The Golden Age of Safari in Africa
August 27, 2018
Africa has changed since the time of Roosevelt, but it is still a place of adventure.
The epic 1909 journey of Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt is often considered the beginning of the great days of African hunting and the first use of the word "safari" as we think of it. By then, most of Africa had been explored and mapped and almost all of her major species identified to Western science. The Roosevelt party was not the first to go "out to Africa" on essentially an extended hunting vacation, but the fanfare that surrounded the Roosevelt safari — and African Game Trails, T.R.'s subsequent book — really did launch the safari industry. Philip Percival, one of the young guides, turned full-time professional after the Roosevelt safari and, in time, became known as "the dean of professional hunters."
The Roosevelt safari may have been the beginning of a golden age of African hunting, but exactly when this special period ended is less clear. The date often suggested is the closure of Kenya in 1977. Without question, this was a major blow to the safari industry, but it wasn't the only nail in the coffin. We tend to forget that Tanzania closed hunting first, in 1973 (to reopen in 1981). In the 1970s, political unrest drove hunters out of Angola, Mozambique, and Chad, and then Sudan in 1983.
Those were dark days, and predictions were dire. Fortunately, African wildlife and hunting are more resilient than we had thought. Of the countries mentioned, only Angola, Kenya, and Sudan remain closed. What really happened is that the safari industry moved south, and southern countries developed their wildlife. The inexpensive "plains game safari" hardly existed in the 1970s. Today, Namibia and South Africa host more than 50 percent of the continent's 20,000-plus annual hunting safaris. However, they are just two of the more than twenty sovereign African nations that offer hunting opportunities for visitors. Some come and go. Gabon has reopened for the 2018 season, but many of Africa's hunting countries have been open continuously for decades, with hunting placing value on wildlife and creating incentive for conservation.
The Rise and Fall of Wildlife
Most African countries have indigenous rarities, localized subspecies not found elsewhere. There are antelope in places such as Angola and Sudan that haven't been hunted for a generation, but remnant populations are still there, awaiting rediscovery and husbandry. Certainly, some important African species, including elephant, lion, and black rhino, have been seriously reduced since the 1970s, but it's important that we never forget Kenya's elephants and rhinos were nearly wiped out by poaching gangs after sport-hunting was closed. The greatest loss to African wildlife in the last half-century has been the extermination of desert antelope on the fringes of the Sahara. In 1975, addax, dama gazelle, and scimitar oryx were once plentiful (and huntable), but they were eradicated by warring factions and are now considered extinct in the wild.
Collectively, continent-wide, there is much more hunting opportunity in today's Africa than existed in Kenya's final season. In Namibia and South Africa wildlife has increased at least twentyfold since 1970, largely due to efforts on private land and because the safari industry has placed value on wildlife. I'm not a gloom-and-doom guy, and it's not unthinkable that the golden age of African hunting is happening right now.
The Last of the "Great White Hunters"
But if safari began with Roosevelt, then perhaps it ended on January 20, 2018, with the passing of John Henry "Harry" Selby (1925 — 2018). After the Roosevelt safari, Percival guided many royals and tycoons, but he launched into worldwide fame as Ernest Hemingway's professional hunter on the 1933 safari that gave us Green Hills of Africa. In 1945, at the end of World War II, a young Harry Selby apprenticed under Percival. He was thus the last living link to the Roosevelt safari. Although just one of many young PHs mentored by Percival, Selby acquired worldwide renown as Robert Ruark's professional hunter in Ruark's 1953 bestseller Horn of the Hunter.
Never fully comfortable with fame, Selby consistently maintained that he was just one of many competent hunters, but he enjoyed a remarkable career. He pioneered the opening of then Bechuanaland, now Botswana, in 1962, eventually moving to Maun in northeast Botswana. Most unusually, Selby conducted safaris for more than 50 consecutive hunting seasons. Neither he nor any of his clients were ever injured by dangerous animals or by accident. Humble and self-effacing — but full of great stories — Selby was the real deal as well as a truly nice guy. Although he had been retired for several years, my Africa will not be the same without him.
It is true that African hunting has changed as I've witnessed through the years. We think of golden age safaris as a time when Africa was a limitless wilderness, where safaris could pick up in Nairobi and wander across Kenya, perhaps drop down into Tanganyika or up through Uganda and all the way to Sudan. Safaris were much longer then. The Roosevelts' nine-month odyssey was unique, but even in my time a 21-day safari was minimal; today's common 10-day safari was unheard of. Permanent camps were unusual, lodges unknown, and at least two or three of the Big Five were commonly on license.