When the poacher becomes warden: Cottar’s legacy in Kenya’s rich wild

Game hunters pose for a photo after capturing a gazelle in Kenya, in October 1964. [File, Standard]
The inanimate black characters on white paper come alive, promising adventure and danger.

Here exotic beasts and monsters leapt off the pages, snarling and sent chills down the spines of the faint-hearted. But to the initiated ardent hunters, this unleashed a rush of adrenaline and acted as a calling card.  

The author too, like an addict powered by the strongest of hallucinogens, had forfeited a second chance of occupying White House, the most powerful address in the world, to witness this hypnotic wonder.

Theodore Roosevelt was only 50 when he gave up his chance of defending his presidency in America, to lead a small bunch of scientists in the unruly jungles of East Africa where untamed beasts and virgin habitats beckoned him. 

Guided by experienced white hunters who had mastered Africa and an estimated 250 African porters who carried his guns food, drink and books, the immediate former president of the US straddled the wilds of Kenya like a colossus.

Epic expedition

And at the end of his expedition, from 21 April, 1909, to March 14, 1910, the former president graphically detailed his escapades in his master piece, African Game Trails.

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His expedition, funded by the Smithsonian Museum was epic in that it removed from Kenya, Congo and Sudan samples of more than 5,000 lions, rhinoceros, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, zebras, warthogs as well about 160 species.

In total, 18,000 specimens of plants, animals, birds and cultural objects from the peoples of East African region were shipped to America.

But his immortalisation of this expedition in a book captivated hunters with his graphic description of the excitement which awaited hunters brave enough to dream of coming to Kenya. He penned his most memorable hunt of Nandi Warriors hunting a lion in his book thus: “The lion struck the man, bearing down the shield, his back arched; and for a moment he slaked his fury with fang and talon. But on the instant I saw another spear driven through his body from side to side and as the lion turned again, the bright spear blade darting toward him were flashes of white flame. The end had come.”

Roosevelt’s book mesmerised his readers in America. It was like food to the restless soul of Charles Cottar, popularly known as Chas, who had by then somehow conquered the America’s Wild West, served as a gun-slinging Sheriff of Texas and was looking for new challenges. 

The former president was however not a mere spectator in the blood sport but an addicted hunter who had confessed that although he loved politics, he was more enchanted by game hunt.

And so when he left Washington, Roosevelt was determined to shoot everything he encountered in the name of science which he justified as a necessary evil for the future of wildlife.

“In a civilised and cultivated country wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen. The excellent people who protest against all hunting and consider sportsmen as enemies of wildlife, are ignorant of the fact that in reality the genuine sportsman is by all odds the most important factor in keeping the larger and more valuable wild creatures from total extermination.”

After the former President had left East Africa, an enchanted 35-year-old Cottar established himself as an animal capture expert fort the great circuses of US and Europe.

According to one of his descendants, Calvin Cottar, the patriarch supplied live animals to zoos of the world and specimens to museums, like many of his contemporaries. His great grandson has no illusions about Chas declaring in his book, Cottars Safaris, 100 years in Africa:

“Charles was no 21st century conservationist. He held many unpleasant views and was an ardent hunter and dealer in ivory but he grew to love Kenya.”

Brian Herne, in an article published in Safari & International in 2015, describes Nairobi in 1910 as “a dusty settlement, smack in the middle of a hunter’s paradise where men still packed pistols, as lions strolled the back streets, while cape buffalo wallowed in papyrus swamps near the celebrated Norfolk Hotel, and elephant often plundered vegetable gardens.”

Nevertheless, Nairobi to Chas was a like a magnet because he was ready to gamble his life and paid no heed to many tombstones that littered the colony proclaiming the man buried under had been clawed, gored or mauled by a wild animal.

“Let us be frank my great grandfather killed wildlife in astonishing numbers and had little respect for other humans, whatever their colour.

He would have brushes with the lions, leopards and buffaloes and the Kenya society and the law,” Calvin writes.

Chas was born in 1874 in Iowa and started off as prospector, a shopkeeper and a hunter before he dedicated his life in pursuit of adventure.

When the adventure bug bit him, Chas left his family in Oklahoma and was bewitched by Kenya’s game, its breathtaking beauty and the freedom the colony promised for he was a strong believer that no man had the authority to tell him what to do or not to do in pursuit of his dream.

Following the footsteps of the former president, Chas too lured tourists into Kenya and his company, Cottars Safaris Services which he had established in 1919. At one point he ventured into Congo where he dodged the Belgium police’s bullets in the Ituri forest Congo pygmies and ultimately poached and stashed a huge ivory cache but was almost felled by a tropical fever and had to be carried by porters for over 600km to Nairobi.

He once tried to wrestle a leopard and after momentarily subduing it instructed his wife to capture his heroics on a motion picture. Things went awry and the leopard almost killed him.

Unfortunately all the clip taken by the panicked wife, Anita were out of focus. He almost lost his left leg which doctors wanted amputated but he refused.

Chas hated colonialism in all its manifestation and was treated as an outcast as demonstrated by an American journalist, Neglery Farson who wrote in his book, Behind God’s back:

“The man whom most of the white hunters themselves admit is the best hunter in Kenya is an American. He does not belong to the association of white hunters. In fact he offered to knock their blocks off.”

According to the author, the British hunters were outraged when Chas invited rich hunters in America through a poster stating,” You want lions? We have them!”

He also made films which he then showed in America  to entice prospective hunters to come to Kenya.

Killed by lion

His biggest moment was when Vacuum Oil Company financed a 14 -month Colorado African Expedition in 1928, and contracted Chas to offer his extensive knowledge in the East African leg.

Earlier in 1912, the veteran had made a film, Cameraring in Africa which he took to America where he showed  at the Globe theater in new York, although  he only  registered his company in 1919 with the colonial authorities. 

It is this knowledge, the unique marketing skill and bravery that nurtured Cottars Safari Services which has lasted for over a century.

On numerous occasions he had flirted with death, killed 50 lions and predicted that he would be killed by a lion, and was biased against a rhinoceros which he deemed dumb, blind, too ugly and slow. 

In 1940, Chas got a contract for a lecture tour across the US and started to prepare a spectacular film in Loita plains to promote his company.

But as fate would have it, he was gored to death by an old rhinoceros as he opted to film the charging rhino instead of fleeing or stopping it with is powerful rifle. By the time he fired his rifle, it was too late as an artery in the thigh had been torn and he bled to death as his son and servants watched.

It has been 70 years since Chas was killed by a short sighted beast he despised but his spirit lives on. The Masai plains he once roamed are no longer as wild as they used to but his descendants still carry on with what he started. Cottar Safaris still offer tours in the Masai Mara where they have leased 7,000 acres.

Ironically, the wide open plains Roosevelt conquered and Cottar dreamt of, unfettered by laws and petty regulations have disappeared and Nairobi National park is fast shrinking.

The city now resembles the Great Plains Chas had escaped from when he was 20 in 1910. 

The row between the government, poachers and herdsmen over grazing fields in Kenya still rages almost 60 years after Kenya’s independence.

However the Cottars who now operate deep in the Maara at their 1920s Camp are confident that they can  still survive the politics of sports poaching and wild life conservation for another century.

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