Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
The rocky highlands of Central Asia, in a remote region of Western Mongolia, are home to a plummeting population of the largest sheep in the world, the argali. The endangered species is beloved for its giant curving horns, which can run over 6 feet in length.
On a hunting trip this August, Donald Trump Jr. shot and killed one.
His adventure was supported by government resources from both the U.S. and Mongolia, which each sent security services to accompany the president’s eldest son and grandson on the multiday trip. It also thrust Trump Jr. directly into the controversial world of Mongolian trophy hunting — a polarizing practice in a country that views the big-horned rams as a national treasure. The right to kill an argali is controlled by an opaque permitting system that experts say is mostly based on money, connections and politics.
Trump Jr. received special treatment during his summer trip, according to records obtained by ProPublica as well as interviews with people involved in the hunt. Listen to the episode.
The Mongolian government granted Trump Jr. a coveted and rare permit to slay the animal retroactively on Sept. 2, after he’d left the region following his trip. It’s unusual for permits to be issued after a hunter’s stay. It was one of only three permits to be issued in that hunting region, local records show.
Afterward, Trump Jr. met privately with the country’s president, Khaltmaagiin Battulga, before departing the capital of Ulaanbaatar back to the U.S., according to Khuantai Khafezyn, a local government official in the region where Trump Jr. hunted the argali and a former government official with knowledge of the meeting. It isn’t clear what was discussed. Trump Jr. wouldn’t answer questions about the meeting. Representatives for Battulga haven’t responded to requests for comment.
“What are the chances the Mongolian government would’ve done any of that to someone who wasn’t the son of the United States’ president?” asked Kathleen Clark, a professor specializing in legal ethics at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. She said that though Trump Jr. is not a government employee, he’s nonetheless politically influential, incentivizing foreign officials such as the Mongolian leader to treat him favorably out of a “desire on the part of a foreign government to curry favor with the president’s family.”
In response to questions from ProPublica about the hunting trip, a spokesman for Trump Jr., an avid outdoorsman, said in a statement it was a purely personal expedition. He purchased the seven-day Mongolian hunting trip at a National Rifle Association charity auction before his father announced his candidacy for president in 2015, the spokesman said, and flew commercial in and out of the country. It’s unclear if the auction item listed an argali or mentioned meetings with Mongolian government officials.
Mongolia is a resource-rich, young democracy that considers the U.S. an important ally as it faces pressure from its powerful neighbors, particularly the Chinese. Legislation introduced this year in Congress would give duty-free treatment to Mongolian cashmere and other products in an effort to increase trade between the two countries — and lessen its reliance on China.
The hunt came just weeks after high-level government discussions — including a White House meeting — between officials from the U.S. and Mongolia, a landlocked country sandwiched between Russia and China. Mongolia refers to the U.S. as its “third neighbor,” relying on America for economic and security support. During that meeting, the Mongolian president gave a horse to President Donald Trump’s youngest son, Barron. Trump named it “Victory.” (The horse, a traditional ceremonial gift, resides in Mongolia.)
The hunting trip Trump Jr. won at auction was sponsored by a Mongolian tourism company and arranged byJandos Kontorbai Ahat, a member of the Mongolian president’s political party. His company, Marmara International LLC, is on the board of the Mongolian hunting association and has been recognized for its work on argali wildlife preservation by the Mongolian Environmental Ministry.
In an interview, Ahat called the trophy hunting permitting system in Mongolia “very political.” He wouldn’t say how he arranged for Trump Jr.’s permit, or acknowledge that the hunt took place, but he praised Trump Jr. “Don Jr. was an upstanding person, he never did anything that was unpleasant,” Ahat said. “He treated people with respect.”
Ahat said the embassy’s defense attache accompanied the hunting party on the trip. Hunting guides and scouts who worked on Trump Jr.’s trip said the president’s son was joined by what they described as five American bodyguards. The U.S. Secret Service doesn’t comment on protection details, according to an agency spokesman. In the statement from Trump Jr.’s spokesman, he said that protection details are determined by the Secret Service, not Trump Jr. Trump Jr.’s spokesman did not comment on who accompanied the president’s son.
The White House, State Department, Defense Department and U.S. Embassy in Mongolia haven’t responded to questions about Trump Jr.’s trip. The NRA declined to comment.
In his statement, Trump Jr.’s spokesman said no government officials from either country organized the trip and said the permits were appropriately obtained via a third-party outfitter, “as is standard in the industry.” It’s not clear what Trump Jr. paid for his hunting excursion, but a review of online promotions shows that Mongolian outfitters typically charge between $24,000 and $50,000 to wealthy Westerners who want to shoot and kill argali. Four members of the Kardebai family, local herders who served as scouts on Trump Jr.’s hunt, confirmed to ProPublica that they were paid for their services but wouldn’t disclose how much or by whom.
While hunting permits are intended to protect the sheep and fund conservation efforts, the population of argalis has plummeted over the last 35 years. The estimated population in the country dropped from 50,000 in 1985 to just 18,000 in 2009, the most recent survey period, said Amgalanbaatar Sukh, a scientist who heads an argali research center in Mongolia. The animals are listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Advocates say trophy hunting can help conserve threatened species by managing the population’s size. They say permit fees go toward supporting local communities, who are paid for their services and keep the meat harvested from the kills. But some conservation biologists and animal rights groups contend the hunting programs are ineffective and can lead to disruption of local ecosystems.
In Mongolia, the permit process has been rife with favoritism, experts say. Obtaining permission to trophy hunt in Mongolia is an insider’s game featuring a poorly tracked quota system, said Nathan Conaboy, a researcher who helped author a 2016 Zoological Society of London study of argali in Mongolia.
Sukh said the permits are often arranged by high-level government contacts in ways privy only to those in the know. There are sometimes discrepancies between the number of permits issued and the official quota figures for argali, he said. The government has allotted 86 such permits to be issued this year, with specific numbers assigned to each hunting region across the country, for a season that lasts from July 1 to Sept. 30. The hunters’ fees are supposed to pay herders and scouts as well as fund surveys and other ram management programs. Sukh said he’d never received government funds to conduct such surveys.
Trump Jr. shot his argali at night, using a rifle with a laser sight, the guides said. He stopped the local hunting guides from dismembering it at the kill site, instead instructing them to use an aluminum sheet to carry the carcass so as not to damage the fur and horns, said Khuandyg Akhbas, 50, one of the guides. He also killed a red deer, which similarly required a permit.
“At night, we couldn’t find where the animal fell, and we used our light from our phones to find the animal,” Akhbas said, describing the argali hunt. “In the morning they took the animal by truck to the mountain and shot a video on top of the mountain.”
The local guides, who said they were impressed by both Trump Jr.’s hunting abilities and his willingness to handle the animal’s dead body, were prevented from posing in photographs with Trump Jr. and the argali carcass. Trump Jr. posted nearly two dozen photos of his Mongolian vacation on Instagram in separate posts from August, October and November. One showed himin a yurt, another witha live eagle and a third depicted himriding a Mongolian horse. He did not post any photos of the argali.
Trump Jr. appears to have been joined in his hunting trip by a Republican donor, according to Instagram posts from late August posted by a Turkish hunting guide, Kaan Karakaya. Karakaya also joined Trump Jr. for the argali hunt, said the local guides. Karakaya and his company, Shikar Safaris, are favored by the Mongolian president’s office to facilitate trophy hunting in Mongolia, said Sukh, the argali expert.
Karakaya posted photos and videos on Instagram featuring an American oil and gas company CEO named Kevin Small killing an argali in August, around the time of Trump Jr.’s trip to the country. In one of the photos of Small posing with the carcass of the sheep, Trump Jr. comments: “Amazing sheep and amazing guy.” The link to the post is no longer working.
Campaign finance records show Small increased his political donations to Republicans in the months ahead of the trip. In March, he gave $50,000 to the Take Back the House 2020 joint fundraising committee, an additional $35,500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, and $10,600 to a super PAC supporting House Republican candidates and the campaign fund for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader. The amount far exceeds his contributions in previous years, federal campaign contribution records show.
Trump Jr.’s spokesman didn’t answer questions about Small. Small hasn’t responded to phone messages seeking comment. Karakaya didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
It’s unclear what happened to the argali trophy after Trump Jr. killed it. To import the fur and horns of the argali he killed, Trump Jr. would have had to apply for and be granted permission by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Trump Jr. didn’t respond to questions about this. A spokeswoman for the service wouldn’t say whether Trump Jr. had applied for such a license.