In a bio circulated by the National Rifle Association, chief executive Wayne LaPierre is praised as “a skilled hunter, from Chesapeake waterfowl to African Cape buffalo.”
It’s a description sure to resonate with hunters, who are a pillar of NRA support.
A recent court filing, however, suggests LaPierre may have some unease with being portrayed as too avid a hunter, at least as far as African elephants are concerned. According to the filing, LaPierre took part in an elephant hunt in Botswana that was filmed for an outdoor television program, then “instructed that two episodes in 2018 not be aired.”
The episodes were shot for a long-running program called “Under Wild Skies,” according to the filing, and “contain video footage of LaPierre firing multiple gunshots at an elephant in Botswana while attempting to kill it.” The episodes also feature “LaPierre’s wife, Susan LaPierre, cutting off the elephant’s tail… holding the elephant tail in the air, and proclaiming ‘Victory … with Under Wild Skies!’” The couple allegedly “posed for photos while sitting on the deceased elephant.”
The filing detailing the Botswana hunt was submitted in December in a lawsuit that Under Wild Skies originally brought against the NRA last September.
The NRA and its attorneys, as well as lawyers for “Under Wild Skies,” did not respond to phone calls and emails Wednesday seeking comment for this story.
“Under Wild Skies” is hosted by Tony Makris, a big game hunter and executive with Ackerman McQueen, the marketing firm that was largely responsible for crafting the NRA’s public image until the longstanding relationship between the two imploded last year. The NRA and Ackerman have been hurling various charges of impropriety against each other ever since and are locked in legal battle in courtrooms in Texas and Virginia.
“Under Wild Skies” worked with the NRA for 26 years, according to the Fairfax lawsuit, and Makris and LaPierre were friendly for even longer. In addition to hosting the hunting show, Makris is president of Mercury Group, an Ackerman subsidiary. In 2017 alone, The Trace has reported, the NRA paid “Under Wild Skies” and Mercury more than $8 million.
A 2018 sponsorship agreement included in the court filing indicates that the NRA paid “Under Wild Skies” nearly $1 million annually from 2016 to 2018 in exchange for advertising time. That payment was to increase every year to $1.4 million in 2025, according to the agreement, which required “Under Wild Skies” to produce 13 original programs each year. The NRA claims in court records that the show violated the agreement by producing only 11 episodes in 2018, which led to the allegation that LaPierre asked that the elephant hunt episodes not run.
Over the years, “Under Wild Skies” featured NRA brass, including LaPierre, taking part in hunts in the United States and several countries in Africa and South America.
The court filing does not specify when the Botswana hunt took place. The country banned commercial elephant hunting in 2014. The LaPierres were featured in a 2014 episode of “Under Wild Skies” that was promoted as having been filmed in Botswana weeks before the ban took effect. No elephant hunting is shown in that episode. Wayne LaPierre, who has a reputation for being a bit clumsy with a gun, kills a warthog. Susan LaPierre fells an impala and a Cape buffalo.
The NRA has long worked in tandem with the hunting advocacy group Safari Club International. Safari Club past-president Paul Babaz is on the NRA board and the groups recently joined forces to fend off an attempt to reinstate hunting prohibitions on Alaskan wildlife refuges. The groups also successfully fought to lift an import ban on elephant body parts, including tusks.
The lawsuit filed by “Under Wild Skies” states that “almost all of the NRA high donors are hunters” and that LaPierre, his wife, and other NRA officials used their experience on the program to gain membership to elite hunting organizations whose members are key to NRA fundraising.
The lawsuit alleges that the NRA, seeking to retaliate against Makris and Ackerman, stopped making its payments to “Under Wild Skies” in September. “The NRA’s action (sic) are in pure malice against Anthony Makris,” according to the lawsuit, which seeks $17 million in damages.
Botswana is home to some 130,000 elephants, about a third of the elephant population in Africa. The ban on elephant hunting was supported by international conservationist groups, which were dismayed when it was lifted last year. In rural areas of Botswana, where elephants trample crops and occasionally people, there is strong support for hunting, which can generate local jobs. African elephants are considered vulnerable to extinction but are not endangered.
Makris has firsthand experience of how controversial elephant hunting can be. There was outrage in 2013 after NBC showed an episode of “Under Wild Skies,” shot in Botswana, in which Makris guns down an elephant. Makris responded by likening critics of hunting “big and special” creatures like elephants to Hitler for displaying “a very unique form of animal racism.”
An earlier version of this article’s headline overstated the relationship between NRATV and “Under Wild Skies.” It has been revised.