Elephant Bill

David Barrington Barnes recounts the life and antics of James Howard “Elephant Bill” Williams, a hunter and conservationist who worked with wildlife during times of war and peace

James Howard Williams – widely known as Elephant Bill – was born in 1897, the son of a Cornish mining engineer. He served in the First World War as a transport officer, then joined the Burma Bombay Corporation and spent the rest of his working life in Burma, which included the duration of the Second World War. During the war, Elephant Bill and his elephants became famous for their contribution to the war effort and, specifically, for his epic trek to Assam with 45 elephants, elephant riders and Gurkha women and children. His autobiography, entitled Elephant Bill, first published in 1950, is still a wonderful book, which I revisit from time to time with completely undiminished admiration and pleasure.

Elephant Bill plays down his interest in hunting, but says enough to show he became a true hunter conservationist.
In applying for his position to do “something or other with elephants in Burma” he assumed that “such a job would mean living in the jungle, shooting…” He arrived in Burma well equipped for this, with a new shotgun and a new .450/.400 high-velocity rifle.

He was sent for training to the camp of a formidable, hard-drinking ‘jungle salt’ called Willie, whose opening gambit was to enquire whether he was safe with a shotgun. Willie then allocated him six elephants and sent him off on a tour to learn Burmese. One of his these – a female named Ma Oh – was so old and decrepit that she soon died and, alone in the jungle, Elephant Bill carried out a post mortem to establish the cause of her death.

Later on this trek, he stalked and shot a wild bull elephant, mainly to inspect the organs of a really healthy elephant. Returning to Willie’s camp, Bill was greeted with sarcastic remarks about having let Ma Oh die, and was able to reply that he was surprised she had lived as long as she had as her liver was riddled with flukes and her heart was as big as a rugby ball. When Bill disclosed he had shot a wild elephant to inspect its organs and to enable him to compare these with the elephant that had died, Willie’s whole attitude towards Bill changed. He was really pleased that Bill had shot the elephant to learn more about elephants rather than just for its tusks. Bill learned that Willie had come to dislike trophy hunting for big game, though he still shot small game such as jungle fowl with accuracy and enthusiasm. This led to the development of a bond between Bill and the cantankerous old jungle salt.

Elephant Bill also learnt to hunt wild boar by having his oozie (elephant rider) silently ride up to a boar’s nest and place one forefoot gently on the mound of grass and leaves that comprised it. Chaos would ensue, with the old sow and sucking pigs scattering. Shooting from the elephant’s back, Bill once shot a right and left of these for the camp pot.

Sometimes Bill had to deal with a bull elephant on musth. In his prime, an elephant on musth is a danger to his oozie and other elephants, with a brain gone wild. One such tusker – a normally friendly animal named Poo Ban – killed his oozie and another man and two female elephants. Poo Ban became the terror of his valley and, during an unsuccessful attempt to recapture him, charged Bill who, deploying a hard-nosed bullet, dropped him with a single chest shot at 25 yards. Bill recalled that immediately afterwards a combination of excitement, fear, and regret had caused him to vomit at the scene.

In 1931 Bill led an expedition to the forests of the North Andaman Islands, with the specific assignment of assessing the suitability of these for the extraction of timber by elephants. While on the islands he shot teal, similar to but larger than our English teal, which were very prolific. He also enjoyed a close encounter with spotted deer, which he described with great sensitivity in his book on the expedition, which was entitled The Spotted Deer. The absence of any fear showed that they had never previously met a human.

Bill hunted big game for the first three years of his jungle life before giving it up. However, he never ceased to acknowledge that the reverence in which he held the jungle and its magnificent animals was the result of his hunting experiences. He sat up in trees over kills for tigers and leopards. Once, jumping into a creek, he landed 10 yards from a tiger that was lying down eating a freshly killed samba deer. After a tense stand-off, the snarling tiger bounded away. Although he came to dislike shooting big game, he never forgot the thrill it gave him. This was never more true than in his pursuit of a wild elephant, known to his elephant riders as Shwe Kah, words which describe the pose of a Burmese girl’s arms and hands when she is dancing. The elephant riders saw the same beauty on the tusks as in the graceful curves upwards and outwards of the girl.

Shwe Kah had become a nuisance by attacking Bill’s trained elephants and goring two of them. A combination of this and his incredible tusks caused Bill to select him as the wild elephant he wanted to bag. He hunted him unsuccessfully for many days around the river Manipur, which readers of my recent Willcocks article may recall was one of that man’s most highly regarded hunting locations. Twice Bill saw Shwe Kah, but not in a position in which he could take a shot. After his leave Bill returned to the area with a friend – a Sapper officer who was a complete novice in big game hunting. After a number of adventures, Bill, by mistake, shot and killed a big bull elephant which was not Shwe Kah but was a magnificent and really rare trophy, a Kyan Zit, an elephant with tusks that has grown in rings or corrugations. So unusual were these tusks that the Burmans regarded this elephant as almost mythical and believed him to be the king of the jungle.

As Bill’s licence only allowed him to take one elephant (that year), he suggested that the novice should try to bag Shwe Kah and, as it happened, he did so just a couple of days later after the easiest of hunts.

Kyan Zit was Elephant Bill’s fourth and last wild elephant, and he never shot another or catered for others who might have wanted to do so. He reiterated that he never regretted doing so in his early years in Burma, as his hunting laid the foundations for his love and understanding of the jungle and the elephants in it.

As his autobiography shows in spades, Bill fought for the wellbeing of his hundreds of elephants and even fought with them in the years of war.

Elephant Bill’s involvement in hunting, elephants and elephant management illustrates better than any other hunter’s life the truth of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism:
“Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard…”.

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