Saba Douglas-Hamilton: The
way I work

The presenter of This Wild Life and Big Cat Diaries on TV has returned to her roots as an elephant conservationist

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Growing up in Tazania and Kenya, my sister and I saw elephants as part of the family. The few toys we had were elephants, all the paintings on the walls were of elephants, and their conservation was the main focus of everything we did.

As a child you can’t help but absorb the intellectual and emotional environment around you. My father was young when he moved from the UK to Cape Town with his mum and stepdad, and this early immersion in Africa stirred a great passion for wildlife within him. The first opportunity that came his way, as a zoology undergraduate at Oxford University, was to study the ecological impacts of the elephants in Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania. A PhD on their social behaviour led to a lifetime dedicated to elephant conservation.

Together with my mother, he counted elephant populations, led anti-poaching units in Uganda, and catalysed an international campaign that eventually resulted in the banning of the international ivory trade.

Virgo’s calf came forward – I’ve always felt I was baptised in elephant breath

My own early experiences with elephants had a big impact on me. My parents had developed a special relationship with a friendly teenager called Virgo, who was so habituated that she didn’t seem to mind much if one approached her on foot. When I was only a few weeks old, my mother took me in her arms and walked out towards Virgo, softly calling her name. She stopped a few metres away and Virgo reached out her trunk and sniffed my infant form. Her own calf then also came forward as if to greet my mother in return. Sadly I don’t remember this – but I’ve always felt I was baptised in elephant breath.

Later, Virgo showed me how gentle and interesting elephants could be if you just sat there quietly watching them, but being charged by Boadicea, a fiery matriarch who specialised in terrifying threat displays, is burned indelibly in my mind. As was my father’s explanation that she was actually deeply frightened, yet in an act of extraordinary courage was putting herself between her family and danger to protect them as they fled.

My interest in conservation has been there from the beginning, so I was naturally drawn towards a career that would help protect wildlife.

At university I trained as an anthropologist, and spent several years afterwards flipping between conservation and anthropological consulting.

For a while I worked for Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia. After finishing school I travelled to Namibia, arriving just as Blythe Loutit, the SRT founder, started the rather controversial process of de-horning rhino to save them from poachers. It was a desperate last measure and I think she was completely right. The de-horned rhino have since grown back their horns and had many calves, but Blythe’s radical action stopped them from being killed by poachers when they were most vulnerable. It left a deep impression on me, and Blythe gained hero-eco-warrior status in my mind, so I came back to work for her straight after university and set up a crafts for conservation project with the local communities.

Around 1,000 elephants use Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, where Saba Douglas-Hamilton now works, as part of their range. Photo: Sam Gracey

My father founded the charity Save the Elephants in 1993 and I was his first chief of operations in 1997. Since 2008 we have seen a massive resurgence in the illegal ivory trade, driven mostly by domestic markets in Asia, so that has been a huge focus. But coming fast on its heels is the issue of securing enough space for elephants to survive in the long term in their wild environment, and that is a much more complex issue. Finding ways to resolve this is what we are focusing on increasingly today.

Conservation can be enormously rewarding, but often it’s an uphill battle. I found it all a bit too much in my twenties, which is why I side-slipped into wildlife film making. The biggest chunk of my professional life so far has been as a wildlife presenter for the BBC, and as a documentary film-maker. Since becoming a mother, however, I have returned to conservation as the health of the natural world has an immediate impact on my children. There is nothing I believe is more important. If we don’t reduce our rapacious exploitation of this planet we will unravel the fabric of life on which we depend for our survival.

My greatest concern for wildlife today is the ever-increasing human population and the resulting juggernaut of careless development in wilderness areas and the wasteful or destructive exploitation of the earth’s resources. We still have time to save wildlife and wilderness, but we have to act fast.

What scares me is how few people understand how deeply we rely on the natural world for our survival, and the devastating impacts of rogue capitalism or the hellbent toxicity of the pathological culture of materialism that has become the status quo. We have to fight it at every level so teaching our kids to consume less and care more is a critical first step.

I’m now the director of Elephant Watch Camp in Samburu National Reserve, which involves hosting people who come to north Kenya to see elephants and learn more about our conservation work. What I like best about our eco-camp is the minimal impact it has on the fragile environment of Samburu.

Each tent is built to fit the shape and needs of the tree under which it has been erected so that in the morning you awake amongst a growing tangle of roots and branches. Every drop of water is hand-pumped from a well, and as dusk falls there’s a hot shower in the old safari style under a starry sky from a bucket hung on a branch. At night the clicking, burbling, chirruping, blurting sounds of the frog and insect chorus tumble in through the wide, netted windows. The only light to disturb your dreams comes from the beams of the moon. There are no fences so one must always be aware that the animals can wander through at will, and we recycle everything we can lay our hands on. Our policy is to go beyond zero impact to positive impact, which we strive towards every day, especially in terms of our relationship with the local nomads.

Tourism has a key role to play, but there has to be a shift in how businesses operate. It can no longer just be about maximising profit or turning a blind eye to the impact on the environment. In the big picture, we should be trying to move beyond eco-tourism – taking only photographs, leaving only footprints – to conservation tourism so we also give something back.

And that’s what really makes our camp special – living and working shoulder to shoulder with the Samburu nomads. We employ 96 per cent local, from the immediate communities that live directly around the reserve. They are exceptionally brave, stoic people who follow the rains with their cattle. Talking to them one is humbled by the hardships they face day to day, yet their wicked sense of humour is never far from the surface. Right now we are suffering from one of the worst droughts in living memory. So I’m employing anyone who asks for a job from within the increasingly desperate community (as of today we’re up to 99 when our usual workforce is 40) simply to help people with some money in their pockets to feed their families at the end of the month. My estimate is that our camp alone is probably helping about 1,000 people right now.

With the Save the Elephants research centre half an hour downstream – my husband Frank Pope is now its chief executive – we have unparalleled access to the 20-year study of Samburu’s 1,000 or so elephants that use the reserve as part of their range. Their characters, families, hormones, migration routes, likes and dislikes are all mapped, plotted, analysed and assessed, giving us a fascinating glimpse into the secrets of elephant society. It’s hard not to fall in love both with the animals and the amazing people with whom they share their land.

Saba Douglas-Hamilton’s UK tour, A Life with Elephants, comes to the RNCM Theatre, Manchester, 13 Nov (sabadouglashamilton.com)

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