Nov 19, 2019

Queen of elephants

Queen of elephants

Being the daughter of a famous zoologist Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Saba’s bond with the African wilds began at a very young age. Here in Colombo, the conservationist, wildlife presenter and award-winning wildlife filmmaker talks of her ‘wild’ experiences

Here acclaimed conservationist Saba Douglas-Hamilton based in Kenya answers some questions of the Sunday Times.

Invited to speak at the Galle Literary Festival a few years ago, Saba says she fell in love with Sri Lanka then!

This week she and her husband Frank Pope were in Sri Lanka for the 125th anniversary celebrations of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS). They also visited the Uda Walawe and Yala National Parks.

On Sri Lanka’s conservation issues

I feel we can all learn lessons from each other, despite our experiences being in such different parts of the world. Human encroachment, landscape fragmentation, overpopulation and corruption are common themes that we likewise face in Africa. But as humans we also share a great capacity for joy, compassion, ingenuity, and can spring board off the discoveries of others and learn from past mistakes. Before I can comment, I need to see what is happening and listen to people’s different perspectives of the problem in Sri Lanka. But perhaps some of my answers below will help. 

We ignore the fact that we live on a finite planet at our peril, and while it may be convenient to let business progress as usual within a 4 year voting cycle, we need only look to history to note that environmental degradation has often led to the collapse of the most powerful societies. So while human intelligence and technological ingenuity might buy our global community some time, in the long term a habitable Planet is critical for our survival and we have to make that goal our priority.

So protecting biodiversity and improving the resilience of natural systems is paramount. The good news is that we can each make a difference by committing to honour the environment every day, starting with small steps at home and in our own backyard.

Over-tourism is increasingly an issue. On the one hand, many of the areas that contain the most biodiversity are chronically short of funds for conservation. Eco-tourism is often touted as a solution, but if it is not well managed and accountable, then inevitably an excess of people coming into wild areas can cause its own set of problems.

Yet exposure to different landscapes, ways of life and cultures through travel, connects hearts and minds. People protect what they love and understanding that the world is different, in pain or need, beyond one’s immediate horizon has led to tremendous acts of generosity and compassion. I am a great believer in the power of the individual to make change, and this applies as much to how we travel or spend our money as to the way we bring up our children. After all, one can only lead by example.

The human-animal conflict

It’s a long process that needs to be addressed at many different levels. Finding clever ways to mitigate conflict is key. The Save the Elephants beehive-fence project in Tsavo is a good example of how insights into elephant behaviour can be used as an effective tool to reduce incidents of crop-raiding (see Creating wildlife corridors to maintain the connectivity of wild ecosystems or protected areas is critical and can help decrease conflict substantially by giving wildlife access to their seasonal ranges or migration routes in ways that don’t compete directly with people. But it’s always more complicated in real life than it appears on paper! This bee-fence project is now being trialled in 19 countries, 4 of which are in Asia – Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand. (See

In Tsavo (in Kenya), where a new high speed railway has cut through our largest national park, considerable effort went in to creating underpasses for wildlife. But to build the railway the government had to de-gazette that section of the park, so the underpasses beneath the railway suddenly became uninhabited and unprotected land. Save the Elephants has been tracking 30 elephants in the area to see how they have responded to the railway and which underpasses they use. An unforeseen outcome of the de-gazettement was that local farmers realised there was suddenly “free land, so they re-settled in the underpasses blocking what was meant to be key wildlife corridors and forcing the elephants to climb up over the 10 metre high embankment of the railway line, breaking through the electric fences built to protect the trains, simply to avoid conflict with people. What becomes quite clear, is that any kind of development (infrastructural or otherwise) has to be carefully thought through by government in partnership with environmental scientists.

On the social development side, alternative livelihoods through eco-tourism, introducing people to sustainable farming practices, or restoration/regeneration of degraded landscapes, can help uplift and empower the people that live closest to wildlife, bringing benefits that they would not otherwise receive (employment, education, medical etc), all of which helps win over hearts and minds. Many eco-tourism operators offer scholarships, and secular education or training opportunities are hugely important for building local capacity and resilience. What’s important is to link everything back to the endangered/iconic species, and the role they play in maintaining ecosystem health and long term sustainability.

But there’s no one answer! We need as many innovative clever ideas as possible.

The interconnectivity of all life forms in our biospheres is the fabric of life on which we depend for our survival, it has to be championed above all else.

Saba’s parents and early life

I was born in Kenya, but spent the first few years of my life in Manyara National Park, Tanzania, where my father (Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton) was doing his pioneering research on the social behaviour of wild African elephants. We lived in a series of small rondavels on the banks of the Ndala river, at the foot of a forested escarpment with a waterfall cascading down the cliffs about 100 metres from camp. I remember splashing in rock pools close to elephants drinking in the river and bumping into buffalo as we made our way back to our rooms at night. There was a magical place called the Ground Water Forest into which the elephants would disappear for long periods, where natural springs from the Ngorongoro mountain catchment gushed out of the rocks – we’d often stop there to pick fresh watercress in a stream at the end of a day or climb into the vines wishing we could get higher like the monkeys.

When my father got his DPhil from Oxford, our family moved back to Kenya where my parents began their fifteen-year campaign to stop the ivory trade. By 1975 the ivory trade was legal but starting to spiral out of control. My dad saw the writing on the wall long before anyone else as he lived so close to elephants, but the trade was so entrenched and lucrative that nobody wanted to believe him. So he had to get hard data on the table fast to prove that elephants could simply not sustain the ivory off-take. For a while we relocated to Uganda, shortly after the dictator Idi Amin had been deposed, where my father was made warden of several national parks, trying to protect the last remnant populations of elephants. The country had been torn to pieces by civil war, and when we passed through Kampala there was strict curfew in the Capital at dusk and gunfire almost every night. Even out in Murchison Falls national park, where we spent most of our time, one could hear government troops fighting rebels just across the Nile. Seeing the suffering of the people near starvation, and hearing the stories of what had happened under Amin, left an indelible impression on me.

Being brought up among elephants meant that both my sister and I thought of them as part of our extended family, and the names of long dead matriarchs from Manyara still hold such resonance in my heart, like the gentle one-tusker Virgo, the formidable Boadicea or enigmatic Ariadne. The few toys we had were elephants, all the painting on the walls of our house were elephants, and their conservation was the main focus of everything we did. So working to protect wildlife has been a calling from the very beginning.

Saba’s early life, education & passion for conservation

Boarding school in the United Kingdom was like being sent into exile. But after three years of “doing time” I was sent to the United World College of the Atlantic, that changed my life.

I grew up thinking scientific research and the environment were critically important, but also had a love for the other side. So, I studied social anthropology at university – which was all about understanding the perceptual universes of different cultures, and only afterwards returned to the world of conservation, working first for Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia, then helping my father set up Save The Elephants (STE) in 1997. But after a while I found conservation quite depressing – although you win a few battles, on the whole you are losing the war. Yet it was only by being out in the field that I was spotted by the BBC and fell into wildlife film-making. For me it was a perfect fit, combining all the things I loved most – exploring the remotest places possible, with incredible charismatic animals, and being able to share how special it was. Being a TV presenter was a way I could try to inspire more people to care about the natural world

I can’t remember exactly when my interest in wild things began, only that I’ve been aware from the beginning of the importance of having compassion for all life, which I feel is increasingly important in the modern world.

Although my sister and I took different career paths, each of us continues to do our bit for elephants. We have been brought up to think and act like conservationists, but just like any parent, we want to leave the world a better place for our children. To me that means fighting for the environment.

What I’ve learnt from elephants is that their love for one another and consistent mutual support is the social glue that binds them together. The importance of an extended family in raising offspring is central to their society. Matriarchs have also shown me that being female doesn’t make you the weaker sex. Their ferocity and courage is legendary, especially when it comes to protecting their young. As is their wisdom and the social reach of their long memories. In fact, the intense lifelong relationships elephants have with their female offspring epitomises the saying “you get back what you put in”. Which is why I’m a firm believer in the role a mother plays raising her kids to be conscious, altruistic, ethical and responsible citizens of the world. We have tried to raise our daughters to be Mighty Girls with integrity, courage and compassion, fluent in the ways of the many different creatures and cultures around them.

I’ve also learnt from other animals, the big cats especially. When a leopard mother or lioness has to leave her cubs to hunt, she’s quite strict about it. She’ll settle the cubs down then signal that she’s about to leave. When she walks away she does so with purpose and doesn’t look back, no matter how much they mew. She knows they are safe, but she has things to do that are critical to keeping them alive. And, of course, the cubs must learn on their own merit how to respond intelligently to the threats around them. So, I like to draw occasionally on the wisdom of lions and at other times on that of elephants, but most of all I treasure the wisdom of my mother, who is the greatest matriarch of them all!

After I had children, I came back to the conservation cause with a vengeance, basing our family in Samburu National Reserve in north Kenya where the research NGO – STE is.

Impossible to say (which animal is loved most)! I have loved every species I have come into contact with, and fall head over heels in love each time. Meeting mountain gorillas was particularly special. But so was filming polar bears, chimps, tigers and all the others. I think that when you get the chance to spend time with creatures in their natural environment, and have an extended glimpse of their world it opens up another door of understanding. The most important thing is to ensure every interaction is utterly respectful and gentle, so that one’s impact on their lives is minimal.

Some of my earliest memories as children – with my sister, Dudu - were sitting in an open topped Land Rover being charged at by enormous elephants which to me were like Tyrannosaurus rex! But my father’s way of dealing with the situation was simply to turn the engine off! That way the elephants would eventually calm down. He loved creeping up close to them on foot, watching them for hours and then sneaking away again so that they never even knew he was there. I remember once him teaching us how to pull a hair out of an elephant’s tail!

Through elephants I began to learn how everything in nature is interconnected, and how the presence or absence of elephants affects entire ecosystems. And I’ve always believed in the intrinsic right of wild species to exist on this planet with or without mankind.
When I was in my teens, poaching of elephants for ivory began to spiral out of control and I witnessed the slaughter first hand. It was absolutely sickening, and brought home to me how fragile their existence was. That’s when I realised that I would be involved in elephant conservation one way or another my entire life.

Although there is positive news of the final closure of ivory markets in China and the decision to close them in Vietnam and Hong Kong over a two and five-year period respectively, we are still seeing signs of increased illegal ivory activity with increased trafficking in West Africa and along China’s southern border, particularly in Laos and Myanmar. There is a disturbing amount of ivory being seized at borders. Of course that’s also a reflection of increased enforcement, but the amount of ivory still bleeding out of Africa is alarming.

The next big challenge elephants face is fragmented landscapes with vastly diminished natural habitat and direct competition with humans for common resources. Elephants in Africa will only be able to thrive in an increasingly crowded continent if we can convince the people that live alongside them to give them the space they need to survive. That means opening peoples’ eyes to the complexity of elephant consciousness and their intrinsic right to exist, explaining the science of how elephants create ecosystems and hold them together, and showing people ways to overcome the challenges that living with elephants sometimes present.

The increasing consumption of the human global population is driving species loss across the planet. Elephants need a lot of space in which to live, but in Africa that space is shrinking, fast with agriculture on the rise and huge infrastructure projects being put together that threaten to slice up the remaining refuges for nature. Africa’s people urgently need a brighter future but we also need to maintain the connectivity of wild ecosystems. With the kind of data that STE is collecting on how elephants live, where they go, and what they need to survive, we can help guide the planning process so that elephants can continue to thrive even in a human-modified landscape.

My chief interest in this field is how to preserve the integrity of the habitat, which is under siege from every angle. It means working from a grass roots perspective, joining hands, initiating dialogue across different cultures, sharing information so that we’re all on the same page to catalyse change.

Close encounters of a different kind 

I was in a plane crash with my parents when I was 12 years old, landing in a remote part of the Rift Valley in the middle of the bush. We were rescued by Njemps warriors – cousins of the Maasai – who agreed to guard us at night from the lions in the area that predated on their livestock. As the wing crashed through the cabin, all of the fuel in the tank poured onto me so when we ran barefoot from the aircraft in case it exploded, I was blinded by Avgas.

My mother, having nothing clean or soft to assist me with, licked out my eyes to stop the burning sting. It is a technique I use to this day on my children, much to their squirming embarrassment! As we lay under the stars we hoped that our mayday radio call, picked up last minute by Ethiopian airlines, would lead eventually to someone finding us! Some of the warriors had run to the closest road – as only Kenyans can – which must’ve been at least 10 to 15 kms away. Very late that night we saw headlights coming slowly through the trees as the runners hacked a path towards us. They’d managed to flag someone down and finally got to some police station and the police very kindly came to find us.

There have been many adrenaline-filled moments in my life, some filming with the BBC but most from growing up in Africa and living among wild animals. Perhaps the most extraordinary was “going ape” with wild chimps in the Tai Forest in Cote d’Ivoire, for a filmed experiment to see if two humans could live like chimps, entirely mimicking their way of life, with nothing from our own world but the clothes on our backs and a hammock. It was the first time I had survived entirely off the fruits of the land, and apart from the discomfort of being permanently wet with squadrons of mosquitoes at night, it was a sensationally beautiful experience albeit extremely challenging physically.

Being charged by Boadicea, a fiery matriarch in Manyara who specialized in terrifying threat displays, is burned indelibly in my memory. As was my father’s explanation that she was actually very frightened, but in an act of extraordinary courage, was putting herself between her family and danger to protect them as they fled.

Coming across gatherings of black rhino at full moon in the desert definitely ranks as one of the best experiences of my life. And equally exciting was the first time I met a polar bear in the high Arctic at the most northernmost point of Svalbard, 700km off the coast of Norway. We’d stopped our skidoos behind an iceberg that was frozen into the sea-ice and were watching a male bear approach from a long way off, picking his way from ice-ridge to ice-ridge looking for seal pups hidden in lairs. It was late at night and the midnight sun was hanging low on the horizon washing the landscape in pink light. The temperature was a chilling minus 35 C, and the bear’s steaming breath backlit by the glowing sun. The bear came closer and closer until he was about 10 metres from us, then towered up to his full height on his back feet. But we held our ground with thumping hearts, ready to switch on our skidoos if he charged. He swayed menacingly for a moment, then dropped to all fours and sloped off to investigate a more tantalising prospect. We were frozen solid but elated. When we tried to start our engines we found that the batteries had gone flat in the cold!

Probably one of the most dangerous times was filming desert elephants in Namibia. The crew were tucked up in their tents and I’d decided to sleep out on my own under the stars in the middle of a dry riverbed. There were elephants upriver, and in my dreams I heard them shaking acacia trees to dislodge the seedpods in the upper branches. So I was mentally clocking their presence but skimming in and out of sleep. Then suddenly I jolted wide-awake. The moon was full and lit up the sand like a silver lake. I turned on to my stomach to look back at the camp, approximately 50m away, and saw a huge bull elephant sauntering along in the moonlight parallel to the riverbank. He was oblivious to me and I thought he would pass on by, but then he stopped, and turned to look quizzically in my direction. The black rectangle of my bedroll clearly puzzled him – it was not something he had seen before. With a thumping heart I realised he was coming to investigate.

I weighed up my chances, either scurrying for the scanty bushes that offered little protection or lying still and playing dead. I realised the latter was my best option. Rolling onto my back so I could keep on watching him, I heard his feet padding towards me until his gigantic body blocked out the moon. My heart was pounding like a drum but I hardly dared to breathe. He scuffed the earth gently with a toe as big as my fist, a mere 2 metres from my head, then stretched out his trunk and hovered it over my chest, my face, and down my legs. Would he tusk me or crush me? My mind flipped somersaults in panic. Air whooshed up his trunk to analyse scent in that great brain, the seconds passed, then a million heartbeats. At long last he turned, and with that slow, heavy tread, and long whoosh of warm air as he exhaled, he carried on his way. My breath burst out ragged with adrenaline and relief, my heart flying through the treetops, for I had been spared life by the grace of an elephant.

Husband and daughters

When I first met my husband, Frank, he’d just come from six years of working as a marine archaeologist on shipwrecks off the coast of places like Vietnam, the Cape Verde islands, and Mozambique. At the time, he was living as a penniless surfer in Cornwall, writing his first book “Dragon Sea’. Our mutual love for the natural world brought us together and has led us on many adventures since, none perhaps as exciting as starting a family and relocating to Samburu.

I’ve never really been much of a city person, although I have lived in big cities for brief periods. I am passionate about ballet and love going to the theatre, but other than that there is very little I miss about city life.

I’ve always craved a simple life in a tent on the banks of an African river, and wanted to raise our children among wild creatures. After my second pregnancy, which turned out to be twins, I went over a waterfall of baby care and didn’t resurface to catch breath for two years. But when I did, a surge of longing for wild places hit me like a steam train and I knew I had to get out of suburbia (Nairobi) before I lost my mind. Thankfully, the stars aligned at the right time – we were in need of someone to take over the running of Elephant Watch Camp, and all hands at Save the Elephants were on deck with the ivory crisis which meant that Frank was spending much more time in Samburu. It made a lot of sense to relocate our lives to north Kenya, which is where we have been ever since.

My husband is similar, although his natural frontier is the ocean rather than the African wilderness. He’s never been a big ballet fan but since we’ve got three daughters he’s taken up the challenge of being their dance partner, and earned the title of being “a prettee ballureena” in one of his Father’s day cards.

Frank is the Chief Executive of Save the Elephants and deals mostly with the research, conservation and international policy/lobbying side of things, whereas my work is locally focused and intimately entwined with the nomads from the local communities. My chief interest at present is how to preserve the integrity of the habitat, which is under siege from every angle. It means working from a grass roots perspective, joining hands, initiating dialogue across different cultures, sharing information so that we’re all on the same page and catalysing change.

In general, the children have taken our stripped-down lifestyle in their stride, learning how to make bows and arrows with the Samburu warriors and sliding easily between English and Kiswahili in conversation. We employ a Samburu warrior (we call him our Ninja-Manny) to keep them out of trouble. They love him to bits and he, in turn, is rather amused by the complexities of herding three little independently minded pixies. He tends to treat them as an extension of his flock of goats!

I do love the fact that one must be mindful – every minute – of the proximity of large predators. In fact, I’ve heard a leopard calling throughout the night. Hyena too, right next to our tent. The kids have had to learn to identify all nine different scorpion species (using their proper Latin names) out of necessity. It’s hilarious to hear them say, “Mama! there’s a Hottentota trilineatus in the bathroom”. Their interest thrills me to bits, but scorpions can be lethal for children, so that’s the one area we have to be extremely careful about safety.

Obviously, family life in Samburu is pretty similar to family life elsewhere. You have to make meals, brush teeth, figure out day-care, read bedtime stories, and convince the kids to have a shower! They still say the food is yucky, and yowl at us when they’re annoyed. It’s just set in a slightly different context.

It has been a real pleasure watching the kids adapt to their new life amongst the Samburu warriors, in this extraordinary environment. Whenever there’s something interesting going on with the animals I try to explain what’s happening. Meanwhile, the warriors teach them all the tricks of bush survival. They know how to fish for ant lions with stalks of grass, where the hornbills nest, the difference between a leopard and hyena track or impala and dikdik dung.

The twins have soaked up the languages and have become handy little interpreters, while Selkie, my eldest daughter, has taken on the role of local naturalist and will often be heard explaining to guests how to sex an elephant by looking at the shape of its forehead, or showing them the thorn covered highways of Acacia rats running along to the tips of branches.

Our first daughter has just started at a small day school in Nairobi. The twins are still being home-schooled. At some point they too will have to integrate to make friends, and to learn about playground politics and team sports! Home school has been a revelation and part of me is rather devastated that it must eventually come to an end. I think it’s important to get away from one’s familiar environment at some point in one’s education, so I am very interested in the United World Colleges for 6th form.

Elephant Watch Camp

Inspired by a whale-watching trip in Canada, my mother built Elephant Watch Camp to provide eco-friendly luxury accommodation for the many people who wanted to come and experience the secret life of elephants. She employed a team of warriors from the local manyatta (Samburu villages), recycled old trees that had been knocked down by elephants or washed downstream by the river to build the shelters for the tents, dug a well, and built what I believe is one of the most beautiful and eco-friendly luxury tented camps in Africa.

What I love best about our eco-camp is the minimal impact it has on the environment. It was designed and built by my mother who wanted to create a beautiful place where people could come to learn about elephants. Each tent is built to fit the shape and needs of the tree under which it has been erected, along the banks of a slow-flowing brown river called the Ewaso Nyiro. It’s truly one of the most beautiful places I know. In the morning one is serenaded by birds while hearing the secret rustlings of wild animals awakening all around – it feels like you’re peeking out at the world from in amongst the roots of the Tree of Life.

Despite its simplicity it’s actually rather luxurious – you have everything you need and more but it’s all super eco-friendly. Bull elephants wander through camp at all times of day and night, and in the sagaram season (when juicy seed pods fall from the Acacia tortillis trees) they live with us almost permanently.

Films and TV programmes

Saba has produced ‘This Wild Life’, the ‘Secret Life of Elephants’ and the ‘Big Cat Diaries’ for BBC, while also producing, directing and presenting numerous programmes for the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

I ended up working in wildlife TV quite by chance, by being in the right place at the right time. The BBC were interested in doing a story on my father’s elephant research and I was his Chief of Operations at the time. When we met the producers in Bristol, one of them was a talent scout who decided to try me out. We made a sweet little film called ‘Living with Elephants’ and all of a sudden I became a wildlife presenter.