Smithsonian weighs gift of rare species

Endangered Species Act blocks importing wild mountain sheep

April 22, 1999|By Tim Golden | Tim Golden,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Officials at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington could hardly contain their delight 16 months ago when a wealthy California real estate developer, Kenneth E. Behring, pledged $20 million in cash to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

"The Behring family's gift will bring our museum into the 21st century," the secretary of the Smithsonian, I. Michael Heyman, said at the time.

But museum officials have been less exultant about some of their benefactor's other generosity. In a donation that went unpublicized, Behring, who is one of the world's more accomplished trophy hunters, also gave the Smithsonian the remains of four bighorn sheep he had shot in Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.

The hitch

The hitch was that the wild mountain sheep are on lists of threatened animals that cannot be imported into the United States under the Endangered Species Act. One of the sheep, a Kara-Tau argali, is considered among the most endangered animals in the world.

And as finishing touches are being put on the newly renovated Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals, the Smithsonian is coming under attack by conservationists for having petitioned the Interior Department last fall to waive the ban so it can get the sheep out of a Canadian taxidermy shop and into the museum's permanent collection.

Adding to the controversy, wildlife officials in Mozambique say a party of big-game hunters that included Behring is under investigation for the possibly illegal killing of three bull elephants there last July. Other Mozambican officials, in the impoverished northern province of Cabo Delgado, said they authorized the killing of a few "problem" elephants after Behring's party pledged to help the provincial government with wildlife management plans and gave a $20,000 donation to a local hospital.

"Trophy hunters can do almost anything they want in these countries if they have enough money," said a senior vice president for the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle. "But they won't shoot animals like the argali unless they can get the trophies home, and the Smithsonian is giving them a strong reason to do it by helping get them into the country."

Behring, in a statement issued by his Washington spokeswoman, Sheila Tate, said he killed his sheep with the proper permits and "was certainly not encouraged by any museum to hunt them." He dismissed the accusations that his hunting party acted improperly in Mozambique as "just plain wrong."

The director of the Natural History Museum, Robert W. Fri, said in a recent letter to the Humane Society, "It is the firm policy of the Smithsonian not to encourage the trophy hunting of endangered species, and we have carefully adhered to that policy in this case." Fri said the museum was seeking the specimens because they were "unique to our collection and rare in collections elsewhere in the world."

While stopping short of saying the museum might withdraw the permit application, the Smithsonian's Provost, J. Dennis O'Connor, backed away from that claim in a recent interview. "We're re-evaluating just what the species might provide for us," he said.

A decision has yet to be made at the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service, which, under the Endangered Species Act, must determine that bringing specimens of endangered animals into the United States will help indirectly to preserve the species.

In the case of Behring's argali, the officials said they would not act until they received further documentation they had requested some weeks ago. And one senior official familiar with the case suggested that the application was already being viewed with skepticism.

'Some real red flags'

"It raises some real red flags," the official said. "What seems to be going on here is that somebody knows they're not going to get an import permit one way so they've gone to the Smithsonian to get it another way."

Robert S. Hoffman, the former director of the Natural History Museum and now a senior scientist at the museum, applied for permits to import the four wild sheep Behring shot in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan in September 1997, just weeks before the final discussions of his $20 million donation. The gift was the largest in the 151-year history of the national museum system.

Behring, former owner of the Seattle Seahawks football team, said he shot the sheep with permits authorized by the Russian Federation, which oversees wildlife issues in many of the former Soviet republics, and with Russian scientists in his hunting party. But export permits for the animals were issued two days before the enactment of a decision by the international convention that oversees wildlife conservation to upgrade the Kara-Tau argali to its most-endangered category. The other sheep are considered threatened.

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