The French Big Game Hunters

Hunting historian Martin Tulp covers the past hunting adventures of the French big game hunters in Africa

I wanted to shoot a bullet in his head, but because at the same moment all the Arabs fired at him, I was blinded. Through the smoke I saw how the lion jumped at Amar, threw him on the ground, and started tearing him. In two jumps I was next to him, but the lion did not pay any attention to me. Aiming for his heart, I fired. Immediately the lion released his victim, but he did not collapse…”

This is an extract from a blood-curdling story about lion hunting in Algeria. Jules Gérard and his contemporaries hunted with muzzleloaders, and 10 metres was considered a long distance. It is often said that the French big game hunters were no writers, and that little is known about them. This is far from true, but also, not everything they wrote was translated into English. I set about collecting as much information as possible about French big game hunters in their colonies – hunters who wrote themselves or were documented by others.

The French colonial empire reached its greatest extent after the First World War: a total area of an ample 5 million square miles, approximately one tenth of Earth’s surface and the second largest in the world after the British Empire. I’ve divided my research into three parts: the French big game hunters in North Africa, other African colonies, and Indo-China.

In North Africa

Though there were many different species of wild animals in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, it was mainly lions and panthers that stirred the imagination. The Berber lion (Panthera leo leo), also called the Atlas lion or Barbary lion, was found throughout northern Africa, from Morocco to Egypt. It was those lions the Romans let fight against gladiators in their arenas, or used to murder Christians.

Jules Gérard, illustrated by Gustave Doré

They also caused many problems with the local population. Berber lions were always fanatically hunted, and in 1942 the last wild specimen was shot in Morocco. There are still some left in captivity: perhaps one day they will be released again in the Atlas Mountains. Jules Gérard (1817-64) was the first to save Algerian cattle farmers from these predators. He hunted with muzzleloaders, and shot lions at short distances. This was dangerous, as usually he could not immediately see if the lion was dead because of clouds of smoke from the black powder. He described his hunting experiences in Lion Hunting And Sporting Life In Algeria and three other books, brilliantly illustrated by Gustave Doré.

Another famous French hunter was Édouard Foà (1862-1901). He started his career in 1880, hunting lions in North Africa. After that he hunted in Dahomey and the Ivory Coast, and finally elephants in Ubangi-Shari. His heaviest tusks weighed 115lb each. Foà published two books; one of them, After Big Game In Central Africa, became a bestseller.

The Atlas panther, also known as the Barbary leopard, was once considered a separate subspecies, but it was recently shown that it is in fact the same as the African panther (Panthera pardus pardus). This was the animal hunted by Charles-Laurent Bombonnel (1816-90). His book, The Panther-Killer, became well-known, and was often reprinted, being translated into many languages.

An ostrich hunt in the Algerian Sahara, orchestrated by General Margueritte

There must have been many other French hunters in North Africa. But their names have fallen into obscurity, except for that of General Jean-Auguste Margueritte (1823-70). He was not only a famous warlord, but a passionate hunter, too.

He is best known for his hunting parties – organised with military discipline – on the ostriches that were common in Algeria at the time. The feathers of these birds were important export products of the North African countries. Margueritte and his soldiers virtually eliminated the ostrich in the wild in Algeria. Fortunately, local authorities intervened and prevented its extinction.

In other African colonies

Separated from North Africa by the Sahara desert, during the French colonial period, in Central and South Africa there were enormous numbers of animals no longer occurring in the north: elephant, rhino, hippos, buffalo, giraffe, and many others. ‘Le dernière terre de dieu’: a paradise for hunters. With the exception of Kenya, nowhere in Africa were so many big tuskers bagged than in the CAR.

François Le Vaillant (*1753-†1824) was one of the first French explorers to cross the inlands of South Africa, hunting many species of big game. He was the first to describe the blue antelope (Hippotragus leucophaeus), which became extinct in 1799. Le Vaillant published two books, both translated into English. Also, Jean-Baptiste Douville (1797-1837) was an explorer and hunter. He described his experiences in Congo and other Middle African countries in a book that has also been translated into English. Another book, written by Adulphe Delegorgue (*1814-†50), covers hunting elephant, rhino, buffalo and lion in  South Africa.

One of du Chaillu’s hunts, conducted in the name of science

Around the middle of the 19th century, the brothers Ambroise (1835-68) and Jules Poncet (1838-73) were active as ivory hunters in Sudan. They shot huge numbers of elephant, assisted by ‘guns in the jungle’ (natives they provided with guns and ammunition). All ivory was kept by the Poncet brothers; the meat went to their helpers. Their book appeared in 1863, and was never translated.

Undoubtedly the most famous, however, was the French-American explorer, zoologist, anthropologist and hunter Paul Belloni du Chaillu (1831-1903). He hunted elephant, leopard, crocodile and gorilla. Until then, in the western world the existence of the latter was doubted. Du Chaillu was also the first white person to discover the bongo, in Gabon. He wrote a large number of books in English – only a few were translated into French.

The 20th century dawns

A striking difference between the French big game hunters from the 19th and 20th centuries is that the former tended to write about their adventures, whereas only a few of the latter did. It is known, for instance, that a French hunter named Coquelin (d. 1910) in 1908 arrived in Ubangi-Shari (now the CAR) and shot 107 elephants within two years – until number 108 gored and killed him. His writing career was cut short before it had a chance to begin. Slightly more timely was Bruneau de Laborie (1871-1930), who hunted elephant and rhinoceros in the same area, and shot them in countless numbers. His book was published in 1929. A year later he was killed by a lion.

The Atlas panther, commonly hunted throughout northern Africa at the time

Elsewhere, Guillaume Vasse (1868-1928) hunted on behalf of museums in Mozambique from 1904-07. He published Three Years Of Sport In Mozambique. Théodore Lefebvre (1878-1955) was one of the all-time most famous French big game hunters. He started in 1910 in the CAR with an 8mm Lebel army rifle. With that he took more than 1,000 elephant, 300 rhino and countless hippo and buffalo. During a ‘fire hunt’ he shot 17 elephants within a few minutes. He said afterwards he was not proud of this.

Adrian Conus (1900-47) was a much-decorated French war hero who, between the two world wars, shot numerous elephant and rhino in the CAR, as well as tiger and elephant in Indo-China. He died while hunting: a heart attack after he shot his last elephant in Africa. He did not publish. A contemporary hunter was Pierre Bourgoin (1907-70), also a soldier, and not a writer either.

Roger Fabre (1890-1953) was a French soldier, too. After becoming seriously injured in World War I, he started a career as a professional hunter. For 30 years he hunted in the French colonies, later also as a ‘white hunter’. His experiences were described by Christian Dedet.

Adrian Conus, the war hero turned hunter killed by an elephant

A number of French hunters from the first half of the 20th century actually did write books. Well known is Frédéric Blanchod (1883-1963), a big game hunter in central Africa. Georges-Marie Haardt (1889-1932) was racing driver, director of Citroën, and a passionate big game hunter. In the CAR he bagged large trophies, many of which are listed in Rowland Ward’s Records Of Big Game. He wrote a book about his hunting adventures, which was translated into English, too.

Étienne Canonne (1902-76) was one of the most famous French big game hunters. He started hunting in Chad with a military rifle: a .303 Lee Enfield. Later he switched to larger calibres. During his lifetime he shot more than 500 elephant and 350 rhino for ivory and horn. He also hunted hippo, of which he shot more than 2,000; he sold their meat to railway workers. Canonne is the author of two books.

Edouard Tiran (1974) was a famous French ivory hunter in the CAR, and contemporary of Canonne. He became a ‘white hunter’ after World War II. Between 1906 and 1940 he shot many elephant in the CAR and Chad, and later over 300 rhino when their horn yielded more than ivory. After that he shot hippo for meat for railway workers. In 1974 he was killed by an elephant. The same fate struck Dunkel, an elephant hunter in Ivory Coast, French Guinea and Liberia. Between 1927 and 1950 he shot more than 1,000 elephant until he was killed by the last one in 1950.

Capitaine Pivert and Guy Horngacher de Chateauvieux were big game hunters in Middle Africa, and published about their exploits. Louis Georges, who before World War II was a big game hunter in Chad, also published a book about his adventures. Probably the most productive French hunting writer was René Guillot (1900-69), who hunted elephant, hippo and buffalo in Niger, Senegal and Ivory Coast. He has written dozens of books about it, including many children’s books. Many of them have been translated into English. François Sommer (1904-73) was a colourful personality: aviator, war hero, and since 1934 a big game hunter in Africa. He left Paris the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature and wrote the beautiful book Man And Beast In Africa, to which Ernest Hemingway wrote a foreword.

Hippo hunting was quite often a dangerous affair

But not all French big game hunters were also writers. About some of them is written only by others. From 1908 until the fifties, Nollet operated as an ivory hunter. In that period he shot more than 400 elephant. The heaviest tusks he bagged weighed 135×139 pounds. Nollet was a curious man who became an evangelist after he stopped hunting.

In the 1930s, Delbande was a professional hunter in French Congo and Chad. He shot elephant and hippo for their meat, which he sold to railway workers. In the decades before World War II, many ivory hunters were active in the CAR. The most famous of these was Beaumont. Like Lefebvre he started with a military 8mm Lebel, but soon switched to larger calibres. The heaviest tusks he bagged weighed 141×146 pounds. In total he shot more than 500 elephants. Similar numbers are credited to Paul Kespart and Edouard Cormon (1903-1986), an adventurer and ivory merchant. Though he also shot elephant himself, most of them were bagged by ‘guns in the jungle’. Finally, Wackernie shot more than 150 elephant with a .404 Jeffery. He died during World War II.

Most of the hunters who did not write have fallen into oblivion. Of others just their names remain: Blaise, Christinger, Doran, Stagny and Villa

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