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

Have-a-go heroes: the women saving elephants in their free time

With one elephant killed every 25 minutes, the poaching crisis continues. But with the commitment and activism of a growing global network – dominated by women – laws and attitudes around the world are changing

If dedication and hard work were all it took, Maria Mossman would have saved every last elephant by now. Despite having two children, aged five and seven, and a part-time job for a large corporation, she also spends 35 to 40 hours a week as an unpaid activist. It was even more time when the children were younger. “I used to come home from work at about 4pm and then sit on my computer, networking with other groups and activists until two o’clock in the morning,” she recalls.

Mossman, 41, got heavily involved in elephant activism in 2013. As well as founding Action for Elephants UK (AFEUK), she’s one of the key organisers of the global elephant and rhino marches. “It’s really hard work,” she says. “Really stressful. Just before the marches you say: ‘We’re not going to do this again.’ And as soon as one is over you start planning the next one.”

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The poaching lit a fire in me. The barbarism of the act was so horrifying

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Foreign secretary confirms government’s pledge, despite absence from manifesto

A total ban on ivory sales in the UK could still be introduced by the British government, foreign secretary Boris Johnson has said, signalling a possible U-turn that has been welcomed by conservationists.

In their 2015 manifesto the Conservatives promised to “press for a total ban on ivory sales”. But the pledge was quietly taken out of this year’s Tory manifesto, sparking anger among conservation organisations, which say that by allowing the trade to continue, the UK is fuelling elephant poaching.

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