A botched elephant hunt in the Okavango Delta by a top U.S. gun lobbyist has provoked outrage among wildlife conservationists and animal rights groups, sparking further controversy over plans by Southern African governments to sell licenses for hundreds of new elephant hunts.
Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, fired repeatedly at close range at a wounded and immobilized elephant, failing to kill the animal until a friend finished the job, according to a gruesome video from 2013 posted on the website of The New Yorker this week.
Last month, African savanna elephants were classified as endangered for the first time on the “red list” of threatened species at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, after a 60 per cent decline in their numbers over the past half-century.
But some Southern African countries, where the largest herds are found, have begun licensing hunters to shoot hundreds of elephants due to concerns about over-population and growing conflict between elephants and human settlements.
The newly released video shows Mr. LaPierre in safari clothes on the guided hunt in the Botswana bush. He makes several errors by shooting too early and then hitting the elephant in the wrong places, even when firing at point-blank range after a guide shows him exactly where to aim. By then the elephant is lying on its side and struggling to breathe as the shots continue. “I’m not sure where you’re shooting,” the guide tells him at one point.
Later in the hunt, Mr. LaPierre’s wife, Susan, shoots another elephant and cuts off its tail as a trophy. “Victory!” she shouts as she brandishes the elephant tail. “Way cool!”
The NRA, in a statement released to U.S. media, acknowledged Mr. LaPierre’s involvement in the elephant hunt. It said the hunt was legal and fully regulated and would provide economic and cultural benefits for the local community in Botswana.
The 10-minute video was recorded in 2013, but was kept secret until obtained by The Trace, a non-profit journalism outlet that focuses on gun violence. It reported that body parts from the Botswana hunt were secretly shipped to the United States so that the front feet of the elephants could be turned into stools in the home of the LaPierres.
It also reported that the video was intended for broadcast on an NRA-sponsored television series, but was never aired because of fears it would draw negative publicity.
The video has triggered anger on social media in Southern Africa and elsewhere. “Not only is the footage of the elephant shooting sickening, but the post-kill banter and gross back-slapping shows who they really are,” said Michael Markovitz, a South African media consultant and broadcaster.
“The euphoria about killing such a proud, beautiful and defenceless animal is nauseating,” he said in a tweet.
Kavango Alive, an environmental information group in Namibia that seeks to protect the Okavango Delta, called the video “shameful.”
Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity, said no animal should suffer from the kind of “brutal, clumsy slaughter” shown in the video.
“Savanna elephants were just declared endangered by international experts, and these intelligent beings certainly shouldn’t be used as paper targets by inept marksmen,” she said in a statement.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said the video showed the wounded elephant rumbling with distress noises to warn other elephants after it was shot.
“Behind the NRA’s macho posturing are scared little men who pay tens of thousands of dollars for someone else to track elephants so that they can shoot them ineptly at close range,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said.
She expressed concern at the plans to license more hunting in Southern Africa. “American and European trophy addicts will now be fuelling the slaughter of elephants in Botswana and Zimbabwe,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
Botswana has the world’s largest population of the giant land mammals, with at least 130,000 elephants in its borders, although some estimates are much higher. It says its territory has the capacity to sustain only about 55,000 elephants. The herds have grown so fast that they sometimes trample crops and injure or kill villagers, it says.
It has begun auctioning the right to hunt some of the elephants for up to US$43,000 each. This month, Botswana sold hunting permits for 287 elephants. It says the revenue can be crucial for local communities affected by elephants.
Zimbabwe, meanwhile, has announced plans to sell hunting licenses for up to 500 elephants for as much as US$70,000 each to provide revenue for its national parks. Zimbabwe, with nearly 100,000 elephants, has the world’s second-biggest elephant population.
In Namibia, despite a petition protesting against it, the government plans to allow the hunting of 170 elephants this year. It says its elephant population has tripled to about 24,000 over the past 25 years.
South Africa, with a similar surge in its elephant numbers in its national and local parks, does not permit any culling of the animals. Instead it has begun using contraception – fired at the elephants in darts from helicopters – to curb their reproduction.
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