Cyanide, Elephants and Waterholes – Neutralizing the Threat

There have been reports over the past several weeks that 66 elephants have been poisoned by cyanide in waterholes in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. This also means that every other animal that has taken a drink at these waterholes has also died, as well as the vultures that devoured the poisoned carcasses.

cyanideCyanide is used around the world by the mining industry so it is readily available, in substantial quantities, in Southern Africa. Hydrogen cyanide was used in the Nazi extermination camps in World War II where it was known as Zyklon B. Cyanide is also found in the roots of the cassava plant which can cause poisoning without the proper preparation.  When cyanide comes in contact with water, hydrogen cyanide is created.

There are no precise dosage numbers for the amount of cyanide needed to kill an elephant. An article posted in Toledo Weekly Blade on December 1, 1910 reported that it took “500 grains” of cyanide to put down, Gypsy Queen, a circus elephant who had killed her trainer.

Clearly, based on the dosages needed to kill a human, we are looking at just hundreds of parts per million/kilogram, a minute amount, to take down an elephant.


How then can a waterhole poisoned by cyanide be decontaminated ?


There are many chemicals, such as peroxides, hypochlorites or sulfur dioxide, that can neutralize cyanide. However, the addition of more chemicals to a waterhole may have deleterious and unintended consequences as well as being costly and difficult to administer.

The Chemistry Department at the University of Maryland’s College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences has an idea which is faster, better and cheaper than a chemically based decontamination solution.


Simply stated, put a pump in the waterhole and spray the pond water into the air on a sunny day.


The ultraviolet radiation (UV) in sunlight will help to accelerate the volitization of the hydrogen cyanide by breaking down strong iron cyanide compounds. This will serve to remove cyanide ions from the water.

All that is needed is a water pump, a power source –solar panels or a diesel engine, and a spray fountainhead.  For a few hundreds of dollars, we can take immediate steps to start cleaning up these watery death traps.

At the same time, African governments and industries that use cyanide must take steps to control the access and distribution of this deadly poison. There is absolutely no reason that cyanide should be a poison of choice in Zimbabwe or in any other nation on the Continent.


Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 10.38.50 AMDr. Thomas Snitch is Chairman of the Board of Visitors at the University of Maryland’s College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences and is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. His research is focused on using science and math to combat conservation crimes.


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Original article by Dr. Thomas Snitch

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