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Who Was the World’s Greatest Hunter?

By Craig Boddington
8/22/2012 1:09:30 PM

A colleague of mine stated that he wishes to be remembered as the world's greatest hunter. That's a pretty lofty goal, so I trust he was kidding. I can assure you, I have no such aspirations! If I am remembered as a half-decent writer who loved to hunt and tell the truth, then I'd go away a happy man. The more I think about it, however, it's an interesting question. How could we determine who deserves the title as the world's greatest hunter? I recall the contest for Time magazine's "Person of the Century" as 1999 drew to a close. My vote went to Winston Churchill, but the winner was Albert Einstein. Not a bad choice. Determining the best hunter ever? Wow!

This is probably the most famous photo of Frederick Courteney Selous. Book in hand, bustards in the bag and the falling-block single-shot rifle that he preferred by his side.

I'm quite sure that, especially in our modern context of the "hunter-conservationist," the amount of game taken is not a deciding factor. Hunting skills are important, but they should probably be considered a given for anyone approaching that level. What about lasting impact? I suppose every nation with a hunting tradition has its own folk heroes, so maybe we should start with our own. What about David Crockett? His renown as a hunter and backwoods philosopher earned him eight years in Congress, so he certainly gave back. As a young man, he served honorably in the Creek War, and when he died at the Alamo at age 50, he was a pure volunteer.

On the other hand, while he gave back to society (in full measure), it is not recorded that he did much for wildlife. He lived in a time when "conservation" was almost unknown, so this can be forgiven, but as the 19th century progressed, at least one more candidate emerged.

What about Theodore Roosevelt? He lived in a time when travel was becoming more practical. We all know about his epic nine-month safari in 1909-10, but throughout his life he hunted widely across North America and in 1913-14 hunted and explored the Upper Amazon of Brazil. As a hunter, Roosevelt visited just three continents. But perhaps he should be forgiven this because he was busy serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice President, and President of the United States. As a conservationist, well, T.R. was the father and author of the great wildlife resources Americans enjoy today. In 1888, he was a founder of the Boone and Crockett Club, and as our 26th President (1901-1909) he was the first to make conservation a national issue. He gave back in so many ways. As a colonel of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, he received a much-belated Congressional Medal of Honor for his cool leadership and astounding bravery on San Juan Hill. As a statesman, he received the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War. He was a brave warrior, a great president, a pioneer conservationist, and, throughout all, a keen and enthusiastic hunter. That's tough to contend with.

Fast-forward a century.

Jet travel shortens the timeline, and all explorations of the world are complete. We are in a time when hunters with some combination of means and will can hunt all the continents in a single year rather than a lifetime. This was impossible in Crockett's day and almost unthinkable in Roosevelt's. While we (or at least I) have agreed to take hunting skill as a given, is it the same to travel from guided hunt to guided hunt as it was to pioneer new territory, braving unknown illnesses and unknown animals?

To me, it is not the same. But modern hunters should not be penalized for living in a known and available world anymore than their forebears should be penalized for living in a time when their movement was limited to horse and foot travel. So there are modern hunters who should be considered for the title of the world's greatest hunter. These are men I know, and they are my heroes. They include Hector Cuellar, Jesus Yuren, and the late Adrian Sada of Mexico; Enrique Zamacola and the late Valentin de Madariaga and Ricardo Medem of Spain; the late Prince Abdol Reza Pahlavi of Iran; the late Carlo Caldesi of Italy; and Dr. Robert Speegle and Rex Baker of the United States.

All of these men achieved hunting's highest honors but continued or are continuing the hunt, because that's part of who they are. None had the opportunity to explore unseen territory, but all opened new hunting areas. Each one, in his time, hunted throughout the known world. Each, too, has given back, both to wildlife and the hunting traditions that we all share. If we were seeking the greatest hunter of our time, this would be a good list to start. If we were attempting to determine the greatest living hunter, we might seek him among the men in this group. But don't ask me to vote, because I cannot rank my heroes; several are also my friends.

Ah, but our mission was to determine the greatest hunter of all time. If we heavily weight lasting impact, perhaps it was the Biblical Nimrod or Saint Hubertus, patron saint of all hunters. But if we consider the modern contexts of traveling to distant lands to hunt unfamiliar beasts, forwarding the cause of conservation, and giving back to society, then I must cast my vote for one man: Frederick Courteney Selous (1851-1917).

There should be little question to his title as the greatest African hunter. Selous hunted ivory in the 1870s, led Cecil John Rhodes' Pioneer Column into Rhodesia in 1890, and explored East Africa for the British crown. Along the way, he collected innumerable specimens for museums, and although "trophy quality" was a fledgling concept in his day, many of his trophies still rank high in Rowland Ward's records. In 1892 he was awarded the Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his explorations in southern Africa.

It wasn't just his African hunting that earns him my vote. He hunted widely throughout Europe and penetrated Asia to what is now Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and the Russian Caucasus. Perhaps more amazingly, in a time before air travel, he hunted widely in North America-Wyoming, Colorado, New Brunswick, and, in 1904 and 1905, Alaska and the Yukon. He left behind a dozen books, all very readable today, and in his early sixties was enjoying retirement in his native England when World War I commenced. He immediately volunteered for active service and was appropriately assigned to East Africa, receiving a captain's pips in August 1915. He served with distinction in the long campaign against Germany's Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and was noted for his stamina among soldiers a third his age. In September 1916 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order "for conspicuous gallantry, resource, and endurance...He has set a magnificent example to all ranks, and the value of his service with his battalion cannot be over-estimated."

On January 4, 1917, five days after his 65th birthday, when he should have been home writing his memoirs surrounded by family, he was engaged in a firefight along the Rufiji River in what is now the Selous Game Reserve of southern Tanzania. He rose up to use his binoculars and was instantly killed by a bullet to the brain. Upon learning the African askaris had felled the great Selous, von Lettow-Vorbeck sent a note of condolence across the lines. A gesture from an earlier time, it was said this was the only time this was done in the Great War.

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