HARARE, Zimbabwe, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- Poachers killed at least 81 elephants and an unknown number of buffaloes and kudus by planting poison in a Zimbabwe national park, government officials said.
Although six people were arrested two weeks ago, the scale of the cyanide-poisoning operation has gradually become known as more elephant carcasses were discovered in the Hwange National Park, China's state-run news agency Xinhua reported Tuesday.
Zimbabwean officials warned of "huge spiral effects" because primary predators such as lions and vultures, as well as other animals feeding on contaminated carcasses would be poisoned as well.
Police said the poaching syndicate, led by a South African businessman, mixed a cocktail of cyanide, salt and water and poured it onto about 35 salt licks at watering holes frequented by elephants. They also would place containers of the deadly mixture into holes they dug near other watering spots.
Savior Kasukuwere, Zimbabwe's minister of environment, water and climate, declared war against poaching, saying the country has "zero tolerance."
"We must put a stop to this. We cannot continue with this nonsense," he told Zimbabwe's state-run media.
Hwange, a sprawling 5,657-square mile park, is home to about 50,000 African elephants. Poaching has caused a rapid decline in the continent's elephant population, but Zimbabwe is one of a few countries still with a significant elephant presence.
The Zimbabwean government allows ivory trade domestically, but heavily restricts ivory products' export, Xinhua said. People convicted of poaching face a jail term of up to 11 years.