21 Jun Sorry state of Zimbabwe’s wildlife hunting
Zimbabwe’s wildlife estate is open for business among unethical foreign hunters, corrupt officials and fraudsters, an investigation by Oxpeckers reporters shows
Zimbabwean police are investigating the illegal hunting of a “problem” bull elephant in the Penemene area, near Beitbridge, by two Americans visiting the country on tourist visas.
The incident is the latest in a series of hunting violations under investigation by local and international authorities, who fear the unethical pursuit of hunting trophies and collusion by wildlife managers is pushing Zimbabwe’s endangered species to the brink.
While the new regime’s “Zimbabwe is open for business” policy is focused on driving economic and political reforms in the run-up to elections in July, little is being said about restoring sanity in the country’s natural ecosystem, where reports of wildlife poaching, illegal hunts by foreigners and identity fraud are rampant.
The most recent incident involved Threeways Safaris, a hunting outfit based on the banks of the Bubi River in Beitbridge district that offers “big five” hunts in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
On May 31 two American clients, Robert Allan Jean of Florida and Paul Zoellner Weldon of Michelin, were accompanied by Roy Gama, a former Zimbabwe Parks employee who now works at Threeways Safaris, when they shot an elephant bull.
Police said the Americans were in the country on tourist visas issued at the Beitbridge border post on May 29.
According to a police report, the bull was part of a “relaxed breeding herd” of about eight elephants reported by villagers to be in their fields. It was killed with “a rifle belonging to the Threeways Safaris owner, and Roy Gama is not a learner or professional hunter (PH)”.
The incident needed investigation, the police report said, because it appeared to be a “non-trophy hunt disguised as problem animal control”. Gama had shot at least three “problem” elephants in the area in 2018, it said.
After removing six panels of skin and the elephant’s head with the tusks intact, the hunters gave the carcass to villagers. “The two Americans got a hero’s reception by an estimated crowd of about 300 meat-loving villagers,” the report said.
Van der Merwe had several tusks on display at his lodge that needed verification, and the local council’s ivory stockpile needed to be inspected urgently “as it seemed villagers are dealing with the operator directly,” said the report.
During an interview with the police, Jean said he was a regular client at Threeways Safaris and did not need to bring his own rifle because he used Van der Merwe’s. His last visit was in March 2018, when he brought another colleague “whom he had to assist to shoot a kudu and a couple of impalas for fun”.
“With respect, such cases need thorough investigation and guidance … Intelligence-led blitzes are the way to go if we are to suppress poaching,” the report recommended.
Van der Merwe, who was picking up clients across the border in Polokwane, South Africa, at the time of the incident, denied the elephant hunt was illegal. It was conducted for problem animal control, he said.
“It’s something we have to do for the community. The rural district council called us to assist and we helped out. It’s not as it is being alleged now by the police,” Van der Merwe said.
He had received a report from Osborne Ndou, a Ward 16-Matshiloni area resource monitor, that a herd of elephants was giving problems in the area. This prompted the Threeways Safaris employees to respond, in the company of the two American tourists, he said.
No arrests have been made and the two Americans have since left the country.
US court case
In April another American hunter, 63-year-old Paul Jackson, was fined US$25,000 in a United States court for shooting an elephant in Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park and attempting to export the tusks fraudulently via South Africa.
Jackson, from Colorado, pleaded guilty to violating Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wild Life Act when he killed the elephant inside a national park in 2015.
Zimbabwean officials blocked his efforts to export the 26kg and 27kg tusks to South Africa, because he lived in Colorado, but Jackson then worked with South African professional hunter Hanno van Rensburg, a New-York based export facilitator and several Zimbabwe-based hunting businesses to obtain documents showing he was a South African resident in order to have the ivory exported to South Africa.
Jackson admitted violating the US Endangered Species Act and agreed to a four-year worldwide ban prohibiting him from hunting threatened or endangered species. He also agreed to work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to return the ill-gotten ivory to the Zimbabwean government.
“When American hunters violate the laws of foreign countries in the unethical pursuit of trophies, they don’t just undermine the conservation efforts that make hunting possible. They break the law,” said US attorney Bob Troyer at the conclusion of the case.
Van Rensburg (44), the owner of South African safari company Authentic African Ventures, is being charged with federal crimes related to illegal elephant hunts, Troyer said. He allegedly paid between US$5,000 and $8,000 to government officials as kickbacks for authorisation to hunt in Gonarezhou and have the ivory released.
Jackson’s admission to using identity theft and fake documents to conduct an illegal hunt in a national park and smuggle ivory to South Africa sparked recent investigations into similar scams in Zimbabwe.
Most sources mentioned The Three Monkeys restaurant in Vic Falls, a popular hangout among hunters from foreign countries that is owned by Martin Pieters, also the proprietor of Martin Pieters Safaris.
A ZimParks investigator whose identity cannot be revealed for security reasons confirmed investigating reports of illegal hunts by foreigners linked to The Three Monkeys restaurant and its owner. The investigator’s testimony was corroborated by poachers and professional hunters in the nearby Hwange National Park.
One local hunter based in Vic Falls said he often works with foreigners booked through Martin Pieters Safaris.
“I assisted hunts in the Hwange National Park on three occasions, with the most recent towards the end of 2017. Everybody knows it’s risky and illegal, but when these hunters come through our facilitators [The Three Monkeys restaurant] the fear is gone, as things would have been sorted out already,” he said.
During his last hunting expedition in Hwange in October 2017, the foreign hunter had an Afrikaans name “but spoke very fluent English. When I jokingly asked why his English was so polished he told me he was American but came via South Africa, where they assumed Afrikaans names before crossing into Zimbabwe for hunting.”
A poacher who operates in the northern part of Hwange and is based in Vic Falls confirmed the accusations of illegal hunting in the national park by hunters linked to Martin Pieters Safaris. “Everything that is happening in the wildlife industry has the blessing of politicians, top safari operators and the security sector,” he added.
A black professional hunter did not want to be named said identity theft was common “especially with clients coming via South Africa”. His clients often tell stories about how they use fake South African identities, especially when they are excited with job done and they are almost leaving the country, he said.
Contacted for comment on the phone, Martin Pieters expressed ignorance of the allegations. “I have no idea about that, it would be a parks investigations issue,” Pieters responded.
The names Lawrence van Aswegen and Wayne Jardine were also mentioned in connection with illegal hunting in Hwange National Park. Neither are new to Zimbabwean courts and controversies.
A former poacher in Hwange described how their hunting safari businesses thrive with the help of poachers and parks officials.
“Sometimes hunters have booked to shoot certain animals, but because it takes too long to get them during a safari we are contracted to kill those specific animals in the park. It’s good money, but I had to retire due to an injury.
“I got to know Van Aswegen through a chain of people and we were asked to deliver them tusks. The dates and times of the [safari] expeditions were already set, an indication that top parks officials were aware and were not just acting on the moment,” he said – referring to the excuse that the wildlife killed for problem animal control.
In February Van Aswegen (69) was arrested, together with Norman Dlamini, Christopher Mishoni and Vusa Lunga, in possession of 118kg of ivory worth more than US$20,000 without a permit. Detectives said they had found a further two pieces of unmarked ivory at his Bulawayo house in Hillside.
The four appeared in a Bulawayo court briefly, but were not asked to plead to charges of illegal possession of ivory and are currently out on bail.
Jardine is an experienced hunter who has been implicated in illegal elephant hunts in Hwange National Park since 2009. According to The Zimbabwean, he was among a group of South African hunters that poached elephants and other wildlife in Hwange with impunity due to the complicity of parks officials and high-ranking politicians – including Francis Nhema, then minister of environment and tourism.
Some hunting clients have complained about Jardine’s unethical conduct on the industry forum africahunting.com, and sources in Bulawayo and Hwange indicated they knew about his and Van Aswegen’s shenanigans but were too afraid to reveal details for fear of retribution.
Both men are licensed professional hunters, according to the latest list supplied by Parks and Wildlife officials in Harare. They could not explain why the list was last updated in 2010.
Civil proceedings launched by safari operator Eugene Ncube in 2015 focused on the abuse of “ration hunts”, allowed in border concession areas adjacent to national parks to feed neighbouring communities as a way of reducing poaching activities.
Ncube, who owns Kholisa Safaris as well as leather tanning and funeral parlor businesses in Bulawayo, summonsed Parks and Wildlife management to explain why hunting safaris were being allowed inside national parks – contrary to the Parks and Wildlife Act of 1996.
According to Ncube’s court papers, the ration-hunting process was open to abuse by parks officials who were using the allocations to enable “pseudo hunts” by professional hunters and their clients.
“It compromises the credibility of the whole hunting industry, and subjects international clients to participating in crime without their knowledge,” the court papers state.
Ncube asked the Magistrate’s Court at Tredgold in Bulawayo for an order that the Parks and Wildlife authority account for all trophies hunted by foreign clients between 2009 and 2014 under these ration hunts, and to explain how some trophy dealers purchased parks trophies without public tender.
He also asked the court to order that the authority revert to the previous system of selling park trophies on auction, and putting hunting concessions on the borders of national parks out to tender.
“The criteria for selecting hunters is not well defined and is in breach of the national tender board, which requires the participation of outside persons or companies to partake in government jobs through a tender process,” the court papers state.
“The present system of hoarding these concessions to Matetsi 5 Safaris run by Parks creates a conflict of interest, and gives some blue-eyed hunters an edge over other hunters on the market.”
During an interview in Bulawayo, Ncube said the Parks management system was rife with corruption by officials. His court case was not finalised.
“I lost hope as the lawyer representing Edson Chidziva [Parks and Wildlife director at the time] kept complaining Chidziva was based in Harare and the matter was being heard in Bulawayo, making it difficult for his client to attend court.
“Also, while in court Chidziva expressed the view that there was nothing wrong if parks officials were hunting in their own sanctuaries,” he said.
Confronted with these findings, the current ZimParks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesperson, Tinashe Farawo, denied any knowledge of organised illegal hunts inside the national parks.
“While I cannot deny that corruption is there, it is very difficult for organised illegal hunts to take place in our parks. Everyone knows, once seen you would be shot dead,” Farawo said.
Hunting trophies that are obtained illegally and are not licensed are smuggled abroad via Botswana and South Africa, said a Bulawayo-based poacher who described his role in facilitating the scam.
“I do a lot of things, including smuggling trophies to South Africa for the American clients. I get these jobs from professional hunters and I process documents and the transportation of trophies on their behalf,” he said.
He was reluctant to reveal where he had stashed some buffalo trophies in Bulawayo, but while speaking to somebody on the phone in Ndebele a corridor was arranged.
He said trophies are sometimes hidden in compartments created in fuel tankers. “We are very careful that the weight of the trophies do not exceed the net weight of a tanker filled with fuel for delivery. By the time the trucks get to the border, money talks, and once the trophies are out of Zimbabwe that’s it,” he explained.
Emmanuel Fundira, president of Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe (SOAZ), could not hide his disappointment about the recent killing of the “problem” bull elephant near Beitbridge. SOAZ is an organization with members that range from touring and photographic excursions to hunting safari operators.
“Parks and Wildlife should be honest in this matter, and about how we are having more of these illegal hunts by foreigners. They might hide behind the excuse that some of the killings are related to problem animal control, but accountability is required as this is burning our industry internationally,” Fundira said.
About the case in which Paul Jackson admitted illegally killing an elephant in Gonarezhou in 2015, he said: “It is really a major cause for concern for the industry, more so given that an American court ended up convicting somebody in America. The judge who adjudicated the matter must have received irrevocable evidence.
“It’s a matter I have raised with National Parks. At the end of the day it’s the image of the industry which is undermined.”
Fundira could not say whether there were more cases of Americans pretending to be South Africans in order to conduct illegal hunts and process their trophies.
“When you are not confronted with enough evidence you cannot draw any conclusions,” he said. “But if another court from another country has managed to convict on a matter that happened on our own soil, it undermines the integrity of our own systems.”
ZimParks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo said his organisation’s investigations had revealed that the key witness in the US court was lying. “We have been in touch with him so that he could provide us with more evidence related to case, but he is not not forthcoming.”
Farawo could not explain why he was saying the South African witness, whose identity he could not reveal, was lying.
He expressed concern in relation to the identity theft, but said the task of verifying the authenticity of passports and nationalities should be done by the Immigration Department.
“Surely as Parks and Wildlife we cannot be seen to be checking passports for all international clients coming into our country. We would end up being sued for abuse,” Farawo said. – oxpeckers.org
• Following publication, Martin Pieters contacted Oxpeckers with a statement alleging that he had not been given sufficient opportunity to respond to the allegations against him and his businesses. Speaking directly to the allegations, Pieters stated for the record:
“I have never hunted in Hwange National Park or any National Park!
I have never facilitated a hunt in Hwange National Park or any National Park!
I do not employ local hunters as I have my own fully employed professional hunters that I use for my safaris!
I have never hunted with a client that has used a false name or who has illegally entered the country!
The Three Monkeys restaurant is purely that, a restaurant in the resort town of Victoria Falls. Many different people eat there and then go their separate ways; what they do, where they go and who they conduct a safari with is totally out of my control!
In support of myself, I owned and operated a photographic lodge in Hwange National Park for several years and was one of the most vocal voices in the protection of these vital areas, and on several occasions confronted and exposed illegal hunters that were conducting illegal hunts!”
• Find the list of registered professional hunters in Zimbabwe here
• Read more investigations in our dossier on Zimbabwe poaching links
Oxpeckers' hard work uncovering environmental crimes across Southern Africa costs time and money.
A donation of as little as R20 can help keep our reporters on the case, and keep the pressure on those looking to exploit our natural resources for personal gain.