April 19, 2001
California businessman Kenneth Behring has given the Smithsonian Institution more money than anyone has ever given any American museum: $100 million.
Ken Behring is an accomplished hunter who is a member of the Safari Club International. (ABCNEWS.com)
"I love animals. I go to Africa a lot and I just want all the kids to have the enjoyment that I've had," he says of his donation to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History as well as the Institution's Museum of American History.
But Behring, former owner of the Seattle Seahawks football team, is also one of the world's leading big game trophy hunters, who has gone after some of the rarest animals in the world.
"This is a man who has killed hundreds of different big game animals across the world," Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States tells ABCNEWS' Brian Ross. Pacelle also suggests Behring has tried to use the Smithsonian to circumvent U.S. laws that prohibit the import of endangered species.
"No natural history museum should be aiding and abetting trophy hunters killing the world's rarest animals," says Pacelle. "What signal does this send for the world's most prestigious natural history museum to be aligned with people who kill the world's rarest animals?"
'A Real Indiana Jones'
Behring is a top member of a little known but well-connected group called the Safari Club International, an organization committed to wildlife conservation and to hunters' rights. Among the Safari Club's 42,000 members are many well-known figures, including Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and former President Bush, an honorary lifetime member.
But for all its powerful connections, some say the Safari Club's system of awards and honors laid out in its trophy guidebooks has fostered a kind of trophy madness among some of its wealthiest members.
A hunting guide at a Safari Club convention called Behring "a real Indiana Jones." With more than 125 kills recorded in the official trophy record book, he is also "the largest donor to the Safari Club International," says Pacelle. "They're racing against one another to kill more animals, rarer animals and bigger animals so they can be first in the trophy guidebook and say, 'I shot one that's bigger than yours,'" says Pacelle, who adds that the Safari Club has in fact offered trophies for killing animals that are considered endangered or threatened.
"They want to kill the biggest and the rarest of the animals because that allows them to ascend higher in the fraternity of big-time game hunters," he says.
In addition, federal authorities say the quest for such trophies has become so great that it helps to drive an illegal black market.
For example, undercover videotape as part of a two-year federal investigation of a ring that arranges for rare, exotic animals to be killed for trophies obtained by PrimeTime Thursday captured a rare animal locked in the back of a trailer and then shot and killed so its trophy head and hide would be undamaged by the rigors of a hunt, according to authorities. The skinners waited while the animal slowly died.
Authorities say several Safari Club members in the Midwest are connected to this trophy ring and arrests are expected in the next few months.
The Safari Club says it in no way condones any illegal action.
"No member can or should take an animal through illegal means," says Rudy Rosen, executive director of the Safari Club. "We have an ethics procedure."
Moreover, Rosen says his organization's members are "hunter conservationists and they contribute their money to programs in conservation, education and humanitarian service to people in need."
Permit to Kill Rare Species
The Humane Society first focused on Behring and his Smithsonian connection after Behring's hunt for an extremely rare sheep in Central Asia called KaraTau argali.
Just two days before the sheep was added to the international list of endangered species, which made it illegal to hunt them, Behring was given a permit to shoot one by authorities in Kazakhstan.
But then Behring found, with the sheep on the U.S. endangered species list, he could not get his big kill back home to California.
"The only way to get it in," says Pacelle, "was to work through a natural history museum, which could attempt to make an argument that import of the sport hunted trophy would benefit science."
Not long after his return from Kazakhstan, the institution made efforts, says Pacelle, to help Behring get an import permit. "In a sense," he says, "abetting the killing of one of the rarest animals in the world." Under pressure from the Humane Society, the Smithsonian eventually withdrew its application to import the sheep.
This September, when Behring announced he was giving an additional $80 million to the Smithsonian, he denied he tried to use the Smithsonian to get his stuffed sheep trophy into the country and said he shot it so scientists could study it.
He also said he gave the Smithsonian the donation at "a much different time" than when he brought the sheep into the country. But Smithsonian records show that Behring shot the sheep at the end of September 1997, and the museum announced the $20-million gift just six weeks later.
Killing Problem Elephants
This is not the only controversy involving Behring's big game hunting. Also raising questions is a Behring expedition to Mozambique, where the sport hunting of elephants was strictly forbidden in 1990.
Mark Jenkins, who now overseas a national park in Kenya, managed the Niassa game reserve in Mozambique two years ago when Behring and two Safari Club officials flew in on Behring's private jet and killed at least three elephants near the park.
According to an investigation by Jenkins, witnesses said Behring's group actually used a helicopter, which "drove the elephants onto their guns."
When asked about it at a Smithsonian gala, Behring denied shooting elephants in Mozambique. His lawyer, Mel Honowitz, later told PrimeTime that Behring had misunderstood the question. In fact, says Honowitz, Behring's group had shot three elephants, one of them killed by Behring himself.
"I can tell you it was a lawful and correct and proper hunt," says Honowitz, who produced a permit Behring's group received from a provincial governor in Mozambique. Behring also made a $20,000 donation to a local hospital there, which Honowitz says was entirely unconnected.
The permit was for the hunting of a lion and a leopard and a buffalo, but contains a hand-written addition for "problem elephants," the sole basis on which any elephant could lawfully be killed in Mozambique.
"To the best of my knowledge," says Honowitz, "this was a completely proper hunt for that particular elephant. And the helicopter was not used for that purpose."
But Jenkins says they have never heard of another case in which a foreigner was authorized to kill a "problem" animal.
"They came in there and bankrolled an operation to take out some big elephant," says Jenkins, "and it is wrong. And nobody, nobody can condone what happened."
The Smithsonian says it is proud of its association with Behring, whose name is now prominent in gold letters around the rotunda where thousands of visitors to the Museum of Natural History can see it every day.