NBC Sports Network under fire for elephant killing on NRA show

NBC Sports Network is facing a flurry of criticism over an episode of the outdoor sports program “Under Wild Skies” in which a National Rifle Assn. strategist shoots and kills an African elephant.

In the episode, which aired Sunday night (a highlight reel is posted above), host Tony Makris and a guide stalk an elephant in the Okavango Delta of Botswana -- “a mecca for elephant hunting,” according to a narrator.

Makris boasts of his “positively lethal” rifle and the .577 ammunition (“made to kill ivory”) used to take down the beast. Hiding in a bush, he fires two shots a the “cheeky” pachyderm, who runs away. Makris and his guide eventually catch up to the elephant, killing it. They later celebrate the kill with a bottle of Champagne.

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The episode has sparked an online petition calling for NBC Sports to cancel the NRA-sponsored “Under Wild Skies.” The series is not produced by the network but is what’s known as a “time buy,” in which outside producers pay to air content -- not unlike an infomercial.

In response to public outcry, NBC Sports Network has decided not to rebroadcast this particular episode, but will continue to air “Under Wild Skies.”

“We’ve listened to our viewers and will not air that particular episode of ‘Under Wild Skies’ again. We’re also taking a close look at our internal standards as part of this process because this content should not have aired,” the network said in a statement. “While this form of hunting is legal, we understand that many viewers find it objectionable. As a result we are taking an aggressive approach towards objectionable content within future episodes of ‘Under Wild Skies’ and other series.”

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As detailed by the Washington Post earlier this year, Makris is a public relations strategist who has helped manage the NRA’s image for the last 30 years. In the 1990s, he helped install Charlton Heston as president of the lobbying group. More recently, his firm, Mercury Group, a subsidiary of the advertising and public relations agency Ackerman McQueen, was behind a highly controversial NRA ad accusing President Obama of hypocrisy for his skepticism over the group’s proposal to put armed guards in schools across the country. It was produced shortly after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Though Makris’ hunting trip was perfectly legal at the time it took place, it won’t be for much longer. The government of Botswana announced late last year that it would ban commercial hunting by January 2014, citing fears over declining wildlife populations. The African elephant, a favorite target of poachers for its precious ivory, is currently listed as “vulnerable,” according to the World Wildlife Fund.

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Many African countries offer expensive hunting licenses to wealthy Westerners as a way of generating revenue, but the practice has proved controversial. Spain’s King Juan Carlos was severely criticized for a hunting trip to Botswana last April, right around the same time that Donald Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr. faced a similar outcry over a safari in Zimbabwe, where they bagged an elephant and numerous other wild beasts.

This is not the first time NBC Sports Network, which airs a variety of outdoor programming and is available in about 80 million homes across the country, has weathered criticism related to guns. In January, after the Newtown shootings in December, the network took heat for sponsoring a major firearms convention in Las Vegas.



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Twitter: @MeredithBlake