Who is killing Zimbabwe's elephants?

The elephant died in agony. When they found his body, his eyes were closed, and a stream of blood trickled from his trunk.

He was a middle-aged male, one of 40 elephants poisoned in Zimbabwe in recent weeks.

"I get choked up, even as I speak," said Debbie Ottman of the Kariba Animal Welfare Fund Trust in Zimbabwe. She was one of the animal welfare activists who found the carcasses of three elephants near the town of Kariba in northern Zimbabwe late last month; the pachyderms later tested positive for cyanide poisoning. "It makes me very angry and very emotional."

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The killer baited oranges with cyanide, which is used in illegal gold mining and which was found in the gut of the male elephant.

Rampant poaching, coupled with legal hunting, has decimated populations in many areas, with 100,000 elephants killed in Africa from 2011 to 2013, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Tanzania's elephant population plummeted by 60% to 43,330 in the five years ending in 2014, according to the Great Elephant Census, carried out by a coalition of wildlife groups. Mozambique lost half its elephants in the same period, falling to 10,300.

The statistics underscore the toxic mix of determined criminal gangs, corrupt government officials and a strong market for smuggled ivory in Asia — particularly in China, which has deepened its economic ties to Africa in recent years.

News of the spate of Zimbabwe cyanide poisonings, blamed on poachers, comes as conservationists report that a well-known elephant from South Africa's Kruger National Park, one of the park's biggest tuskers, is feared to have been killed by hunters in recent days after wandering across the border into Zimbabwe.

South African wildlife group, the Conservation Action Trust, said a huge bull elephant killed by hunters in Zimbabwe was probably Nkombo, who was collared some years ago in Kruger National Park but lost his collar last year. The trust said hunting websites were abuzz with excitement about the killing of the animal with 122-pound tusks, adding it was probably the biggest bull killed since 1986.

After 14 elephants were killed by cyanide in the last week and in late September, Zimbabwean authorities Wednesday announced that 26 more had been found poisoned in recent days at two sites in Hwange National Park, famous for its elephants.

In Zimbabwe's current desperately dry and harsh conditions, the poachers placed salt laced with cyanide near wildlife watering holes, killing not only the elephants but other animals too, including predators feeding off the pachyderms' carcasses.

Zimbabwe's economic crisis has exacerbated the poaching spree, as criminal gangs move in, luring the rangers who are supposed to protect the animals into either offering information or even killing the animals. Authorities recently arrested several wildlife officials for involvement in poaching of elephants. Five men questioned over the cyanide poisoning in Hwange National Park were all living in staff quarters at the park base camp.

Dave Dell of Friends of Hwange, which raises donations to run pumps for about 80 watering holes in Hwange National Park, said cyanide poisoning was again increasing, after an incident two years ago in which up to 300 elephants were poisoned.

"The authorities are doing their best. We are doing our best to clamp down on it. But the situation in this country is so desperate that people will go and do something stupid for $100," he said.

"These animals have got feelings and emotions. It's not really about numbers," he added.

The elephants traveling in family groups are attracted to the water and salt, he said.

"Usually they don't get more than 100 meters" after taking the poison, he added. "The suffering is horrible. They get weak very quickly and collapse. You might not die quickly, but you don't walk very far."

The elephants poisoned near Kariba all had their tusks, so authorities believe a poaching attempt was botched or interrupted.

The older bull elephants are most prized by poachers, and hunters, because of their enormous tusks. But they play an important social role, socializing young bulls in acceptable herd behavior.

"They're like old gentlemen," said Dell. "They're iconic. They're very well known and very well mannered. Some of them have nicknames. Sometimes I'll be fishing and one will walk right by me, just a meter away. They're just old guys who have become habituated to people.

However, the cyanide poisoning is indiscriminate and often kills mothers and calves with no tusks.

Tom Milliken, director of Traffic for Southern Africa based in Harare, Zimbabwe, said criminals seem to be using cyanide because it is readily available and stealthier than high-powered rifles.

"Most ivory from Africa makes its way to Asia, and within Asia, China's middle class seems to have an insatiable appetite for ivory right now and we are paying the consequences here in Africa."

The killers, he said, are usually poor villagers. They pass tusks to African middlemen, who sell to Asian criminals based in Africa. Recently, numerous Chinese nationals had been arrested in Hong Kong after flying out of Harare with ivory strapped to their bodies, he said.

"Since the millennium, the presence of China in Africa had just grown exponentially every year. Today there are millions of Chinese nationals living in Africa. Almost a day doesn't go by when there's not a headline about a Chinese national involved in the illegal wildlife trade. It's become a huge embarrassment to China."

President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last month announced plans to almost completely ban the ivory trade.

Tanzania last week arrested a Chinese businesswoman, Yang Fenglan, 66, also known as the "Queen of Ivory," accused of involvement in millions of dollars in ivory deals. Yang has been in Tanzania since the 1970s, when she arrived as an interpreter on a Chinese rail project.

In May, Mozambican authorities seized 340 tusks, or 2,650 pounds of ivory, and 65 rhino horns. Two Chinese nationals were arrested, one of whom is also accused of offering police a $34,000 bribe to drop the charges.

Milliken said Chinese authorities were beginning to take tougher action against their citizens caught smuggling elephant tusks or rhino horn, but more needed to be done.

"The real gap in their law enforcement is they need a focus here in Africa," he said.

Milliken said Chinese authorities could help African police interrogate Chinese nationals accused of involvement in wildlife trafficking and analyze Chinese language data on their phones and computers, to enable accomplices to be arrested.

In Zimbabwe, some of those who have spoken out against corrupt government officials involved in poaching, ivory smuggling and illegal hunting have received death threats.

"You have to fight it quietly, behind the scenes," said one, who requested anonymity because of past threats. "Until there's a change in our economic situation or a change in our government situation, it's going to be a resource they're going to plunder until there's nothing left."

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