Capt. Scott O’Grady, who has been nominated by President Donald Trump to become the next assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, killed two elephants during a 2014 hunting trip in Zimbabwe, according to documents O’Grady filed as part of his testimony before a House committee six years ago.
O’Grady, co-chair of the group Veterans for Trump, gained international attention in 1995 when his F-16 was shot down by a Bosnian Serb missile. The Air Force officer managed to survive and evade capture in hostile territory for six days before being rescued. His nomination to the Pentagon post was announced Tuesday.
In 2014, O’Grady testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service temporarily suspended the importation of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Tanzania. The agency, then under the Obama administration, determined that “questionable management practices, a lack of effective law enforcement and weak governance have resulted in uncontrolled poaching and catastrophic population declines of African elephants in Tanzania. In Zimbabwe, available data, though limited, indicate a significant decline in the elephant population,” according to a statement the agency released.
O’Grady argued against the suspension, noting that he had just returned from a three-week safari in Zimbabwe and could attest that “their elephant population is not only robust, but is exceeding the land’s carrying capacity.”
As part of his testimony, O’Grady submitted a letter from a Zimbabwe-based safari hunting company confirming his elephant-hunting record. The letter noted that O’Grady killed his first elephant on March 11, 2014, and his second on March 23, 2014.
The letter O’Grady submitted as part of his testimony to a House committee in 2014. The letter confirmed that he killed two elephants in 2014 as part of a hunting trip to Zimbabwe.
In his prepared statement for the committee, O’Grady described the elephant hunting trip as “an amazing experience.”
The crux of O’Grady’s testimony, a common argument made by trophy hunters, is that the fees trophy hunters pay for elephant-hunting licenses help communities in many different ways—from funding local services to helping combat poachers and wildlife traffickers.
While it’s true that some of the licensing fees for elephant hunting (and the hunting of other big game like lions and giraffes) can help local communities and conservation efforts, figuring out where this money ends up is often a difficult task. Corruption and kleptocracy often lead to a large amount of these funds lining the pockets of politicians and other local leaders.
Ecotourism—where tourists spend money to stay at hotels and pay fees to see the flora and fauna in sub-Saharan African countries—is much more helpful for conservation in the long run and much more sustainable, plus it helps the local economy.
Today, elephant hunters aren’t the reason African elephants are vulnerable. That blame lies with poaching, habitat destruction and human-wildlife conflict. Most African nations limit elephant hunting—Kenya, for example, has had an outright ban since 1977—and with licenses costing tens of thousands of dollars, there aren’t many people who can afford to do it. Additionally, most licenses only allow hunters to kill older males, not females who are critical for the survival of their herds.
But experts say allowing the hunting of elephants is a slippery slope, which leads to an increase in poaching. Additionally, the legal import of elephant trophies is often used as cover for traffickers to slip in illegal shipments of ivory.
And not all governments behave responsibly. When governments are in need of money, one of the easiest ways to raise funds is to increase the number of available elephant hunting licenses.
At the time of O’Grady’s elephant hunt, Robert Mugabe, a dictator who masqueraded as a Democratically elected president, was Zimbabwe’s leader. Mugabe, along with his wife, Grace, led a kleptocracy that ravaged the country’s economy, leading to a majority of Zimbabweans unemployed by the time he died in 2019. (Mugabe was forced to resign in November 2017.)
Mugabe and his wife treated Zimbabwe’s wild elephants like their own personal piggy bank—selling wild baby elephants to countries like China when they needed cash. Grace Mugabe was even credibly accused of using her diplomatic powers to traffic ivory.