning as a cause of vulture population declines across the Indian subcontinent. Journal of Applied Ecology 41:793–800

8. Oaks, J. L., M. Gilbert, M. Z. Virani, R. T. Watson, C. U. Meteyer, B. A. Rideout, H. L. Shivaprasad, S. Ahmed, M. J. I. Chaudhry, M. Arshad, and Others. 2004. Diclofenac residues as the cause of vulture population decline in Pakistan. Nature 427:630–633