Harry Selby, one of the last and greatest of the so-called “great white hunters’ of Africa, died peacefully at his home in Botswana on January 20, at age 92.
Not many hunting guides have long, glowing obituaries in newspapers such as the New York Times or the Washington Post. Harry Selby was a notable exception.
John Henry Selby was born in South Africa in 1925, and his family moved to Kenya when he was still a boy, and he grew up hunting and shooting to protect family crops and livestock. Young Harry became a protégé of an earlier hunting legend, Philip Hope Percival, who was an outfitter for both Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. In 1949, Selby joined East Africa’s foremost safari outfitter, Ker & Downey.
Selby achieved international fame after leading Robert Ruark, a famous syndicated columnist and novelist, and his family on a safari in Tanzania (or Tanganyika, as it was called then). The African safari was much different than today’s safaris, as safari meant going out for two or three months at a time, into bush country by truck and taking along enough supplies and provisions for the duration, as well as a small army of guides, trackers, cooks, porters, drivers, etc., and coping with whatever emergencies that might come up.
As the Times told it, “Selby had to be the doctor, mechanic, chauffeur, gin-rummy-and-drinking partner and universal guide, knowledgeable about mountain ranges, grassy plains, rivers, jungles, hunting laws, migratory patterns, and the Bushmen, Masai, Samburu, Dinka and Zulu tribes. He spoke three dialects of Swahili. And he improvised; if there was no firewood, he burned wildebeest dung.”
Ruark wrote several books based on his travels to Africa, Horn of the Hunter, Something of Value, and Uhuru, and these books made Selby a celebrity among professional hunters.
Over the years, Selby guided wealthy industrialists, royalty, maharajahs, and opera singers, as well as ordinary people who saved up for years to go on one these trips across the hunting lands of Africa.
Selby moved his base of operations from Kenya to Botswana following the Mau Mau revolts of the 1950s, when he worked as a tracker for the old Colonial government. It turned out to be a positive move, as he was one of the first to bring hunters to the great Okavango Delta and Kalahari Desert, and what was then an unspoiled wildlife paradise.
While Selby was first and foremost a hunter, he was among the first professional hunters to anticipate major changes in African tourism and in 1970 established the first lodge and camps for photography safaris. (Note, the old term, “white hunter,” was replaced long ago with Professional Hunter)
Selby continued to lead safaris in Africa until he retired in 2000.
There is, not surprisingly, a local connection to Harry Selby. Earlier this month the Butte community said goodbye to another legend of big game hunting, Jack Atcheson, Sr., who, from his base in Butte, Montana, established a business of booking hunting trips around the world, and in the process went on many international hunting trips.
His sons, Keith and Jack Jr., continue to operate the business, and Keith recalls his first hunting trip to Africa in 1977, with Harry’s son, Mark Selby, the professional hunter. “I got my first cape buffalo on that trip,” he recalls.
“As far as I know, my dad never hunted with Harry Selby, but we certainly booked a lot of hunting trips with him.”
Keith noted, with regret, that Mark Selby died in 2017. Harry Selby is survived by his wife, Maria Elizabeth (Miki) and daughter, Gail, and several grandchildren.
There’s no escaping the reality that attitudes about trophy hunting in Africa and other exotic locales have changed, and people who post photos from an Africa hunt on social media had better be prepared for hate mail.
Still, we can’t ignore the life and career of this renowned professional hunter who bridged the transition from traditional multi-month hunting safaris to permanent camps catering to photographers, and earned widespread respect and honors for his achievements.