Namibian conservation circles are outraged over the rhino-hunting activities of South African big-game hunter Peter Thormählen after he was allowed to hunt a black rhino with a Russian client last month on a permit that had expired last year.
Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) terms agreed to in 2009, Namibia and South Africa were allowed five black rhino trophy hunts every year until 2011 on condition that it be done on a sustainable basis.
With 251 rhinos poached so far this year in South Africa, the expectation is that rhino hunting, especially that of the critically endangered black rhino, will be shut down at the next Cites conference later this year.
This has raised fears that Namibia’s black rhino population, especially its endemic desert black rhinos, may be at risk as operators compete for what could possibly the last trophies of their kind available to the lucrative sports hunting industry.
The rights to hunt three black rhinos were auctioned off for amounts of up to R1.9-million at the last auction, two of which were acquired by Thormählen & Cochran Safaris. The firm also holds rights to hunt a white rhino, its lawyer confirmed.
The safari outfit is owned by Peter Thormählen, a former Kimberley farmer now living in Nelspruit. It was, however, registered in 2006 in the name of one of his employees, a young Namibian professional hunter named Phillip Fourie.
Thormählen, originally from the Free State but based in Mpumalanga when not on safari in Namibia, Botswana or Cameroon, was declared insolvent in 1999 by the Bloemfontein High Court.
Using Fourie as a proxy allowed him to circumvent restrictions on non-Namibian companies obtaining hunting concessions and work around a legal preclusion against operating a company in his own name before a period of 10 years had elapsed.
Namibian ministry of environment and tourism officials have expressed alarm that an exception was made for Thormählen & Cochran Safaris to have its permit extended, arguing that if it was not used in the hunting season for which it was granted, it should be auctioned off again.
But Thormählen’s legal representative said that after a previous hunt for a black rhino in the Waterberg Plateau Park had led to a disappointed client threatening a lawsuit, a settlement was reached with the ministry that included the shooting of the second black rhino bull in the Mangetti Reserve in early May.
What has unnerved the local rhino lobby even more is that the safari outfit has a secret partner in the person of globetrotting Namibian deputy trade and industry minister Tjekero Tweya, who has owned 40% of it since July 2008 through a company called Wedhapo Investments, previously known as Starting Right Investments Ninety Nine.
Neither Thormählen nor Tweya responded to questions forwarded to their offices. Thormählen is believed to be hunting in northern Botswana, whereas Tweya was in Canada on business.
An investigation into Thormählen & Cochran Safaris has further brought to light that Wedhapo also owns a 40% share in a hunting farm in northwestern Namibia, close to communal areas frequented by rhinos breaking out of the Etosha Pans in search of water and pasture.
Although Tweya’s name does not appear anywhere on the Wedhapo paperwork that could be traced, former farm workers from Kudusberg No 45 said that he was a regular visitor to the hunting retreat.
The workers also said the other two directors of Wedhapo, Hieronimus Witbooi and Stephanus Witbooi, both believed to be former teachers, had never been seen at the farm.
Tweya’s name is also listed as the company’s contact person in the archival files of previous auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers, including his direct line to his previous office as deputy finance minister.
Inquiries established that the auditors resigned in 2009 because Tweya repeatedly failed to settle its bill. Wedhapo appears to be dormant, even though it owns assets conservatively estimated at between R8-million and R10-million.
With Thormählen & Cochran Safaris now consolidating its holdings – it is buying out the other owners of Kudusberg – observers fear for the future conservation of the many rare species, including desert-adapted black rhino, elephant and lions in this still wild corner of Namibia.
The outfit was last year accused of hunting a collared black-maned lion known as Leonardo, one of only about 900 noted for their distinctive behavioural characteristics setting them apart from other lions in Etosha.
The collar, later recovered under murky circumstances, suggested that the lion was killed at about 4am. Local hunting regulations prohibit the shooting of lion after dark or before sunrise.
No response could be obtained from Thormählen & Cochran Safaris in this respect, but its website’s trophy room section displays a picture of a magnificent lion shot by United States hunter Joe Russel that is believed to be Leonardo.
All these species, including the lion, appear to be fair game for the outfit. Its website offers hunts in the area for “desert lion, desert leopard, desert elephant [and] black rhino”.