Gil Aegerter / NBC News
Elephants at a watering hole in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.
Almost 90 elephants have been slaughtered by poachers who poisoned them with industrial cyanide, authorities in Zimbabwe said Wednesday.
Rangers in the Hwange National Park discovered the carcasses of more than 40 of the gentle giants earlier this month and they continue to find bodies in recent weeks.
Park spokesperson Caroline Washaya-Moyo told NBC News that 87 corpses had been found so far, all with their tusks removed.
“Industrial cyanide used in gold mining was put in remote water holes and on salty ground that the elephants like to lick after drinking the water,” she said. “The poison was killing them and they were taking the tusks.”
She added that smaller animals, vultures and predators feeding on the dead animals had also died as a result of the poison, adding that they feared more elephant victims would be found in the park, around 450 miles west of the country's capital, Harare.
“We are going to take samples from the elephant carcasses to a lab for testing,” she said. “We are determined to find out what happened.”
Nine Zimbabwean nationals were arrested August 29, after rangers tracked them to a cache of ivory and Washaya-Mayo said five remain in custody and police to investigate.
They are expected to face trial later this week.
She added that 51 tusks, from a possible 174 had so far been recovered.
Drew McVey, African species expert at the World Wildlife Fund called the killings “truly horrendous” and called for urgent action to be taken against the poaching.
“This kind of indiscriminate killing is truly horrendous. By poisoning a watering hole, poachers condemn every other animal feeding in that vicinity – from lions and leopards to vultures and bird life,” he said.
“It just goes to show the lengths poachers are now willing to go to in order to obtain ivory without detection.”
The organisation said 2011 saw the highest number of elephant deaths due to poaching since the 1980's and they expected that to get worse this year.
Zimbabwe's state media reported Tuesday that newly-appointed environment minister Saviour Kasukuwere has vowed harsher jail penalties for poachers.
They already face fines of up to $50,000 USD for every elephant killed and long jail terms according to Washaya-Mayo.
“We are determined to find all the tusks to stop people hunting these beautiful creatures,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published September 25 2013, 2:31 PM