"White Hunters: The Golden Age of African Safaris"

A history defends the hunters as conservationists and argues that the real villains were poachers.


Scott Sutherland
June 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

On May 20, 1977, the government of Kenya banned big-game hunting in an attempt, the official line went, to preserve the wildlife that had become a major tourist draw. No more rifles, Nairobi said; from now on, Kenyan safaris would be conducted with binoculars and cameras.

The '70s were an overdue period of environmental consciousness-raising throughout the Western world, and to most Americans and Europeans the edict from Kenya was welcome. But the news from Africa is rarely as clear-cut as it first appears. As Brian Herne argues in "White Hunters," the real threat to Kenyan wildlife lay in poaching, which was widespread, indiscriminate and often conducted with the help of corrupt Kenyan game officials. The conservation-minded big game hunters were an easy target, though, and the hunting ban, still in place, abruptly ended a colorful if somewhat blood-spattered period of East African history.

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The demise of big game hunting in Kenya -- and in the Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Zaire -- occupies the final chapters of Herne's book, but it's a shame he didn't make it his primary subject. Herne, a second-generation Kenyan and himself a professional or "white" hunter (so called because virtually all of them were of European descent) for 30 years, might have injected his tale with a host of compelling post-Colonial story lines and told it from the perspective of an active participant -- but he does not. Instead he offers an exhaustive social history of the professional (and largely Anglo) hunting fraternity, from its Victorian beginnings to its heyday in the '50s, '60s and '70s. Vivid tales of cunning, bravery and foolhardiness abound, but Herne, apparently intent on historical completeness, goes on burnishing the legend long after it has achieved peak elegiac glow. Of the book's 49 chapters, it's the final two, with an accompanying epilogue, that resonate most deeply.

Still, many of Herne's anecdotes of life on safari stalking the Big Five -- lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant -- are spellbinding, as when 1960s-era white hunter Ian MacDonald confronts a wounded leopard:

The big cat immediately went for Ian's throat ... He swore and cussed and attacked the growling cat with his bare hands, grabbing it by the throat as [the leopard's] jaws locked on his forearm ... Somehow he got the cat in an armlock stranglehold, hoping to choke it, but the cat went berserk and broke free, sinking its fangs into Ian's arm ... As the battle raged, Ian punched the leopard and the two thrashed about in a bloody melee. A shredded dew claw from Ian's first shotgun blast ... hooked into the white of MacDonald's left eye ...

And so forth. MacDonald's Masai tracker eventually rushed in to dispatch the cat with a machete blow to the back; the hunter, stitched up in a Nairobi hospital, was back in the bush in less than a month.

Herne isn't the least bit interested in analyzing his bwanas' sense of entitlement. He prefers to pepper his tales of bloody derring-do with amusing stories of the rich and famous on safari, notably their sexual entanglements: "Even when [Edward, Prince of Wales] was on safari his attention was easily diverted by female company. At Dodoma ... the prince disappeared into the night with the wife of a junior official, then turned up several hours late for a formal dinner."

Aside from occasional nuggets, though -- such as Queen Victoria's bestowing Mount Kilimanjaro upon Kaiser Wilhelm for his birthday, the 1920s practice of treating the dreaded blackwater fever with massive ingestions of champagne, white hunters' role in the bloody Mau Mau uprisings of the 1950s -- the profiles that make up the vast midsection of Herne's book follow a predictable pattern: A notable white hunter is introduced and his various qualities listed; he goes on safari with a rich or famous client, who inevitably botches the kill; the quarry flees into a thicket, with the white hunter hot on its tracks; the beast, wounded and royally pissed off, launches a surprise counterattack and proceeds to maul, horn, tusk, eviscerate or otherwise distress the hunter, who desires only to put it out of its misery. Most of these encounters end with the survival of the hunter. A few, in spectacularly gruesome fashion, do not.

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Herne traces the history of the hunters' conservation efforts, making a strong case at the close for the return of hunter-influenced game management in East Africa, where over the past three decades poachers armed with military assault rifles have decimated the game population. "The simple uncontrovertible fact is that in countries with a per capita income of a few hundred dollars a year, there is little hope for the rhinoceros when the current price fetched by its horn is more than $30,000 per pound," Herne concludes. Of East Africa and the golden age of safaris, he asks, "Paradise lost? Perhaps." After the final chapters of "White Hunters," though, that "perhaps" seems like a vastly over-optimistic answer.


Scott Sutherland

Scott Sutherland is a writer in Portland, Maine.

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