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Who Was the World’s Greatest Hunter?

by Craig Boddington   |  August 22nd, 2012 24

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.

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!

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.

Frederick-Courteney-Selous_002It 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.

  • Don L. Higley

    Well the greatest Professional Hunter was Eric Rundgren, bar none. Professional Hunters hunt specific game and are paid to do that. He was the best.

    • Araceli Vivanco

      Hector Cuellar for sure!

  • thehousedad

    I read many a story by/on Selous and think that is a great choice. There are so many choices though, I could never pick just one. I'd have a hard time just picking even one of the great bear men form Alaska. Teddy Roosevelt gets my vote as greatest president ever. I wish we had another one like him today. So badly needed.

  • gdc23

    Larry Benoit, for those that have accepted the challenge and hunted big woods bucks, most will agree Larry Benoit is the worlds best deer hunter

  • Dan Lewis

    It would be hard to come up with a more subjective subject, so to speak. Most of you all probably never heard of him, but Watson T. Yoshimoto, of Honolulu, would certainly be up there. He also hunted all over the globe, and there was an article in Field & Stream about him taking a walrus the day after he came back with it. (International Date Line crossing and back) He pretty much single-handedly stocked the Univ. of Hawaii large animal collection/museum, and was a Weatherby Award winner. He was also a prodigious consumer of Dewar's White Label Scotch, knocking down a water glass full at dinner with no apparent effects, not that it means anything in this context. He was also a very good friend of our family, so I cannot claim to be uninvolved.

  • Scott

    I agree. Selous immediately came to mind.

  • George

    Selous, without hesitation

  • Maurice F. V. Doll

    A big "thumbs up" to you Craig Boddington!

    Selous was very highly regarded in his own lifetime. As you are already aware, Teddy Roosevelt consulted with him prior to his great African collecting adventure on behalf of the Smithsonian after the turn of the 20th century.

    by J. G. Millais (1918) if you wish to know more about this remarkable man.

    Maurice F. V. Doll
    Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

  • Witold Jakutowicz

    There have been many great hunters in the past. Those being Fletcher Jamison snr, John Howard "Pondoro" Taylor, Harry Selby and Kerr & Downey – who helped set the standards for Professional Hunters of East Africa and later for Southern Africa. What I aree with, is Fredrick Courtney Selous was to help Romantices and Beautify Africa for everything it has to offer. Africa is a special place and Female. The beauty of the land, animals and people are second to none. The fact that Selous died on the East African Front Line during World War 1 at aged 65, proves his skill, prowess and ability in being a Hunter. It is befiting such a person that the Selous National Park was created in his honour.

    Craig Boddington, thank you for highlighting this special honour for such a great man.

    Brian Marsh sends his regards.

    Witold Jakutowicz
    Cape Town, South Africa

  • SIG

    Frederick Courtnay Selous

    Valentin De Madariaga
    Hector Cuellar
    Rex Baker
    Robert Speegle
    Craig Boddington
    James Mellon
    Jesus Yuren
    Ricardo Medem
    H.I.H Prince Abdorreza Pahlavi
    James Conklin

    P.S.Uder personal opinion

    • valorius

      Uh…jim corbett.

  • James Passmore

    I don't know how you could possibly quantify it.
    Roosevelt wasn't really much of a hunter or a shot from what I have read. And Townsend Whelen just for for example, only shot 114 head of deer in his lifetime I think he wrote. Meaning that just because some of these guys are famous doesn't mean they were more accomplished as hunters, just meant they were writers too.

    WDM BEll perhaps. Not just for elephants, but for the countless plains game as well, 700 buffalo etc. Plus, he was famous for being a hunter well before he wrote his first book after he retired from elephant hunting. In the RFC "flight' magazine he is introduced as the "world famous african hunter', this was in 1916.

    I don't think anyone who hunts in the world today with outfitters and PH's and guides can really qualify. And the notion of contributing to concervation didn't meaning anything until fairly recently, and still doesn't in some parts of the world.
    Why should military service count in calculating the 'greatest' hunter? Why, in the case of Selous, should his political activities? Or how many continents a man has hunted?

    I know hunters who have personally shot red deer and Himmalyan tahr into the many thousands, yet they will never be famous, even in hunting circles, because they have never wrote a book about it.

    I vote for E.J. Herrick, Jim Muir, and Major R.A Wilson of New Zealand.

  • JFuentes

    Great article, Mr. Boddington! One of my favorite books written on this topic IMHO, was Peter Hathaway Capstick's "Death in the Silent Places". In it, he dedicates chapters to some of history's greatest hunters, giants among mere mortals; and the one that I was most awestruck by was Alexander "Sasha" Siemel, who hunted marauding jaguars in Brazil's pantanal in the early 1900's. He did so with rifle and bow, but mostly with the zagaya, or spear… yes, spear!!! If memory serves me, he chose to do so because the proximity of the inevitable attack out from the thick vegetation gave him mere seconds to react. He relied on dogs to warn him of the nearby "tigre" (as jaguars were referred to); however, I recently saw in his TV show, where one of our current famous hunters, Jim Shockey was working with a conservationist to tranquilize and collar these big cats; they were also using dogs. A male jaguar systematically killed all the dogs before the team could reach them; they are that powerful and that fast. The fact that Siemel suffered similar losses and continued on his purpose grants him the "Balls of Steel" award in my book.

  • T Stewart

    As a professional conservationist and a hunter who has grown up and lives in South Africa, the most remarkable thing about reading Selou's memoirs was his ability to accurately observe, anylize and draw some profound conclusions about the natural world around him. That and his ability to question his own value systems in the light of new information and observations and then change them. For a man raised in Victorian England that trait set him apart from most of his contemporaries.

  • John Finch

    Gee! No mention of Harry manners as a great hunter. Just goes to show that not all the best have been considered?

  • Dave Small

    I concur with your choice of Selous, but Powell-Cotton and Russell Aitken would also be in the list of contenders.

  • Hal Davis

    Are you guys kidding me? The greatest hunter of all time was and always will be Fred Bear. He killed every trophy animal on the face of the earth with a bow and arrow. Many of the dangerous animals at only several yards away. Can't believe Mr. Boddington failed to mention his name..

  • Dave Payne

    My first thought was "Selby", but only because I read everything by Ruark I could get my hands on while I was in high school. But, I think I will go with Selous due to his overall accomplishments and the time in which he hunted.

  • jeff johnston

    Jim Corbett. It's not even close.

  • Jason B.

    I think Selous is an excellent choice, but a strong argument could be made for Jim Corbett as well.

  • Tim Best

    My family owned, in an era now past, the original Rowland Ward, taxidermists to the Sportsmen of the World.
    It turned out to be a dying business in more ways than one!
    The stories about the company are endless and legendary.
    Among the RW clients at the beginning of the 20th Century was one hunter/naturalist by the name of Frederick Courteney Selous, for whom Rowland Ward modeled trophies, and published certain of his books, notably "Travel and Adventure in South-East Africa" 1893.
    It's worth mentioning F.C.Selous' wide interests, as he was not only a remarkable hunter and naturalist.
    Fortunately for him, he lived at a time of exploration and adventure in unknown regions of Africa, often treading a path where no white man had set foot. He earned his living by hunting and guiding – he escorted President Roosevelt on his African safari.
    He was a pioneer with an passionately enquiring mind, interested in everything going on around him, whether in the bush or in the progress of countries throughout southern Africa.
    There are some great stories in the book, but it is significant the sub-title is "…Narrative of the last eleven years….on the Zambesi and its tributaries; with an account of the Colonisation of Mashunaland and the progress of the Gold Industry of that country".
    Happy New Year.
    Tim Best. London.

  • Lincoln Was Right

    FCS is a great choice, but nobody touches Jim Corbett.

  • Vivek

    No one comes close to Jim Corbett

  • valorius

    Jim corbett.
    not even close.

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