HomeOpinionOf poachers, cyanide and jumbos: Naked foolhardiness of mankind

Of poachers, cyanide and jumbos: Naked foolhardiness of mankind

Ramadan Suleman’s acclaimed film Fools begins with a mentally challenged man in rags, walking down a hill. Some brilliant piece of camerawork follows. The camera is panned to the left atop a hill, revealing a densely populated urban settlement. The camera is zoomed out to an orange backdrop signalling the crack of dawn.

Brian Hungwe Journalist

Then echoes of the challenged man’s soliloquy: “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This Biblical verse seems to embrace the urban settlement, Charteston Township, as it waits for yet another day to crack open like an egg to the emerging yellowing yolk.

Rape in this township isn’t a crime. That’s what often poverty does to people. Some criminal indifference envelopes and silences reason, devouring the conscience of this community.

There are fools there. And there are plenty in our everyday lives, particularly here.

That rape is a heinous crime is an issue lost in their minds. Yet they live, eat and walk with clear conscience. That they have to be forgiven remains the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness.

The naked foolishness of mankind will be re-examined shortly. From foolishness, let’s historically revisit the human mind’s propensity for callousness.

In December 2011, I travelled to Germany’s Auschwitz Nazi Concentration Camp. It’s preserved for posterity. The place hasn’t rested, even in death. The psychological gravity of the evil spell cast by Adolf Hitler shadows you during the entire duration of the visit. Germany doesn’t mind reminding others of the horrifying chapter of it’s own dark history instigated by the Fuhrer. Gas chambers where millions met their fate and deaths are still there for all to see.

It was cyanide that was used to kill mankind, by his own kind.

But it wasn’t until I read a graphic eye-witness account by Dr Miklos Nyiszli at Auschwitz that I began to appreciate a human mind’s inclination to evil proclivities that tend to trespass the ordinary boundaries of rationality and logic. Nyiszli was a medical doctor at the Nazi camp, abducted against his will, and forced to perform some ghastly experiments there. He came face-to-face with the devil, and lived to tell us how he looked like. The tiny book is called Auschwitz: Dr Miklos Nyiszli’s Eyewitness Account of the Atrocities Committed Inside the Most Terrible Nazi Death Camps.

Our occasional subscription to the devil’s commandments frequently emasculates all forms of decent human reasoning. In the late 1940s, Nyiszli’ says he saw 3 000 Jews arrive at Auschwitz by train. The human convoy included parents, children on their mother’s back, some with eyes heavy with sleep. They had travelled for about a week by train.

Soon after arrival, they were ushered into a yard, and a booming voice ordered everyone to undress.

“The aged, grandfathers and mothers, the children, wives and husbands were struck dump with surprise. Modest women and girls looked at each questioningly … The order was resounded again, this time in a louder, in a more menacing tone. They were uneasy, their dignity rebelled. They slowly began to undress. In 10 minutes all were completely naked.”

Before long, they were ushered into an underground room, and “doors were swung shut and lights switched off.”

Cyanide gas was often used at Nazi camp to put some victims to their death. In the execution of Jews at Auschwitz, cyanide gas (Zyklon B) was used. It became a chemical of death during the Holocaust.

Nyiszli further stated that a Nazi deputy health officer, “donned his gas mask”, and he lifted the lid of a pipe going down from the top, poured some substance, which “within seconds filled the room in which the deportees were stacked. Within five minutes everybody was dead.”

Once the room was lit, a horrifying spectacle was visible. The bodies were piled in a mass.

“The victims had trampled on top of another in a frantic effort to escape the gas. What a struggle for life it must have been. Blood oozed from their noses and mouths, their faces bloated and blue, were so deformed as to be almost unrecognisable. They were then taken to the incineration room and cremated within 20 minutes. Each crematorium had 15 ovens and a thousand could be cremated in a day.”

This graphic account was all because of a perception that Jews had no right to exist and that by mixing with other races, they had sullied and “threatened to contaminate with degeneracy, the only pure race, Aryan.” And because of their blood, the Jews were harmful to that great race and that their merchants and financiers had become powerful they threatened to enslave the whole of Europe. The whole outlook of life was a lie, Nyiszli says.

The degree of heartlessness manifests itself in a human being’s capacity to inflict random pain, recklessly and deliberately. This callous virus is incurable. We thought we had vaccinated ourselves against it after the Second World War. It has now resurfaced, and it’s now directing the human mind against wildlife.

There are human beings with a heart, and no head, while others have a head, and no heart. The Nazis in this era didn’t have both. They had perhaps a combination of foolishness and callousness.
Lessons from history serve different purposes. What we learn from the callousness at Auschwitz is not just about how we relate to other human beings. How we relate to the nature around us that even sustain us too. The last time we saw this madness was perhaps in Rwanda in 1994. When the human mind is overpowered by Lucifer, it’s spirit roam in the wild.
Today our energies are officially directed not against mankind, but wildlife. Poaching is rampant in Africa. The effects of this callous virus are still the same. There is pain and an irresistible urge to cause devastation, and a desperate will to decimate whether human beings or wildlife. The reason, method and effects are immaterial. But it still speaks to society’s insensitivity and indifference. We have taken cyanide from execution gas chambers, into the forest, for private gain. We are demonstrating the same foolishness and callousness to unprecedented levels.
The Criminal Law Code, Section 114 provides a mandatory nine-year sentence for poaching. We now make a case for a 15- year mandatory sentence for poaching under the Parks and Wildlife Act, up from nine for stock theft. One elephant is worth over US$50 000 and cattle, on average US$400.

How and why we should equate elephants to goats or beasts provokes a compelling need for an amendment under the Parks and Wildlife Act.

There is a world of difference between cattle and elephants. Zimbabwe has strong anti-poaching laws and a first offender convicted for unlawfully killing a rhino or elephant is sentenced to nine years or 11 years for second or subsequent offences, as per the amended Section 128 of the Parks and Wildlife Act.

Cyanide poisoning for elephant tusks has caused a cold sweat to break out of my forehead.

In Fools, the collective indifference of the township is palpable. The community had sanctified rape. A penalty for the rapist was just a reprimand. Life moved on.

Lawmakers, there is no justification for the paltry nine-year mandatory sentence for poachers involved in rhino and elephant poaching. Given the level of callousness of drowning cyanide in the wells for the elephants to die, there is compelling need for strict and harsher penalties, that are a deterrent, that would force would-be perpetrators to think twice before inflicting harm in our wildlife parks.

There is some degree of passivity, some paralysis or even collaboration in our parks. It’s the sort of society’s foolish indifference envisioned in Fools. The elephants were struck twice under our watch. And the deadliest of chemicals was unleashed to cause damage at a higher scale. It’s a story of a human being, using cyanide not against each other, but turning against the animal population for private gain.

Picturing the contamination of wells, one by one, where animals came innocently to drink,and the harrowing circumstances they met their fate is the deadliest form of human’s insensitivity.

Cyanide dropped them dead one by one in their multitudes as they frantically gasped for air, wishing pain away, while tusks are taken away.

The callousness has perhaps the complicity and culpability of those responsible for protecting the parks.
Picture this: A sophisticated syndicate, perhaps involving on average 15 people, benefit individually from the deaths of hundreds elephants through cyanide poisoning. The amounts involved don’t just line up their pockets, but they leave a legacy of a painfully disjointed and frail ecosystem in a wildlife sanctuary.

Once consumed, cyanide competes with oxygen at the level of the haemoglobin in the red blood cells. That red blood cells function to carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues is an every process of life. Cyanide bond with haemoglobin is permanent and therefore the entire body is starved off oxygen. And death is inevitable. The elephants met their fate in an excruciating manner. They are not human beings like the victims at Auschwitz who stampeded on top of each other after cyanide was dropped from the top. Their energy to run was limited. In agony, hundreds of them dropped, squirming, gasping for air, in some horrendous form of air starvation.

Elephants are magnificent and intelligent animals, and have feelings of grief too. Their torturous death has all the hallmarks of evil at a scale that speaks to a callous virus in man, compounded by ignorance and folly which is oblivious to the far-reaching consequences of such “genocide”.

They became easy meat for predators like hyenas, birds, lions, which ultimately die should they feed on the cyanide victims. Bird species fly to their death if they drink from the poisoned water bodies. The species that die are infinite, distorting the ecosystem in a callous act that has all the trademarks of avarice.

A national parks information booklet reveals that the Hwange National Game Park has the biggest wildlife sanctuary in the country with more than 100 mammal and 400 bird species, including 19 large herbivores and eight large carnivores.

The communities around Hwange are saying they aren’t benefiting from the wildlife. Their level of vigilance in protecting their own wildlife is limited. This has to some extent allowed for the intrusion of international syndicates perhaps operating with the complicity of the locals.

No one can explain how and why it was easy for elephants to be killed, to have tusks travelling all the way from Hwange, to the airport, and out of our jurisdiction for good. We want to assume our airports have sophisticated security checks. These tusks are ending up in Asia, particularly China, Thailand and Vietnam where they are used for decorative purposes and alternative medicine.

The cyanide killings of elephants have occurred twice in about five years. It can’t be that the ruffians caught up in this web of malpractice were operating alone. There must be a whole chain of sophisticated men and women in higher offices.

Have we become fools, and do we need forgiveness for not knowing what we are doing. The degree of callousness knows no bounds, the amount of grief we have inflicted on our own wildlife is unbearable. Given the degree of foolishness and callousness, the hundreds of deaths that have occurred in Hwange alone, they are asking for an urgent amendment that puts a mandatory 15-year sentence for poaching of such wildlife.

The degree of foolishness and callousness ought to match the scale of man’s foolishness and callous weight. While at Nuremburg, it was death; here let’s be merciful with our own, and let’s start at mandatory 15 years and above.

We all thought the degree of cold heartedness was buried with cyanide at Auschwitz in the last century. We all thought the indifferent foolishness of man was confined to the different communities as depicted in Fools. It’s in our midst just that the callous virus is directed against a different species. And the authorities are caught napping all the time. Why?

Hungwe freelances for BBC and is also a lawyer.

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