If prominence is the key, then starry Orion, hunting Taurus through the zodiac with his sword and a brace of dogs, would qualify. Nimrod was a mighty Biblical hunter, even though mentioned as such in only a single verse in Genesis. The Egyptian pharaohs were probably among the first to hunt for sport as much as food, journeying to the Euphrates Valley in what is now Syria to hunt the elephants that had been extinguished in Egypt; hunting lions from chariots with bow and arrow–Amenhotep III claiming 102 kills during the first ten years of his reign; and going after the most dangerous game in the Nile, the hippopotamus, in order to control its numbers and reduce its depredation on crops and threats to people.
The fourth century B.C. Greek writer and officer of cavalry Xenophon is worthy of note for producing the first treatise on hunting, Cynegeticus, based upon his personal experience of pursuing hares, deer, and boars with hounds. The first work on falconry, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, was authored by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor from A.D. 1220 to 1250, who retained fifty falconers in his court and hunted with Arctic gyrfalcons, while keeping a collection of wild animals that included cheetahs, giraffes, and an elephant. The sixteenth-century de Medici Pope Leo X, who excommunicated Martin Luther, does not seem to have written a hunting book, but he spent up to six weeks every fall away from the Vatican at his Villa Magliana, tramping in hunting boots instead of the red shoes of his office, giving chase to stags and boars and spearing them himself when they were caught in his nets (he also kept a menagerie of lions, leopards, and a cherished trained elephant named Annone).
Holy Roman Emperor
One of the earliest, if not first, books about actual safari hunting in Africa was the nineteenth-century Scotsman Roualeyn George Gordon-Cumming’s Five Years of a Hunter: Life in the Far Interior of South Africa, recounting his time in the Limpopo River Valley and what is now Botswana in the mid- to late 1840s when Gordon-Cumming, who was hunting deer before he entered Eton and went on to hunt in India, collected some thirty tons of trophy skins and horns, including those of lions, buffaloes, rhinos, “cameleopards,” and, to be sure, elephants.
A Mark of Greatness
If numbers are a mark of greatness, then the 4,862 bisons “Buffalo Bill” Cody said he killed in eighteen months during 1867-1868 with his .48-caliber Springfield breechloader, “Lucrezia Borgia,” while meat hunting for the railroads, should be noted. W.D.M. “Karamojo” Bell reportedly killed more than 1,011 bull elephants, many of them with the 7×57 and the 173-grain military bullet. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria took over 300,000 head of game, including some 5,000 deer, before his assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 lit the fuse of World War I. From 1867 to 1923, the English Lord Ripon shot 556,813 head of game, his gamebook tallying 97,503 grouse, 11,258 partridges, 2,454 woodcock, 2,882 snipe, 3,452 wild ducks, 30,280 hares, 34,118 rabbits, and 382 red deer, along with virtually untold pheasants. When he died without issue, his title, not without irony, became “extinct.”
Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Among the first true global hunters was Sir Samuel White Baker(1821-1893) who hunted from the Scottish Highlands to Europe, India and Ceylon, the Rocky Mountains, China, Japan, and most famously in Africa, where he carried his notorious two-bore rifle, “Child of the Cannon,” and searched for the source of the Nile, accompanied by his young Hungarian wife, whom he rescued from a Balkan slave market.
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America’s Greatest Hunters
Frederick CourteneySelous (1851-1917), the inspiration for H. Rider Haggard’s fictional Allan Quatermain, hunted for nearly two continuous decades in Southern Africa during his twenties and thirties, as well as throughout Europe from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean; in Wyoming, Alaska, and the Yukon; and in Turkey, Persia, and the Caucasus in Asia, but curiously never in India, before being killed at age sixty-five in action during World War I on the banks of the Rufiji River by a bullet fired by a sniper of the Imperial German East African Schutztruppen.
The original models of America’s greatest hunters were pioneers and pathfinders like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett or mountain men such as the slavery-born James Beckwourth, California explorer Jedediah Smith with his grizzly-“chawed” face, and the legendary Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, and John Colter.
Theodore Roosevelt, although nowhere as cosmopolitan a hunter as Baker or Selous, was the first American to gain an international reputation with his nine-month-long safari across British East Africa, the Belgian Congo, and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, his son Kermit and he taking 512 head of game, including guinea fowl, bustards, crocodiles, pythons, and a monitor lizard. He would also hunt, much less successfully, in the Amazon jungle of Brazil, with bad eyesight, poor shooting, and limited large game bringing him and his expedition near to starvation.
For the likes of Crockett and Boone, big game represented essential frontier provender, while for Bell and Selous it was a source of income–in Selous’s case to finance his early African adventuring, and for Bell to build a substantial fortune upon which he was able to retire in his native Scotland in his forties. Whether Baker hunted as an adjunct to his exploration, or explored in order to find new lands to hunt, he, like Roosevelt, probably more closely conformed to the image of the worldwide sporting hunter known today.
With the increased mobility made possible by air travel, there was, from about the end of World War II until the 1970s, almost no part of the world, or species of game, that was closed to the hunter with the means to pursue it. So a credible claim could be made for one of the hunters of that era–the Herb Kleins, Prince Abdorrezas, and Elgin Gateses–who were able to collect hundreds of different species of big game (a number of them practically unattainable today, such as tigers, black rhinos, polar bears, and jaguars), as the greatest–the claim perhaps only vitiated by the troubling connotations of that word “collect.”
A great shooter is not necessarily a great hunter, and body counts, record books, or awards are not corroboration of great hunting. Regrettably, there’s no requirement of an intimate knowledge of, or even respect for, an animal in order to kill it. To be truly the greatest, a hunter must have a reverence for, and familiarity with wildlife, its habits, and its habitats, to the extent that he lives, at least for a time, the wild life of the game he pursues, submits himself to its world and that world’s rules, and does not merely line up his sights on a patch of hiding. In the last century, perhaps the one hunter–at least the one we know about–who came closest to embodying these qualities was a man who worked for the Bengal and North Western Railway in India.
Growing up in the forests of the Himalayan foothills of Kumaon, Edward James “Jim” Corbett learned to recognize all the birds by their songs and the animals by their calls. Not a wealthy man or an aristocrat, Corbett turned his understanding of the forest into an unrivaled ability to hunt man-eating tigers and leopards, taking over thirty documented killers in thirty years–cats responsible for upward of 1,500 human deaths.
He could have used poison and snares, but he preferred to hunt on foot, alone except for his spaniel, often closing to within a few yards of a man-eater to get in the fatal shot. And he hunted tigers and leopards so well because he cared for them so deeply, almost as much as he did for the Indian villagers upon whom they preyed–and who considered him a sadhu or saint. By the time he left India for Kenya in the 1940s, he was drawing close to despair over the fate of the subcontinent’s wild animals and places, but he never stopped campaigning for them, so that today one of the premier wildlife areas remaining in India is Jim Corbett National Park.
The truth is, there is no real way of identifying the greatest hunter, who may today be sitting by an anonymous campfire up on the tundra or in a jungle somewhere, or who may have died fifty thousand years ago and lies buried with the spear he used to kill a hundred mammoths. The best we can do is try to emulate the spirit of an inarguably great hunter like Corbett in the honor and esteem in which he held the game he hunted and the natural environment in which he hunted it.