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Size Really Matters!

As already mentioned “Karamojo” Bell must be adjudged the man with the largest number of African elephants to his credit, which number amounted to 1011 animals (of which only 28 were cows shot in self defence or for rations).

What does make the feat remarkable are two facts: firstly that he walked/ran down each of these animals on foot, averaging some 73 miles per animal and using up 24 pairs of boots per annum, and secondly, that he employed a 7mm or .276 calibre rifle to do the majority of his work. There was skill in his hunting; dogged tenacity and endurance, but in the end it comes down to a ledger of profit and loss, with so many pounds of ivory bagged during the year, and so many expenses on the debit side. His attitude can be gauged from his remark about his most unpleasant experience: “Travelling hot-foot 8½ hours at six miles per hour on an enormous track in wet season to find a tuskless bull. Killed him to prevent a recurrence!” – of course, what else could a gentleman do? In his spare time he did a little meat-hunting, popping off, on one occasion, 23 buffalo out of a herd of 23 with a pepped-up .22 rifle – “to see how effective the tiny, 80 grain bullet would prove, but also for meat”.

To put Bell’s achievements into proper perspective, one should, of course, mention in the same breath that four military men (Maj. Rogers, Capts. Galway, Skinner & Layard) who were stationed on the tiny island of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) managed to mow down the stupendous numbers of 1500, 1300, 1200 and 1000 elephants respectively, using nothing more than smooth-bore sawn-off 16-gauge guns during the early 19th century. I wouldn’t have believed that the island held that many pachyderms in between the teeming millions of people, but hey, I read it in a book (Big Game Shooting Records, E. N. Barclay, Witherby, 1932).

Nor does Bell’s little effort at buffalo hunting make any dent in the all-time slaughter records of American bison – to the tune of Frank Carvers’s year’s total of 5500, Buffalo Bill Cody’s tally of 4280 and A C Myers’s little bag of 4200. These three guys must have been serious competition to the best harpooners of blue whales in the heyday of whaling – even if only in terms of actual biomass exterminated. But wait – my authority has managed to exceed even those numbers for big game – in the personages of the Elector Johann Georg of Saxony, and his son of the same name during the 17th century. These two blue-blooded aristos managed to top 35 491 and 43 649 head of red deer respectively, the weights of some of which went way over 700lbs – so work out that little sum, friends! In the same chapter the reader is regaled also by the fact that one of the Johann Georgs refused the crown of Bohemia –“because the Bohemian stags were inferior both in numbers and size” – Ach, mein Gott, – Johann, you have my sympathies!

So merely as a little diversion from the main theme of great African hunters, let us delve further into the histories of the chase. During the early Middle Ages, men, in this case mostly of noble blood or landed gentry in the case of the Brits, were the only ones permitted to slay any beast (with the exception of people of conflicting interests and opinions, of course, as these could be topped by any common ceorl or villein). These latter low classes took their life in their hands if they developed a taste for venison that rightfully belonged to their lords and masters. Since the pleasure of hunting was only sporadically interrupted by spells of government and wars, it followed that the nobles could expend an uncommon amount of effort in the chase. In addition it gave them something to brag about when they foregathered at the round table of an evening, devouring the best of boar and Burgundy. In early days gone by, the hunter was only armed with a bow, a lance or a knife, with a pack of baying curs as assistants, and hunting was a strenuous and somewhat risky adventure. Enter the crossbow, and later the arquebus (or better variations on the theme). Suddenly it became desirable that the hunter should be stationary, while the quarry was moved towards him. The low classes were given employment to chase all that moved to move towards the line of “guns” waiting in ambush – and hey presto, we have the birth of the Big Bag. If you encircled a few hundred square kilometres of forest with enough peasants (who would camp and make fires at night to keep the game from breaking out), within a couple of days you could push a satisfactory assortment of some tens of thousands of small and large game past a few dozen marksmen, who’d whiled away the time drinking Champers and playing cards until the action started. The nobility of Europe vied with each other to see what they could tally up. There is even an account of a King of Italy chasing hundreds of his peasants into the Alps between 6000 and 12 000 feet high to chase down some chamois and ibex within reach of his artillery.

James Sutherland shot some 447 elephant bulls in ten years, he reckoned this to be some sort of world record. His passion led him northwards and until shortly before World War I he made Tanganyika his headquarters. Sutherland wrote an interesting book entitled Adventures of an Elephant Hunter (Macmillan, 1912), full of his observations on nature, hunting experiences and the lives of his men.

In one respect he differed radically from Bell. He preferred rifles of the heaviest calibres that could be purchased at the time; yet he had a number of narrow squeaks with his prey turning on him in the thick bush in which he hunted. In one instance he got tossed and landed on the wounded beast’s back, while on another occasion he took a well-earned rest on a dead elephant, before hiking back to camp. The elephant was never found, as it obviously woke up from its prolonged bout of anaesthesia and decamped. Proof that Sutherland was not as expert an anatomist of the elephant as was Bell, but the former’s attitude to hunting the great beasts was similar to the latter’s in that each kill represented pounds, shillings and pence in the bank – and that there was no end to the supply of quarries for their guns.

A gigantic, but romantic Scot of great ineptitude is next under the lens. Roualeyn Gordon Cumming found the hunting of the great stag on the highlands was not enough to fire his blood, so he came to South Africa for a five year stint of killing the braw and wee beasties i’ the bush. Of his experiences he wrote the acclaimed and oft reprinted work Five Years of a Hunter’s Life in the Far Interior of South Africa (John Murray, 1850 et al), which is readable for a while, but tends to get wearisome as the great Nimrod struggles manfully to down the gigantic beast “from half-past eleven till the sun was under, when his tough old spirit fled and he fell pierced with fifty-seven balls”. Another time it took 35 and 30 balls respectively. No one could say Cumming didna’ have the balls. I mean, at 4 ounces each, someone must have been carrying the better part of 7 kg of lead in their pouch – or was it in their sporran – on that first occasion mentioned. And then to write about it? I would have been too ashamed to confess to keeping an entire mining sector occupied in my efforts to obtain a little sport, but not our man. To be fair, the seemingly huge numbers of corpses achieved were spread over five years – and then condensed into 756 pages, but he would have presented himself in a far more favourable light as a hunter and sportsman if he had left the rifle in the gunroom and confined himself to sticking a sgian dubh into a royal stag, or something. Needless to say, his bag of elephants did not place him in the hall of fame.

Yet another Scot was one William Henry Drummond, who wrote The Large Game and Natural History of South and South-East Africa (Edmonston & Douglas, 1875); a quite entertaining account of five years’ adventures in Zululand and Swaziland, during which he hunted mainly buffalo, as well as a few elephants and smaller game. I read the book quite recently with interest. His natural history observations are pretty good, as far as I can judge, and I was amazed at his courage – no, foolhardiness, in rushing in where people a hundred years later, armed with modern magazine rifles, would hesitate to tiptoe in pursuit of wounded buff. It is difficult to gauge how many animals fell to this hunter, as there always seemed a goodly number of (mostly black) hunters in his company, and with everyone blazing away into the bushes, it must have given one the uncomfortable feeling of being in the middle of a swarm of bumble bees. Nonetheless they floored large numbers of buffaloes daily, with not too much loss of life and limb among the humans.

A man who had a great reputation, which far exceeded his actual achievements, was Arthur Neumann, an interesting person, who had a chequered career. He scrimped and saved for years before outfitting his own safari, with which he explored and hunted with the Nderobo tribe near Mount Kenya for three years, and explored north towards Lake Turkana (Rudolph). Neumann at first also hunted with large calibre rifles, but he was introduced to the military Lee-Metford, which he tended to prefer even to his Martini-Henry as a “finishing weapon” from the start. His liking for the light calibre, which he adopted for all his hunting, took a knock though when he was seriously injured by an elephant cow after his .303 jammed. A lengthy period of recuperation followed, after which he painfully made his way back towards Mombasa – still managing to bag his three best tuskers with his popgun, even in his half crippled state, on the way home. He lived to write Elephant Hunting in East Equatorial Africa (Rowland Ward, 1897) and the volume was so well-received by the public, that he became an instant Nimrod of Note, though in all likelihood this retiring man’s bag never exceeded a hundred elephants by many. What struck me on reading his book was the sheer number of rhinos that he killed – mostly as rations for the hungry Ndorobo and surrounding tribes. Neumann was different from some of the other hunters I have read about, though, in that he genuinely hated to kill these animals unnecessarily, or for sport alone, when there was no chance of the meat being used. He didn’t rate them as particularly dangerous, nor did he think they were difficult to kill.

William Finaughty, on the other hand, was a man who won little renown during his lifetime, though he richly deserved it. It was only due to the services of an American, who met the old man in 1913 shortly before his death, that his Recollections of William Finaughty – Elephant Hunter (Privately published by G. L. Harrison, 1916) appeared, and that we have learnt about his exploits. He did most of his hunting from the saddle in the more open country of Matabeleland, but he wasted a prodigious amount of horseflesh due to horse-sickness in the process. He hunted primarily with a muzzle-loader firing a four-ounce slug, and managed the feat of slaying six beasts with five bullets, when he noticed the fifth animal had his bullet lodged under the skin on the far side, cut it out and with the recycled lead he got another bull with the next shot. Although the record of his bag is not complete, his tally on record is well over 400 animals.


Talking about cannons, Samuel Baker must take the prize. He persuaded the firm of Holland & Holland to make him a single-barrel rifle, weighing 20 lbs, which fired a half-pound explosive shell at its target. He notes briefly that he only fired this calibre about 20 times in all – each time with satisfactory results. I should b— well think so!

Among the other heavyweights are, of course, the rhinos. Somehow their horns lacked appeal during the great hunting era of the 19th century, and most of the great hunters shot them in staggering numbers, purely, it would seem, because of their nuisance value, or at best for carriers’ rations. The Swedish trader/hunter C J Andersson probably put a sizeable dent into the rhino population of Namibia; he records bags of “scores” of these animals in Lake Ngami (Hurst & Blackett,1856), his best tally being eight beasts killed at a waterhole during one nightly vigil. Not unlike dynamiting fish in a pool – especially since another dozen or so other heads of game bit the dust that night as well. W C Oswell seemed to enjoy hunting rhino, and while no numbers were recorded in the book by his son, William Cotton Oswell, Hunter and Explorer (Heinemann, 1900), it does mention that Oswell and a companion kept a starving tribe of six hundred souls alive for a couple of months on this strong diet. The aforementioned Finaughty, in addition to his sizeable bag of tuskers also managed the odd baker’s dozen of rhinos on at least one day when the elephants stayed away. Towards the end of the 19th century rhino horn suddenly attained popularity – possibly due to a population explosion of Middle Easterners reaching puberty thus needing ornate daggers hafted in this material – or maybe due to a suspected drop in population in India and China, which required some rejuvenation of the male libidos in those parts. Whichever, suddenly traders were arming the tribesmen with blunderbusses and sending them off after the hapless animals, of which there seemed to have been an almost inexhaustible supply until the 1930s, when the game clearances to eradicate Nagana in Zululand almost spelled an end to the genus Diceros in Africa.

The lion needs to be considered when one chronicles the great hunters of yore. However, it is difficult to get to grips with exact numbers, since all too often hunters had a back-up rifle nearby, not to speak of packs of curs, trackers and gunbearers armed variously with rifles and spears – because lions are fast and deadly, especially when wounded. So while we read that a certain Paul Rainey killed over two hundred, Clifford Hill “had been in on the death of 160 lions”; Sir Alfred Pease was a famous hunter with a bag of about 135 lions, Petrus Jacobs killed more than a hundred in his time, and Selous was no slouch himself when it came to hunting the big cats – most of them had a bit of help, making it difficult to apportion exact numbers. What is probably not widely known is that the great conservator, James Stevenson-Hamilton, of Kruger National Park fame, had an individual bag of in excess of two hundred lions that he hunted, sometimes accompanied by a tracker or two, on foot, armed mainly with a .303 rifle (Big Game Shooting Records, Witherby, 1932)

I have left that Beau Geste of the African hunt as last but not least. Frederick Courteney Selous, although not the man with the biggest bag of anything in the annals of the genre, was certainly one of the most fêted of hunter-writers of the late Victorian era. He was the British gentleman-adventurer, the Nimrod, naturalist, soldier and fallen hero. He was fortunate to be able to leave England at an early age, determined to make his living as an elephant-hunter. His first twenty years were spent in southern and central Africa, hunting, exploring, trading and guiding others. Two books were published during this period: A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa (1881) and Travel and Adventure in South-East Africa (1893). Selous’s bag of elephants is tallied at 106 by one writer (E N Barclay, 1932) – a far cry from the stupendous bags mentioned previously, but estimates for his entire bag of larger animals is just over a thousand, and the Selous Collection in the Natural History Museum in London has over 500 of his specimen in their collection. However, it is unlikely that any other hunter managed to amass such a diverse collection in his lifetime. Selous was not just a bloodthirsty noble let loose on the fauna of a continent, but undoubtedly an able writer, a reliable observer, and a skilled hunter who deserved most of that iconic stature and esteem in which he was held. Although I read most of his books (repeatedly) quite a long time ago; I remember them fondly and they would be among the first of the genre that I would advise anyone to read.

Hippos, though reputed to be the most dangerous mammal to man on the continent, do not seem to figure largely in bag totals. The reason is simple – they were considered as food and they were in another element; the hunter could sit on the bank of the river and take potshots in safety. Very few hunters would have had the temerity to take on a grown hippo on land at night, and numerous were the boats upset and people killed in African waters. Millions were exterminated between the time van Riebeeck landed at the Cape and the present day – but they were just so much rich flesh – and hides.

Leopards, although dangerous and iconic large cats, did not seem to make it into the record books. Although their skins were sought-after trophies for the home and library floor, the relative ease with which they could be killed by a man wielding nothing more deadly than a spear – no, even by some men with bare hands alone – meant that no great kudos accrued to the hunter from a kill. While the same did not apply to the Indian leopards, some of whom became noted maneaters and killers, making them very worthy adversaries, not to be tackled with impunity, the African cats only became deadly to man once wounded. A fair number of Nimrods misjudged these bantamweight killers and paid the price after wounding them and following them into thick bush.

There we must leave the successful and notable hunters of the last two hundred years.


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