More than 80 elephants were killed when ivory poachers poisoned their watering holes with cyanide.

The animals were struck down when 'salt licks' next to pools where they drink and bathe were contaminated with the deadly chemical.

Elephants need salt to survive and the hunters cynically knew they would be drawn to the poison. Dozens of elephants were found in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park with bloody gaps where their tusks had been ripped out.

Zimbabwe is home to some of Africa's largest elephant herds, with half of its estimated 80,000 population thought to be in Hwange. The sprawling 5,657-square mile park is one of the few places in Africa to have escaped the rapid decline in the continent's elephant population.


Police said the poachers mixed a cocktail of cyanide with salt and water and poured it on to about 35 salt licks - exposed deposits of minerals that animals use to get nutrients vital for their survival.

The poachers also buried containers of their deadly mixture on the edge of watering holes, where elephants drink and bathe, to contaminate the water supply.

When police arrived at the sites they found the mutilated bodies of elephants strewn around. However, some of the smaller elephants still had tusks in place - apparently because it had not been worth taking them. The poachers were said to have been paid £450 for every nine large tusks.

The poisonings occurred in July when the national park's security forces, which protect herds from the ever-present threat from ivory poachers, were switched to covering the Zimbabwe general election and its aftermath. There had been fears of violent demonstrations amid allegation that President Robert Mugabe's landslide victory was rigged.

Since discovering the carcasses, police and rangers have searched villages close to the park and recovered 19 tusks, cyanide and wire snares. Nine alleged poachers were arrested. A South African businessman has also been accused of being behind the poisonings.

Police claim that he used a Zimbabwean farmer and an ivory buyer to distribute cyanide to villagers.

Saviour Kasukuwere, Zimbabwe's environment minister, said the country was clamping down on ivory poachers as it tries to revive its tourism industry which has suffered years of decline. 'We are declaring war on the poachers,' he said. 'We are responding with all our might because our wildlife, including the elephants they are killing, are part of the natural resources and wealth that we want to benefit the people of Zimbabwe.'

Mr Kasukuwere said he would push for stiff penalties for convicted poachers, who routinely get less than the nine-year jail term imposed for cattle rustling.


A wide range of other animal carcasses were also found near the contaminated watering holes, including buffalo, lions, vultures, antelopes and jackals. And last night there were fears that more animals could die in coming weeks as anything that feasted on the elephants' toxic carcasses could have also become poisoned. A spokesman for the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said: 'When other animals and birds feed on the rotting elephant carcasses, they will also die from the poison. Hundreds of animals are now at risk.'

China, which accounts for 40 per cent of the world's trade in elephant tusks, is said to be one of the main markets for the Zimbabwean ivory, where it has been regarded as a symbol of wealth and status for thousands of years.

- Daily Mail