Newly unearthed footage shows Wayne LaPierre, Jr., executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, killing an elephant in Botswana in 2013. It is horrific, and I would not recommend watching it if you’re trying to have a normal day.
The 10-minute video, obtained by the New Yorker and The Trace and published on Tuesday, shows LaPierre walking in Botswana’s Okavango grasslands, accompanied by tour guides and Tony Makris, an executive at the NRA’s former public relations firm Ackerman McQueen. A majestic savannah elephant walks through the brush, and LaPierre aims his rifle at it. He shoots four times but doesn’t manage to kill it. Eventually, Makris takes the fatal shot, and the men all shake hands, saying “well done,” “congratulations,” and “good stuff.” This lasts more than three excruciating minutes.
Later, LaPierre’s wife, Susan, shoots another elephant. The camera frames the beautiful creature perfectly, and you see a bullet hit it between the eyes. (At this point, I began to feel like I was actually going to vomit.) She’s a better shot than her husband and kills it with two shots. The others cheer her on, and when she finishes the job, she laughs. Then, prompted by one of the guides, she cuts off its tail and holds it in the air.
“Victory,” she says. “That’s amazing, that’s my elephant tail.”
The footage was captured for the television show Under Wild Skies, hosted by Makris, which displays large game hunts. Makris is now embroiled in a legal fight with the NRA.
The video would be pretty sickening even if savannah elephants weren’t under threat. But this species of elephants recently obtained endangered status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. The list is a definitive resource on the wellbeing of species around the world, tracking extinction risk based on population health and the threats wildlife face. According to the organization, the population of savannah elephants has dropped by 60% in the past 50 years, while the population of African forest elephants fell by 86% in the past 31 years. They cite poachers as a key threat to both species.
In a statement to the Washington Post, NRA spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam said that the hunt displayed in the video was “fully permitted and conducted in accordance with all rules and regulations,” claiming that this kind of legal hunting is helpful to the region’s economy. Some major conservation organizations, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature and also the World Wide Fund for Nature, say that trophy hunting wild animals is fine. The argument is basically that it sacrifices a few threatened animals, but can create more funding for conservation. But these claims are widely contested by many conservation researchers. Regardless, poaching is a huge problem that urgently needs to be addressed as well as other threats to wildlife posed by various human activities.
“We’re in the midst of a poaching epidemic, and rich trophy hunters like the NRA chief are blasting away at elephants while the international community calls for stiffer penalties for poachers,” Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
IUCN notes that some parts of Africa have enacted successful anti-poaching measures. Some regions have also increased legal protections and implemented more careful land-use planning to protect the elephants, all of which have seen some success. Certain local subpopulations of savannah elephants have stabilized. Most notably, populations in the massive Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area—a land in the river regions of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe that’s larger than Germany and Austria combined—are increasing, constituting the largest subpopulation of the species on the continent.
But Sanerib questioned what kind of message it sends to undertake all these efforts while allowing the wealthy to shell out for permits and brutally kill the animals. “We need to halt all elephant killings or they’ll vanish forever,” she said.
Savannah elephants are the largest land mammals on Earth. They play key ecological roles, trampling forests and bushlands to make room for smaller species to walk. They also dig into dry riverbeds when rainfall is low in search of water, creating watering holes other wildlife rely on to drink. In short, these animals are not just majestic, they’re essential to protect if the savannah is to keep functioning.
For me, somehow the footage is made even worse by the fact that LaPierre, famous rifle guy, is no sharpshooter. At one point, a guide says, “I’m not sure where you’re shooting.” It’s ironic but also gut-wrenching given the animal suffering right in front LaPierre.
“These intelligent beings certainly shouldn’t be used as paper targets by an inept marksman,” said Sanerib. “It’s sickening to see LaPierre’s brutal, clumsy slaughter of this beautiful creature. No animal should suffer like this.”