HWANGE, Zimbabwe - The stench of rotting elephant carcasses hangs in the air in western Zimbabwe, where wildlife officials say at least 91 elephants were poisoned with cyanide by poachers who hack off the tusks for the lucrative illegal ivory market.
Huge bones, some already bleached by the blistering sun in the Hwange National Park, litter the landscape around one watering hole where 18 carcasses were found. Officials say cyanide used in gold mining was spread by poachers over mineral-rich salt licks. They say lions, hyenas, and vultures have also died.
"The magnitude of what we are witnessing today is much higher than what has occurred previously," Environment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere told reporters in the park Monday.
Cyanide attacks the bloodstream, kills almost instantly, and causes rapid decomposition. The chemical is commonly used by illegal gold panners to separate the metal from surrounding ore.
Nine suspected poachers have been arrested in the last month after the biggest, most brutal poaching rampage on record. Three men were sentenced to up to 16 years in jail. The park, stretching over 5,400 square miles, has one of the highest concentrations of elephants in Africa.
Kasukuwere, newly appointed after disputed elections won by President Robert Mugabe in July, said Zimbabwe would intensify efforts to campaign around the globe - including Asia, where there is the highest demand for ivory - to curb a trade declared illegal by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Tusks are thought to have been smuggled into neighboring South Africa through illicit syndicates that pay desperately poor poachers a fraction of the $1,500 a kilogram (2.2 pounds) that ivory can fetch on the black market.
Thousands participate in March for Elephants
Thousands of people around the world on Friday participated in the The International March for Elephants to raise awareness about the global ivory trade and to sound the alarm that the very survival of elephants is threatened.
The event was organized by iWorry, a campaign by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
According to iWorry, one elephant is killed every 15 minutes and by 2025 they will be wiped out entirely. Data shows 2011 as the worst year on record for the illegal killing of elephants since 2002. During 2011, authorities seized more than 23 tons of ivory, which represented about 2,500 individual elephants killed.
Elephant numbers in Africa have fallen from 1.3 million in 1970s to around 400,000 today. In the Tsavo ecosystem, where the DSWT operates, there were estimated to be 45,000 elephants in 1970, but only 12,572 elephants remain.
On Friday, concerned people all over the world, from San Francisco to Africa, marched for elephants to press for a complete ban on the international and domestic trade in ivory, to invest more resources into wildlife protection at a field level, to heighten security at ports and borders and to invest in educational efforts to stop the demand for ivory.
Friday's March for Elephants included a special event at the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage in Nairobi, where a vigil was held to remember those who lost their lives in the Westgate Mall attack and to remember those elephants who have lost their lives to the ivory trade.
The orphanage is caring for 33 milk dependent infant elephants in their care, the majority of them victims of poaching, their mothers killed for their teeth.
Iworry says as long as there is a market for ivory, elephants will be cruelly killed for their teeth.
"We want everyone who loves elephants to Say No to Ivory and stand up for elephants."
Sign the petition at http://www.iworry.org/