In November 1951, LIFE magazine published an article titled “LIFE Goes on a Gorilla Hunt.” The tone of the story — which focused on a 26-year-old American gorilla-hunter named Bill Said, who supplied the great primates to zoos and research labs around the world — would be unthinkable today, when so many gorilla populations in much of Africa are critically endangered. (There are, for example, only about 800 mountain gorillas left in their Central African territory across Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.)
But in the early 1950s, when the notion of “endangered species” was not widely shared — the U.S. didn’t enact its Endangered Species Act until 1973 — the focus of the “Gorilla Hunt” feature in LIFE was mainly on “the bloody and terribly dangerous business” of capturing gorillas alive, and not on the precarious state of the gorilla in the wild. The article did state that the huge, 450-pound male killed during Said’s expedition (see slide #1) “was shy and would not have bothered to attack a human without provocation.” But, the article also made plain, “Said is often forced to kill all of the adult gorillas on the chance of capturing one or two marketable young ones.”
From a purely technical perspective, the pictures featured in this gallery, by LIFE’s Eliot Elisofon, are remarkable in their own right. As chronicles of a specific time, meanwhile, and of a largely outmoded attitude toward both the natural world and to non-Western cultures, Elisofon’s photos are invaluable tools for helping us see how far we’ve come — and how far we have yet to go — in our quest to leave something of the raw, beautiful natural world behind for our children, and their children.
[Find out more about Eliot Elisofon’s remarkable work in Africa and his great love for the continent by visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.]