Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones despised hunting, and he was unusually outspoken about it, especially for an old cowboy. “Man was made to rule over animals,” he liked to say, “not exterminate them.”
He didn’t always think that way. As a young man in the 1860s, he made his living hunting buffalo. But when he realized the animals were in danger of disappearing from the Plains altogether, he had a change of heart and began working to save them (hence his nickname). Jones rounded up as many buffalo as he could find, herded them to his farm in Kansas, and bred them. By the early 1890s, his herd numbered about 150 and was the largest in the state.
As a passionate opponent of hunting, Jones was appalled when President Theodore Roosevelt announced in 1908 that he would be going to East Africa to hunt big game after leaving office the following year.
At the time, East Africa was divided into two so-called protectorates controlled by the United Kingdom and Germany. British East Africa encompassed most of present-day Kenya. German East Africa comprised much of what is Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania today.
Roosevelt and his son Kermit would kill scores of large mammals on a yearlong safari, including lions, elephants, rhinos, hippos, and giraffes — a veritable bloodbath.
Known for his skill with a lasso, Buffalo Jones decided to go to East Africa too, to prove that big game could be hunted with a rope instead of a gun. “I believe in giving these wild things a fair sporting chance,” he explained.
Jones could lasso anything: mountain lions and bighorn sheep, wild mustangs and grizzly bears. Jones even claimed to have once roped a bear cub in Yellowstone and spanked its backside “to teach it some manners.” He believed all wild animals, even lions, could be lassoed and subdued, as long as the roper had “courage in his heart and determination in his soul.”
So, in 1909, while Roosevelt was still hunting big game in Africa, 65-year-old Buffalo Jones began planning his own safari. Charles Bird, a Massachusetts businessman who’d once watched Jones rope a 200-pound cougar, agreed to finance the unusual expedition. Jones hoped to repay Bird by making a movie of his trip.
To assist him on the safari, Jones recruited two young New Mexico cowboys renowned for their roping skills, Marshall Loveless and Ambrose Means. He also shipped ten horses and a pack of tracking dogs from New Mexico to Africa for the expedition.
On the way to Africa in January 1910, Jones stopped in London and hired a cameraman: Cherry Kearton, a world famous nature photographer who’d filmed parts of the Roosevelt safari. Kearton doubted Jones and his companions would succeed, but found their mission irresistible. “I never thought they would do it,” Kearton later confessed, “but I went along because I knew it would make a good picture, whatever happened.”
In London, Jones also scoured for supplies: collars, belts, chains, branding irons. One rainy morning he walked into a hardware store and asked for handcuffs. The clerk showed him a pair.
“Not large enough,” Jones said.
“How large would you want them, sir?”
“Twice that size.”
“May I ask for what purpose you require them, sir?”
“Precisely, handcuffs for lions,” said the unperturbed clerk; “yes, you need large ones. I am afraid I have none in stock just now, but I can have them made for you within a few days.”
On the boat to Mombasa, an Englishman who had done some hunting in East Africa asked Jones if he could really throw a lasso 300 feet — what hunters considered a safe distance from a lion.
“My ropes are forty feet long,” Jones answered.
“How do you expect to arrive within forty feet of a lion, may I ask?”
“On my horse,” said Jones.
On the first day of the safari, Jones’s guide spotted a small pack of warthogs in the distance. With Kearton filming, Jones, Loveless, and Means gave chase. They separated one of the animals from the pack and drove it back toward Kearton. Loveless drew his rope, made especially for the safari by the American Cordage Company of Brooklyn. It whistled as he twirled it above his head. He let it fly. The noose caught one of the warthog’s hind legs, bringing it down. When they released the animal, it meekly trotted away.
In the days that followed, Loveless roped an eland, Jones a cheetah, Loveless a giraffe. All the animals were set free. Some were branded with Jones’s personal brand before they were released: “B.J.”
One morning, they spotted a rhinoceros sleeping in some brush. They flushed it out. Means lassoed it, but the rope snapped. They chased the animal for four exhausting hours before Loveless finally roped one of its hind legs and tied the other end of the rope around a tree. “What pictures!” Kearton shouted as he filmed the incredible scene.
On April 8, 1910, they tracked a female lion to a crevice between two rocks. Jones threw firecrackers at the animal to flush her out. Just as she lunged at Jones, Loveless, who had thrown his rope over a tree trunk and tied it to his saddle, managed to lasso one of the lion’s hind feet. He galloped away, pulling the lassoed lion up into the tree, from which she hung helplessly. Jones was ecstatic. “We got her!” he shouted. They roped her legs as she hung. (The handcuffs were not necessary.)
“You’re certainly a beauty,” Jones said as he admired the captive lion. “I guess we’ll just have to take you home with us as a souvenir of the trip.”
That lion would be the only animal Jones shipped back to America. She was sent to the Bronx Zoo, which named her Niobe. For years Niobe was one of the zoo’s star attractions. When President Taft visited the zoo in 1911, he asked to see “the lioness that ‘Buffalo’ Jones lassoed in Africa.”
“The president knows ‘Buffalo,’” one paper reported, “but thought more highly than ever of his prowess after a keeper had jabbed the lioness with a stick and he heard her roars.”
Cherry Kearton’s film of the Jones expedition, “Lassoing Wild Animals in Africa,” was released in February 1911. The reviews were glowing. “‘Lassoing Wild Animals in Africa’ is the greatest cowboy picture that has ever been produced,” gushed the trade journal Moving Picture World. “The excitement at times is almost hair raising.” Kearton screened the film for Roosevelt, who called it “a really phenomenal record of a really phenomenal feat.”
“I was out in Africa when word was brought to us that Buffalo Jones and the two cow-punchers were coming out there to rope the animals,” Roosevelt said after the screening. “Everybody laughed at the thought. They didn’t believe that there was any seriousness in the proposal. I said, ‘You don’t know those cow-punchers, and there is nothing they will not try to rope.’ I did not believe they could accomplish the feat. I didn’t believe it possible to rope a lion or a rhinoceros as they did, and to have caught their pictures with a cinematograph is a thing that has never before begun to be approached.”
At the box office, however, “Lassoing Wild Animals in Africa” was a bomb. The market had been oversaturated with animal pictures since the Roosevelt safari. (Sadly, no copies of the film are known to exist.)
A few years after their bloodless safari, Buffalo Jones and Cherry Kearton went to the Bronx Zoo to visit Niobe.
“When the two men reached the lion house in the Zoo they went to the cage where the lioness was skulking sourly behind a stump,” wrote a newspaper reporter who tagged along. “Buffalo Jones attracted the animal’s attention, and the beast, taking one glance at him, lunged fiercely at the cage. She glared back at him, then slunk back to a corner, where she crouched.
“‘I guess she remembers me,’ said Jones triumphantly.”
In 1914, Buffalo Jones returned to Africa, this time to lasso a gorilla. This expedition, however, was a failure. All Jones caught was malaria. He was evacuated from the French Congo shortly before the outbreak of the First World War.
Jones never fully recovered. He died at his daughter’s home in Topeka, Kansas on October 1, 1919. He was 75.
After Germany’s defeat in the First World War, most of its holdings in East Africa were surrendered to the British and incorporated into British East Africa. In 1920, the British government officially designated British East Africa a colony and renamed it the Kenya Colony. Kenya declared its independence from Britain in 1963.
Niobe, the lion Jones lassoed in East Africa, outlived him by two years. She passed away peacefully at the Bronx Zoo in October 1921. She was believed to be about 15 years old when she died — not bad for a lion in captivity at the time.
© 2020 by Matthew Algeo
Matthew Algeo is an author and journalist. His latest book is All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia (Chicago Review Press). His website is malgeo.com.