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Beast Is Bureaucracy : For Africa's Hunters, It's a New Battle

June 21, 1988|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Times Staff Writer

LAMU, Kenya — Bunny Allen raised his tanned forearm in front of him, level with his eyes and parallel to the ground.

"He sank his teeth in right along there," he said, tracing a hairline scar along his arm. "That leopard's face was as close to mine as mine is to yours. And all I could think of at that very moment was what beautiful eyes he had--beautiful amber eyes."

As all such hunters' yarns must, this one ends with Allen's gun bearer blowing the animal off him with a burst of gunfire and the hunter eventually mounting the leopard's incisors on the gold chain that still hangs around his neck.

No Leopard for Aly Khan

Allen, 83, who long ago retired to this steamy oceanfront Muslim town, does not mind luxuriating in the romantic heyday of the East African white hunters, days when he guided the likes of Prince Aly Khan, then married to actress Rita Hayworth. ("Yes, Aly Khan. . . . He failed to get a leopard.")

But it is not all romance, particularly today, when the remaining Great White Hunters in Kenya and Tanzania are fighting their grimmest battles not with game in the bush, but with bureaucrats, politicians and poachers. At issue is the right to hunt a territory that the spread of agriculture, the fighting of wars and the poaching of game are rapidly shrinking to almost nothing.

"This is a dying profession because there are fewer places to go," said Robin Hurt, 43, a leading hunter who earned his professional license 25 years ago under apprenticeship rules that required the approval of eight of the 57 professional hunters in the region. "We've lived through three hunting bans, in Tanzania, Zaire and Kenya, and we've had to leave Sudan because of the civil war there."

Half of Tourist Income

The fragility of the hunting business today is exemplified by what Hurt and his colleagues have gone through in Tanzania, a nominally socialist country grappling with the paradox of relying on white-run capitalist safari companies for as much as half of its $6 million a year in tourism income.

Within the last month, the Kenya-based hunters preparing for the safari season beginning July 1 in Tanzania were abruptly ordered to recall their crucial advance parties from their bush camps while the Tanzanian authorities "reviewed" their permits. Hurt has since spent 10 fruitless days jawboning officials in Dar es Salaam, the capital.

"Blokes like Robin have to make a hell of a gamble," said Allan Earnshaw, vice chairman of Ker & Downey, which specializes in much less politically sensitive photo safaris. Ker & Downey is a sister firm of Hurt's, since both are now owned by a Houston travel company, Safari South.

Nonetheless, hunters like Hurt, Allen and dozens of others still living in the hills around Nairobi consider themselves heirs to Africa's most romantic tradition.

It is not surprising that to many Americans and Europeans the Great White Hunter largely defines the African bush. For decades the mystique has been burnished on page and screen. Not least among the literature is "Out of Africa," the Kenya memoirs of writer Karen Blixen, whose nom de plume was Isak Dinesen. She was the wife of one of the most renowned white hunters and the lover of another.

The professional hunters rely on that mystique to bring them business. To a man, they repeat as a credo that they never advertise, but rely for business on worldwide word-of-mouth.

Yet what never changes is the harsh competitiveness of a business in which one's success has never been dependent chiefly on such romantic qualities as marksmanship and courage.

Marksmanship a 'Small Matter'

"Marksmanship was necessary but it was a small matter," said Terry Mathews, a veteran who gave up hunting in favor of sculpting wildlife after a client took out his eye with an errant shot in 1968. A black patch on his left eye, Mathews has spent much of the last 12 weeks lying immobilized in his spacious yard, hoping to speed the mending of a leg devastated in an accident during a television shoot.

"You had to be a damn good mechanic for the vehicles, the refrigerator, the radio-telephones you had with you," Mathews said. "You had a pretty comprehensive medical kit, with a lot of dangerous drugs. And you had to be a bit of a psychologist, I guess. You never knew whether you were going to be stitching someone's leg up or consoling him for missing something."

Most of the hunters describe logistics as the indispensable skill.

Bunny Allen, recalling the combination that made the legendary partnership of his friends Bror Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton (those men from Dinesen's life) so successful, remarks: "Finch Hatton was a better hunter and tracker than Blixen, but Blixen was a much better organizer. Bror would take care of all the supplies--and in those days it was much more difficult than now."

Big on Fair Play

Part of the hunters' mystique was their carefully cultivated image of fair play.

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