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People Top 5
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- July 26, 1976
- Vol. 6
- No. 4
The Breed Is Vanishing, but Harry Selby Holds Out as Africa's Great White Hunter
The white hunter once was recognized by his pith helmet, his exquisitely tanned brawn and his bush jacket with a bellows pleat. Now that almost everybody seems to look like that, one of the few sure ways to find a white hunter is to journey to the African nation of Botswana, find the outpost village of Maun and look up Harry Selby.
Selby has been known for years as the best of the white hunters, even by the white hunters themselves, but it now appears that at age 51 he just might be the last of the old breed.
Harry Selby came by his prowess in the bush the hard way, growing up in then-colonial Kenya, absorbing all the jungle lore that determines whether you come back with what you went out after or, as sometimes happens in the big-game business, it comes back with you. Hunting the predators that threatened his father's crops and cattle, Selby learned to stalk in a crouched, pigeon-toed, mincing stride that allows him to cover soundless miles, learned to track animals across dry hardpan and even rock, learned almost to think like his prey. Selby shot his first elephant at 14, which is more than pretty good if one likes that sort of thing.
Selby does. "To deny the instinct to hunt," he says, "is to deny the instinct to exist." Enough clients yield to the atavistic hunting urge each year to keep Selby and seven other white hunters busy mounting safaris for the Nairobi-based firm of which he is co-owner and chief attraction. If it is the visitor's fancy to shoot, say, buffalo with a gun—or, as many prefer in these times of ecological enlightenment and high license fees, with a camera—Harry Selby will be glad to oblige. He can also be depended upon to find lion, sable antelope, even elephant to enliven a safari. The client pays his money, upwards of $500 a day, for a minimum of 22 days, plus a few thousand more in plane fares, licenses, liquor and Stewart Granger-esque togs, and Selby takes him to the game of his choice, as he has for 31 years.
On the other hand, as rich hunters traverse the lush and verdant country of his 8,000-square-mile shooting preserve above the northern edge of the Kalahari Desert, they may suddenly develop a yen to have the whole place to themselves. They can make Selby an offer of a million dollars or so. He just might sell the entire operation. Then again, he might not. Harry Selby is one of the few men left on the planet who can do whatever he damn pleases. His superlative skills as a hunter and his uncompromising insistence on applying them in his own solitary way, even as a young man, have made him a source of campfire stories among his fellow pros. That in turn made Selby a magnet for writers seeking a living symbol of the man's man, and they spread his fame as the very embodiment of all the danger, derring-do and double-sleeping-bag-under-the-mosquito-netting-while-the-lions-cough romance that is supposed to go with safari.
The old bwana himself, author Robert Ruark, spread it the thickest in Something of Value, his 1955 novel of Kenya during the Mau Mau insurrection. He fictionalized his old hunting buddy Harry Selby into a cross between Frank Buck and Attila the Hun, drawing an absurd figure named Peter McKenzie whose "lips curved down in scorn at the idea of hunting anywhere that other men hunted..." McKenzie, Ruark said, "could trot thirty miles a day in the smiting sun after elephants and still have enough gas left to run over a mountain at the end of it."
In the novel, when Mau Mau raiders slaughter his sister's family, McKenzie and fellow Kenya whites rampage off on a tongue-slicing, eyeball-popping, decapitating, eviscerating vendetta. ("Of course," Ruark inscribed on Selby's copy of the book, "this is all fiction.")
Ruark followed up his portrayal of Selby by writing in his nationally syndicated newspaper column that Selby had been declared persona non grata by the newly independent Kenyan government and that a price was out on the hunter's head. Selby did move to nearby Botswana just after independence, but he insisted it was because of better hunting conditions. Nonetheless, Ruark hung a sign on his own tent while on safari with Selby. The sign said: "Harry Selby does not live here."
Selby did police work for the British colonial government during the Mau Mau uprising, tracking down rebels who had tortured and murdered white farmers and their families. But he disowns the "McKenzie" portrayal as sheerest hokum. He is also discomfited by Ruark's nonfiction tributes, such as the one that described Selby as "the most man I have ever met. Every woman he meets wants to mother or marry him and every man respects him. I have seen him slap a lion in the face with his hat. I have seen him hide from a woman. His business is killing."
Ruark wasn't the only writer whose eye—and pen—Selby captured. Ernest Hemingway met Selby while helling around with another East African legend, white hunter Philip Percival, whom Selby had worked for as a safari vehicle mechanic before becoming an apprentice hunter. (Percival was the model for Hemingway's hunter in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.) While Hemingway kept a tighter check on his syntax than Ruark, he, too, pressed his fondness for Selby, telling drinking companions in Nairobi's Norfolk Bar that Harry was still "wet behind the ears" but was nevertheless Percival's equal.
Visibly irritated by the romanticizing that attaches to his trade, Selby will not make small talk about hunting, claims rifle reports have left him deaf for cocktail parties and is at ease only with other white hunters and his wife and two children. Mark is 22; Gail, 17, is a secretarial school student in Johannesburg. Except for the skin of a giant Kodiak bear he shot in Alaska, Selby keeps no trophies around the house, no elephant hoof ashtrays, no snarling lion heads, no kudu hatracks. "A lamp fashioned from the drumstick of an ostrich," he says in his clipped East African British colonial accent, "strikes me as rather gauche."
As the remark suggests, Selby does in fact subscribe in a low-key way to the image of the white hunter as a noble soul who, alas, must make his living by catering to lesser spirits. Says Selby, "It is my duty and responsibility to treat each client as though he were a gentleman, no matter what sort of spectacle he may make of himself. My job is to protect the amateurs and secure trophies, to see that the clients are happy."
Selby carries out his work so well, murmuring a consoling "Oh, bad luck" or "Just a hair too high" when a client bungles a shot, that his firm, Ker, Downey & Selby, Ltd., last year grossed about $750,000 on its safaris. Selby himself went out only twice and is mostly occupied as a director of KDS, which operates plush lodges on the Kwai River, at Xuguna, and in Chobe National Park in Botswana. His firm once held an interest in Treetops Lodge in Kenya, where Queen Elizabeth II was staying when her father died in 1952.
But Selby can still hit a sand grouse on the wing at 40 yards with a .458 Purdey rifle, and his lessened activity has not diminished his image. "I don't care how much Ruark raves about what a great hunter and gentleman Harry Selby is," a colleague declared recently. "It's the bloody truth."
Selby has always been uncanny at figuring out what a quarry is likely to do next and then finding the spot where the animal is doing just that. His particular genius lies in getting the client to the same spot—and in place for a good shot. That ability has drawn and held a string of devoted clients ranging from oilman John Mecom Jr. to baseball mogul Walter O'Malley to conservationist Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.
Safari with Selby does not mean roughing it. The client's gear goes in a Land-Rover; a lorry travels ahead with nearly $20,000 worth of such camping equipment as a refrigerator, tents for toilet and shower, table linen and silverware—and a dozen porters to pitch camp. Safari does mean business. Selby picks his guns as delicately as a surgeon selects his instruments: a .416 Rigby for elephant, a .375 Browning for buffalo and lion, a 7mm Westley Richards for impala and wildebeeste, a 12-gauge shotgun for francolin partridge and a .22 for the coup de grace.
Real trouble is rare on a safari, but sometimes the hunter becomes the hunted even if he is Harry Selby. While Selby has never been seriously injured on the job, Ruark told the story of the client—a duchess, it happened—who had to climb a tree when a rhino turned camera-shy. She heard a voice and looked down. "Mr. Selby was running around the tree with the rhino snorting behind him," she recalled. "Mr. Selby said, 'If you please, Your Grace, would you mind moving up another branch?' "
The same sense of humor enables Selby to hang on in a continent where black and white tensions are turning to war again. Black-ruled Botswana, so far anyway, is calm, and local news outweighs what comes through the static on the wireless.
"Some people were canoeing Sunday," Selby's pretty wife, Miki, a former South African Airways stewardess, might report when Selby comes home from the bush to their modest stucco house in Maun. "A hippo took a huge bite out of the canoe and they had to swim for it. I don't know why we are all laughing." Her husband can joke that crocodiles "provide an excellent inducement to learn to stay up on water skis," for the same reason: tough as it is, they love the old life.
The life is fading. Conservationists are becoming more vocal and more influential in their campaign to further limit the killing of many big-game species. Tribal settlers are moving into the land Selby once shared only with game and the elusive Bushmen. He foresees a day when visitors to Botswana will be tourists hunting only with cameras and binoculars, when the bwana white hunter, already, in his words, "diminished from a gentleman guide to a booking agent who secures plane tickets and animal heads," will be no more.
If that happens, Selby, at the very least, will have his memories. He still recalls one incredible day in the late '50s. "It was a day," he says, "when we saw the antelope grazing on the plain, with the lions watching them. It was the same day we saw the rhino giving birth to her calf, the day we saw the zebra stallions on the ground, wrestling. I had never seen anything like that before."
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