“…When we were all assembled in my tent and champagne had been served out to everyone except Roosevelt — who insisted on drinking non-intoxicants, though his son Kermit joined us — he raised his glass and gave the toast ‘To the Elephant Poachers of the Lado Enclave.’ As we drank with him one or two of us laughingly protested his bluntness, so he gravely amended his toast to ‘The Gentleman Adventurers of Central Africa’, ‘for,’ he added, ‘that is the title by which you would have been known in Queen Elizabeth’s time.’”
— John Boyes, “Company of Adventurers”
In 1909 to 1910, a 100-square-mile corner of northwest Uganda was the most lawless place on the global frontier.
Under the convoluted European agreements that carved up the white man’s Africa, title to this rich piece of real estate was a bit tangled. The British claimed the Upper Nile area, but had leased this part of the region to King Leopold of Belgium as part of the Congo Free State. Under pressure from the French, Leopold, one of history’s great bastards, backed off his claim until the French pulled out in 1898 after conflict with Great Britain in the Fashoda Incident. Leopold then reasserted his claim, which was to revert to the British six months after his death.
Following so far?
The important thing for our story is that, when Leopold died, it wasn’t clear who had authority in the Lado Enclave — which meant that no one did. As it happens, the Lado was one of the last refuges of the really big tuskers in East/Central Africa, so elephant hunters poured into the area, where they could shoot without restriction and make a fortune. It was another one of those resource rushes of the 19th and early 20th Century that drove men mad with visions of fortune and glory, only this time it wasn’t gold or diamonds that enticed them, but ivory, which was in high demand for everything from piano keys to billiard balls.
Some of the ivory rushers were experienced and hardy frontiersmen, like John Boyes and W.D.M. “Karamojo” Bell, probably the greatest elephant hunter of all time. Others were misfits, outcasts, flakes and eccentrics. They all risked their lives for the chance of hauling a mighty cache of ivory across the Upper Nile and cashing in. They faced death at the hands of their prey. More than once, an elephant caught a hunter and knelt on him, ripping him limb from limb. Belgian patrols still trying to assert their authority might arrest or even shoot poachers and dealings with natives were always fraught — though the natives welcomed the meat provided by the dead elephants.
The biggest killer was blackwater fever, a particularly deadly complication of malaria that took off many an Africa hand.
As with most “rushes,” a few men did get rich, hauling tons of ivory across the Upper Nile and eluding British taxes. But most were lucky to break even and no small number lost it all.
Once the administration of the area was sorted out and brought under British control, hunting in the enclave became tightly regulated. The rush was over. It was certainly one of the more picturesque episodes on the East African frontier.
J.A. Hunter, one of the great Kenyan white hunters, has a chapter on the poachers of the Lado Enclave in his delightful “Tales of the African Frontier.” Highly recommended. I’d love to get my hands on Maj. Robert Foran’s “Elephant Hunters of the Lado,” but the $350 price tag is a little too rich for a man who doesn’t have a cache of elephant ivory to tap.
Not that I would shoot an elephant. Like many modern folks, including much of the hunting fraternity, the idea of killing elephants for ivory makes me a little queasy. I have known several ardent safari hunters who wouldn’t hunt elephant if the opportunity arose (besides, it’s expensive even for rich men). Our sensibilities have shifted since the wild days of the frontier, and we know too much about the remarkable intelligence and social sophistication of the elephant.
And the profligacy of the rush into the Lado Enclave makes us cringe. Profligacy was a common feature — maybe the defining characteristic — of the frontier: the fur trade drove the beaver nearly to extinction; the buffalo that once carpeted the Great Plains were reduced to some 200. Gold and diamond rushes altered landscapes from California to Australia and South Africa. The mighty forests of U.S. were logged over at an astonishing rate. And such tendencies are not just a relic of a wild and wooly past. The cutting of old growth and the reduction of rainforests continue to be a threat to the ecological health of the whole planet. We rip the tops off mountains to get at coal seams… and the beat goes on.
Yet it’s hard not to look with some awe, if not admiration, on men who endured such hardships for a chance at fortune. And, to be honest, there are times when I’d love to wrestle back the hands of time, unknow what we now know and approach life with the unfettered, no-limits outlook of the early frontiersmen.
Said J.A. Hunter:
“I know many of my readers will have little sympathy for men who were not only violating international law, but also killing in large numbers the last of the great elephant herds, much as famous American hunters slaughtered thousands of American bison. Yet others may perhaps excuse an old hunter if he regards these men with a certain respect.”
Yeah, J.A. you’re excused. I get it.