Well, this is horrible. Yesterday rangers at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park discovered 26 dead elephants who’d been intentionally poisoned with cyanide for the purposes of ivory harvesting, reports The Guardian. And this is in addition to another 14 found last week.

From the report:

A parks spokeswoman, Caroline Washaya Moyo, said 14 tusks had been recovered from these elephants but the others had not been recovered. She said rangers had found 16 of the elephants in the Lupande area and 10 others in Chakabvi.

Rangers also recovered more than two pounds of cyanide left behind—the working theory is nearby ranger patrols spooked the poachers into leaving without collecting all the tusks or their surplus cyanide. Cyanide is apparently widely used in mining in Zimbabwe and is easily obtained, making it a favored weapon of poachers, who killed some 300 elephants in 2013 by lacing salt pans.

Oppah Muchinguri, Zimbabwe’s environment, water, and climate minister, recently pointed the finger at the U.S. when identifying the factors influencing a surge in poaching:

“All this poaching is because of American policies. They are banning sport hunting. An elephant would cost $120,000 in sport hunting but a tourist pays only $10 to view the same elephant,” she said, adding that money from sport hunting was crucial in conservation efforts.

This is an uncomfortable daily reality of conservation efforts in central Africa: local game reserves charge wealthy tourists boatloads of cash to hunt protected animals, and at least some of that money goes back into maintaining the reserves, which, for the most part, are the only protected habitats left.

You will recall the case of Corey Knowlton, who earlier this year paid $350,000 for an auctioned ticket to hunt and kill a black rhino. News of this transaction made a pariah of Knowlton throughout much of the Western world, but did not stop him from making the trip to Namibia and killing an older male rhino. There is clearly still a lucrative business in auctioning big game hunting tickets to American sportsmen.

What’s interesting about Muchinguri’s statement is the cause-and-effect relationship she’s suggesting—it’s hard to know exactly how allowing Americans to trophy-hunt elephants would have an impact on the lucrative international ivory market. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is “undertaking a series of administrative actions to implement a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory trade” to combat illegal poaching on game reserves. The latest proposed rule change is targeted specifically at ivory from African elephants, in recognition of the recent spike in poaching.

Muchinguri seems to be suggesting that a more efficient way to disrupt the black market for African elephant ivory would be for the U.S. to allow big game hunters to buy hunting tickets and import this ivory from trophy hunts, thereby providing funds to conservation efforts in Africa and getting legally harvested ivory into the marketplace.

It’s a tricky situation, all the way around. What’s clear, though, is conservation of protected animals is expensive. It would sure be wonderful if the Corey Knowltons of the world would as willingly give hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the cause without first requiring a blood sacrifice.

[The Guardian] [FWS]

Photo via AP