Is there an animal that you dream about hunting? Can you see yourself in the dream? There you are, exhausted, sweat stained, unshaven and burnt a rough, raw, reddish brown by the sun that has baked you over the last two weeks. The quest has taken you across grass filled plains, through fast flowing rivers, up rock strewn hills and down into sand choked dongas but, eventually, the days of foot slogging effort, the weeks of careful preparation and the preceding months of time consuming practice have paid off. Behind the smile-for-the-camera look, however, lurks a deep and abiding sadness and compassion because, at your feet, lies the trophy of your dreams, the trophy every serious hunter dreams about – a lone, old, dusty, thin, wrinkled elephant bull whose skin hangs on him like a cheap, over size suit. All this pales into insignificance, however, when your eyes take in the almost black, stained, thick, heavy tusks extending from his lips for many feet and weighing well over 100 pounds per side!
I have daydreamed about such a hunt many times. From the first time I saw Geoff Smith’s massive, perfectly matched, copper shod tusks on either side of the door to his Rand Arms & Safari’s firearm dealership in Eloff Street, Johannesburg. I remember gawping at the old, almost sepia coloured photograph of a very fit and young Geoff posing next to the massive animal as I listened to him tell the tale of his month long foot safari in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley way back in 1956 with his friend Laurie Estcourt. The tusks weighed over 100 pounds when he shot them but the new owner, Pero Cavaleros, says when they were last weighed they were in the high nineties.
I remember Eric Stockenstroom showing me pictures of elephants shot by his clients in the Central African Republic in the 1980s. One photograph in particular remains etched on my hard drive. Eric is standing on the bonnet of his Land Cruiser. The bases of the tusks are resting on the ground and Eric is holding the tips next to his shoulders! I remember Nassos Roussos regaling me with stories of the thirteen, yes thirteen, plus 100 pounders his clients shot in Ethopia’s Gambella Province before aggressive poachers from Sudan made it too risky to continue taking people into the area.
Involuntarily, the romantic in me would imagine myself in similar situations and I would think how awe inspiring it would be to simply see such a sight, to be in the presence of such a majestic, magnificent creature. The excitement, fear, trepidation and, at the base of it all, the unanswered question – was I entitled to do this, was I sufficiently worthy, had I earned the right to take the life of this royal animal?
Yes, I have shot elephants. Not many but enough to register some or all of the emotions associated with such a hunt and to develop an appreciation for why many experienced hunters have wanted to hunt no other animal. And again, yes, many years ago, on the banks of the Shlaralumi River, where it crossed the border into Kruger National Park, I watched one of the collared Kruger 100 pounders luxuriously rub his stomache back and forth over a small mlala palm in the bed of the dry river while his two askaris patiently watched and waited. But I have never seen such an elephant on a hunt or on foot and, at the back of my mind, the question always lurked, what if it were possible to hunt such an incredible beast?
Many, many years ago, when I was still a young struggling attorney, I was offered the chance to hunt a 100 pounder. I was told that the elephant had walked out of Kruger National Park onto neighbouring land and the landowner had a permit to hunt the elephant. I had to leave immediately if I wanted to try and bag this once in a lifetime opportunity – an elephant with enormous tusks which the seller was confident would easily break the magical 100 pound barrier. If I could not find the elephant or, if I chose not to shoot once I found it, the full amount of the hunt price would be refunded. However, if I shot the elephant and the tusks did not weigh over 100 pounds per side, no money would be refunded. The price was a king’s ransom and, naturally, my lawyer’s caution was alive and well. The old adage, "If it sounds too good to be true it probably is" was at the forefront of my mind.
I drew up an agreement and the money was paid in trust to a third party. And that’s when things started to unravel. The story kept on changing. The elephant had walked back into the park. The elephant had been shot and wounded by a park ranger when it charged a group on a walking safari. A helicopter would be hired to move the elephant back onto the neighbouring property. No, no, no, no, no! Thanks but no thanks. Give me back my money. I wanted no part of this. Whatever it might have been – shooting a wounded elephant that was herded towards you by helicopter – it was not hunting and definitely not legal hunting even in the highly unlikely event that this proposal had the remotest chance of actually taking place.
I referred the matter to the police and to the head of the park and that was that. I never heard another peep about the elephant or what happened to it. That is if it ever existed in the first place.
In a few months time, I will be heading for Graeme Pollack’s concession in Botswana for what I strongly suspect will be my last elephant hunt. I am training hard for the hunt and gyming and shuffling (I no longer run or jog) and bicycling every morning so that I will be able to walk the seven to ten hours a day that may be required on such a hunt. I have also begun my regular shooting training – first with the .22 and sub-sonic rounds, then on to regular ammunition and on up through the calibres.
Last year I heard that a hundred pounder had been shot in a concession neighbouring the one in Botswana in which I will be hunting and, instantly, I knew that it had been MY elephant that had been shot and that the chances of lightning striking in or about the same place again were just about nil. Just about, but not exactly, nil. Oh, the optimism of us hunters. But this optimism is not totally misplaced. Every year one or two of these magnificent bulls are still shot – in Bushmanland, Namibia, in north eastern Botswana, in northern Mocambique, in south western Tanzania and, previously, when there was still a form of law and order in that country, in Zimbabwe as well. Just enough to keep the dream alive.
In April last year I walked into Suburban Guns, one of our local gun shops, looking for ammunition for my Rigby .416 as I wanted to start practicing well in advance of my forthcoming elephant hunt. To my amazement, there on the floor of the shop, lay two enormous elephant tasks. They were long, thick and ingrained with dirt. When the owner of the shop, Charles Montgomery, came over, the questions tumbled from my mouth, "Whose tusks are these? How much do they weigh? What are they doing here? Where do they come from?" I rabbited on not giving Charles a chance to reply. When I ran out of steam, he patiently answered my questions.
They were shot by Mr. Edwin Selby Ferguson Chance (known as Fergus) along the Tana River in Kenya in 1949. They weighed 117 and 113 pounds when they were originally shot and now weighed a little less – 112 and 107 pounds per side. Charles was a friend of the family and was selling them on behalf of Betty Chance, the widow of Martin Chance, Fergus’s son, who had inherited them from his father. One or both of them had been stolen at some time in the past and then recovered and, someone, he did not know who, had sawn off the bottom 12 or so inches of the longer tusk, presumably to make it match the length of the shorter one – can you imagine anyone doing such a thing to such a magnificent piece of ivory? Charles had found the missing bit, however, carefully matched the grain and glued it back on. Charles also thought, incorrectly as it turned out, that they had been kept on the veranda of the Chance’s home and the careless dabs of whitewash on the tusks seemed to corroborate his impression.
They had been bought by a local businessman but, as yet, he had not paid for them. The words shot out of my mouth before I consciously formed the thoughts. "I’ll buy them if he doesn’t" I said to my and, I think, Charles’s surprise and so started the saga which has taken a further ten months and much toing and froing before I finally held the tusks in my arms in the trophy reception area of Buck ‘n Bass Taxidermy in Durbanville, knowing that a permit issued to me by Cape Nature to possess the tusks nestled in the briefcase at my feet.
To start with, I wanted to be absolutely sure that the tusks had been legally shot, were legally in the country and I could legally acquire and keep them. Just as importantly, I wanted to be sure that they still weighed over the magical 100 pound mark. The last requirement was easier said than done as the huge tusks were difficult to manoeuvre on the scale but, after checking the weight twice, I was eventually satisfied. They were, indeed, as Charles had described them.
The provenance of the tusks and their legality became clear when I read Martin’s handwritten account of how his father had acquired them. In his minuscule handwriting, sometimes difficult to decipher, he wrote as follows:
"These trophy elephant tusks were shot by E.S.F. Chance, father of M.F. Chance, who is the current owner.
My father emigrated to Southern Rhodesia in 1922 to commence farming in the Umvukwes (now Mvurwi) Farming District. Having been at Oxford University he found himself in a highly undeveloped environment – no sporting facilities at all. He had been encouraged by his father in the hunting, fishing era. As a result he was a collector of quality firearms and became an avid big game trophy hunter.
His hunting took him to Bechuanaland, Portuguese East Africa, Northern Rhodesia and throughout Southern Rhodesia. He hunted annually in the Zambezi Valley since his farm was situated north of Salisbury and hence not too distant from this hunting paradise.
However after many years and miles, a lot on foot through lack of roads, he shot the "Big 5" but never an elephant of any quality ivory. These were rare in those days.
Consequently in 1949 he accompanied me to start university at Oxford and on his return stopped off in Kenya. He hunted with Dowing, the safari company. Here he shot this elephant on the Tana River in the Northern Territory. The weight recorded then was 117 & 113 lbs, and shot in September, 1949.
E.S.F. Chance passed away in 1979 and the pair of tasks were inherited by myself, also a keen trophy hunter. I had them attached to a wall in my home in Umvukwes (now Mvurwi) amongst other of my trophies.
During our "Liberation war" and ensuing independence, in now Zimbabwe, our home was broken into, and one of the pair ripped off the wall. Regrettably we were not at home on that particular night. Fortunately I offered a reward for their recovery. I guessed that they were still on the farm and had not hopefully been translocated elsewhere owing to the size of tusk. Some 48 hours later that tusk was recovered, having been hidden in a very overgrown quarry area on the farm (awaiting to be moved at a later date – I imagine).
Before having had my home and farm taken by the current government I moved the pair to Harare and then managed, through the help of Parks Zimbabwe and National Parks S Africa to procure the necessary C.I.T.E.S. permit to move them to S.Africa. We now live in a retirement village in Howick Natal and have no room to display tusks of their magnitude."
Since reading his account, I have spoken to Martin’s charming widow, Betty, their son, Gordon, who lives in Zambia and Martin’s surviving brother, Selby, who still lives in Zimbabwe. In addition, my good friend, Peter Kennedy, went to visit Betty in Howick but they could find none of Fergus or the elephant although Betty has kindly let me have one or two photos of Martin with some of the big game which he hunted, in particular, one of three excellent buffalo bulls shot before breakfast in the Zambezi Valley on one extremely memorable morning.
The family has also provided me with some additional information. Firstly, Fergus was born in Worcestershire and attended Eton before going on to Oxford where, amongst other things, he captained the university golf team. He went on the elephant hunt in Kenya with a friend of his and, after spinning a coin, won the right to have the first shot which, as things turned out, was a very fortuitous coin toss indeed. Although Fergus owned a Rigby .470 double, which has since been sold, he shot the elephant with a Holland & Holland .375 magazine rifle which Gordon and his own son, Andrew, still use. Other than that, details of the hunt are sketchy.
I also wonder whether the safari company, "Dowing" referred to by Martin in his letter was not perhaps Syd Downey, one half of the legendary Ker Downey? I also wonder whether anyone would have kept the records of the company going back to 1949? If so, I would certainly like to hear from them.
So, now that I possess these magnificent trophies – no-one actually ever owns something like this do they – how do I feel? Odd, to be frank. I have come to the simple realization – most people will say that I should have known this before I bought them – that they are not mine and someone else’s trophy in my home somehow just does not feel right. What to do? I don’t know as yet and, as I still regularly enjoy admiring them on their new teak bases – the sheer size of them almost startles me when they catch me unawares – there is no rush to do anything. All I know is that they are not destined for an extended stay in my home.