Meet the woman who lives with elephants – and hopes to save them

Saba Douglas-Hamilton
Saba Douglas-Hamilton
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Conservationist and film-maker Saba Douglas-Hamilton, who is is raising a family among the elephants of Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, tells Janet Christie about bringing her mission to save the species to Scotland

There’s a crocodile that occasionally likes to sleep next to the tent where she lives with her three children, her husband is in Nairobi battling malaria when we speak and a big bull elephant visits at night to graze, yet there’s nowhere else Saba Douglas-Hamilton would rather be than Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya.

Saba Douglas-Hamilton with elephants in Kenya

Saba Douglas-Hamilton with elephants in Kenya

“I want my children to grow up to be eco-warriors,” she says. Six-year-old Silke, and four-year-old twins Luna and Mayan are already well on the way with conservationists for parents and a local Samburu warrior for a nanny.

“He’s a great friend of mine,” says Douglas-Hamilton. “We call him ninja nanny. I realised that I needed someone to keep an eye out for leopards and snakes sitting up in trees looking at my bite-sized children.”

Now the wildlife conservationist and TV presenter of Big Cat Diaries, Secret Life of Elephants and star along with her family of last autumn’s ten part BBC2 series This Wild Life which followed their life at the camp in Samburu, Douglas-Hamilton is taking the conservation message on the road to publicise the work of Save the Elephants.

As she chats down the satellite phone from her tent in Elephant Watch Camp, there is the call of birds and the rustle of monkeys in the acacia and kigelia trees in the background. Wildlife is all around, but if she has sleepless nights at all, it’s not her four-legged neighbours snacking on her family that causes concern, it’s Bathgate, Stirling, Oban, Aberdeen. Not the towns themselves, you understand, but these are the Scottish dates on her forthcoming UK tour, A Life With Elephants, when she will talk about raising a family on a remote Kenyan eco-lodge, her wildlife television presenting and the battle to save the elephants and other wildlife before it’s too late.

Frank Pope and Saba Douglas-Hamilton

Frank Pope and Saba Douglas-Hamilton

“I’m a little nervous, to be honest. I’m hoping people will come. I’m going to talk about growing up in Africa, my experiences of wildlife film making and the conservation work we’re doing now,” she says. “I want to help people connect and engage with wildlife and if I can do that with my stories and film they will see what lies behind our work and the passion that we feel about it. I hope that will bring people to engage with the planet in general. As humans bad news stories can wash over us but if you have a connection you take more notice.”

Douglas-Hamilton also shares her experience by running safaris with her husband Frank Pope at Elephant Watch Camp. There visitors can come and see some of the 1,000 elephants that use the reserve and watch the work of Save The Elephants, set up by her parents Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton in 1993. The animals are monitored by the staff and their movements tracked with radio collars that send hourly text messages on data like location and air temperature.

“Our big focus here is elephant conservation,” says Douglas-Hamilton. “They are a keystone species, umbrella creatures, whose presence or absence shapes entire eco-systems. If you can protect them and the large tracts of land they need to survive, then other species will survive too. The charismatic animals wave the flag, but if you take it down to the smallest species, there are frogs, amphibians and insects that are in terrible trouble and need conservation assistance too.

“Simple things like changing our behaviour, reining in our consumerism and impulse to buy products that aren’t ecologically sound can have a huge impact. There is a myriad of species that make up the fabric of life on which we depend and we are cutting our own throats with our ignorance,” she says.

Saba Douglas-Hamilton as a child with her father Ian Douglas-Hamilton

Saba Douglas-Hamilton as a child with her father Ian Douglas-Hamilton

With Africa experiencing an ivory poaching crisis, Save The Elephant is at the forefront of a coalition determined to stop the killing of the elephants and trafficking of ivory.

“Tanzania has lost 60 per cent of its elephants in the last five years. Mozambique has lost 50 per cent and has industrial levels of poaching. In the Congo basin, which is huge, there’s a 50 per cent decline in elephant numbers.”

She adds: “Since 2008 we had a sudden spike in poaching in North Kenya and the numbers killed went up and up until 2012, where 75 per cent of the carcasses we were finding had been poached. The population was in decline. But thanks to a huge effort against poaching from the Kenyan government, the Northern Rangelands Trust, Kenya Wildlife Services, NGOs and citizens, poaching has gone down.”

Douglas-Hamilton is delighted that there hasn’t been a poaching case in the Samburu reserve since 2014. However, she is keen to stress that the animals are still under threat.

Saba Douglas Hamilton as a teenager with an elephant

Saba Douglas Hamilton as a teenager with an elephant

“We are beginning to feel the momentum of change. The US and Chinese presidents made a joint statement that they would shut down the ivory market in their countries, so the idea is there. They haven’t done it yet and we will keep up the pressure until the killing actually stops but there is a glimmer of hope and that helps you keep up the pressure and to fight harder.”

Set up in 1997, there are 66 elephant families at the Elephant Watch Camp and staff can recognise between 500-600 as quickly as a human face, by posture, profile or body language, according to Douglas-Hamilton.

“Elephants have different personalities and characters and I have very great definite loves for many of them. One of my absolute favourites is a matriarch called Babylon. She’s 55, which is very old these days when elephants are being killed off for their ivory, but she’s absolutely phenomenal. She’s so big she looks like a bull elephant, head and shoulders above the other females in her group, and she’s a very wise old lady. She and the other older females decide where the herd will go and communicate about the major drivers of their lives; safety, sustenance, security and sex. Just like us,” she says.

“Babylon used to have a young female in her group, Babel, who had a broken back and twisted leg. I first met her in 1997 and she died in 2009 when there was a very bad drought. But what was amazing was how long she survived and that was because of the nurture and care her family provided. Matriarchs like Babylon have cousins, sisters, babies, and are careful about decisions. They are less likely than the males to crop raid or fight.”

Born in the Great Rift Valley, on 7 June at 7pm on the seventh day of the week, Douglas-Hamilton was the seventh grandchild in the family so she was named Saba, or ‘seven’ in Kiswahili, the local language, which was also little Saba’s first tongue. She met her first wild elephant at six weeks old, and was never going to be happy anywhere else. She has an African consciousness to the extent that when explaining to me exactly where Elephant Watch Camp is, her description is redolent of the landscape with its vast expanses of land and sky.

“There’s the Equator, then Mount Kenya. Then you slide down the escarpment into the lowlands and there you find Samburu and Elephant Watch Camp.”

Saba Douglas-Hamilton as a baby with her mother

Saba Douglas-Hamilton as a baby with her mother

Sent back to the UK for her education she missed Kenya and everything that living there entailed but after school in Wales she studied social anthropology at St Andrews.

“I feel very at home in Scotland, despite the weather. My grandfather was Scottish and we used to go to a croft on Raasay. I have memories of sitting on a beach singing to the seals with my grandmother. There are similarities with Kenya: the space and wild openness and ease of the people, more open to chat. London is a bit claustrophobic when you’re used to navigating by natural landmarks – you can’t do that there.”

Douglas-Hamilton’s father was born in Scotland but when his biology and zoology research at Oxford took him to Tanzania where he pioneered the study of elephant social behaviour, he stayed on in the country and married. He was the first to alert the world to the ivory poaching crisis and to the alarming fact that Africa’s elephant population was halved between 1979 and 1989.

Douglas-Hamilton returned to Africa after university and after working with Save The Rhino Trust in Namibia, began working with her family on Save the Elephants.

“In the 1960s and 1970s when my parents were doing their research the study of animal behaviour was a new discipline; ethology had been very macho, rushing in and catching animals, but what my father brought in that was different, was just observing, like Dian Fossey, Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, doing it in a very gentle way, respectful. That way the animals’ behaviour is very unthreatened and if they approached you that’s their choice. They act out their lives as they always had. I only wrangle animals if it’s urgent, for their own good, not for fun, or voyeuristic reasons.”

While working in the Samburu National Reserve Douglas-Hamilton was talent-spotted by the BBC and began presenting and producing wildlife documentaries.

“Wildlife film-making fell out of the sky for me. But I found I could use my abilities as a storyteller through film to bring wildlife into people’s living rooms to get them to engage with the natural world. It was fun and exciting but towards the end I felt I’m not getting my teeth into these issues enough. I was a conduit but I had a burning need to get into the nuts and bolts of conservation and do what we can for the elephant in this part of northern Kenya.”

She’s happy with how she lives her life. “I love that I have managed to be living a lifestyle that’s not dissimilar to my own childhood, where my kids are brought up around this extraordinary warrior culture. We had lions in camp at Christmas, an eight foot crocodile nesting by the side of the tents at night and a big bull elephant who comes in at night, eating. You’ve got to be bushwise and smart,” she says, “I don’t want material possessions. For me being able to wake up and hear the early morning bird chorus and frog choirs, to see stars and smell the earth, these are the greatest riches I could ever have in my life. And if my children love that and grow up here too then they will fight for it. I believe that you will only fight for something and protect it if you love it.”

Douglas-Hamilton is scathing about “ecotourism” as a term that is bandied about by people merely using it to grow their safari businesses.

“I think it has become a hollow phrase that a lot of people use without putting a lot back. But we are doing conservation tourism where, you come and get actively engaged. It’s the real deal. We provide a safe interface where people can be exposed to raw, wild nature and engage emotionally, join hands in the conservation movement.

“It’s also about the people who live here and whose livelihood depends on the area and wildlife.”

At Elephant Watch Camp visitors also get the opportunity to visit a nearby lion conservation organisation, Ewaso Lions, founded by Shivani Bhalla, a former Edinburgh Napier University graduate who initially worked with the Elephant Watch Camp.

Like the elephants, the African lion population is in decline, falling by 90 per cent in the last 75 years to 2,000 and unless action is taken, the Kenyan lion will be extinct in 20 years. The drop is due to habitat loss and conflict with humans over livestock so the Ewaso approach is to promote co-existence between lions and restore the Kenyan people’s traditionally tolerant relationship with wildlife.

“Shivani forecasts what’s happening with wildlife and they are working to prevent the lion killing by nomadic herders. Because the lions’ prey is decreasing they go for goats that belong to the herders and that’s when people get angry, so we need to work to improve the relationship between pastoralists and predators.”

At Samburu there are also visits and performances by Samburu actors who are working to raise awareness of HIV and female genital cutting in their communities.

With her husband Frank Pope, who is chief operations officer at the Camp, fighting his fever a plane flight away in Nairobi when we speak, Douglas-Hamilton is feeling the pressure of living in a remote region with children for the first time.

“This is the first time I’ve thought about what if the children got malaria, and if it gets worse, should I get them out for a month. Malaria is not that common but we had so much rain this year and there was a burst of mosquitos so a lot of people have come down with it. Frank had just been saying ‘I have always wondered what it’s like to have malaria,’ and now he’s found out,” she says.

The pair met at a wedding in 2004 in Henley on Thames but at first Pope wasn’t as sure as Douglas-Hamilton about living in Africa.

“I had to convince him I wasn’t going to drag him off into the bush and he would never see the light of Europe again. If we were to live anywhere else, it would be Scotland or Norway, somewhere with open spaces, mountains and sky,” she says.

Somehow I can’t see Douglas-Hamilton leaving Africa any time soon. Like her, her children are growing up there, and are already trained to look out for elephants, snakes and scorpions. Malaria aside, Douglas-Hamilton is confident the children are benefiting from a special way of life.

“I’m not very well versed in city life and we don’t have to worry about things like people pushing drugs on kids. We don’t have any devices, iPads or computer games. I’m very old-fashioned. I like talking round a dinner table, books and the community, where you dance together. It breaks my heart when I see people overwhelmed by social media, and not speaking to each other.

“And living here makes you very practical so I’m quite good at thinking laterally and finding solutions to challenging logistical problems. And dealing with emergencies. For example a woman came into camp who had walked into a shard of wood and burst her eyeball. By the time people get to you they’re in pretty dire straits so you give them rapid first aid, drugs and get them to the medical centre an hour away. The closest hospital is two hours away so prevention is the thing,” she says.

With time running out for the animals Douglas-Hamilton is keen to get the conservation message across with her film making and UK tour of talks and is convinced we have something to learn from the animals themselves.

“When you watch animals over the years, say an individual leopard, you start to learn all the nooks and crannies of its territory. A tiny tuft of grass will give it just the right amount of shade to hide in at that particular time of day at that time of year, depending where the sun is. They know this. Which trees give protection and are nice to lie in the shade of in the afternoon and where to avoid because of baboons that are dangerous for cubs.

“As entomologist EO Wilson says, we should protect 50 per cent of the planet for nature. That’s a lofty ideal, but we won’t survive otherwise.

“We are also animals and can use the environment to our own advantage. I feel very fortunate to have popped into the universe in Africa and grown up in a natural environment among different cultures. And I want to be able to share that with other people so I’m doing this tour.”

She pauses and I hear the call of the birds and the rustle of an animal in the acacia.

“I’ll be all right when I get there, but sitting here in Kenya, I’m a little nervous about it,” she says.

Don’t worry Saba, we won’t bite.

• {A Life With Elephants, tomorrow, Bathgate Regal Community Centre , 7:30pm (www.bathgateregal.org); Stirling Macrobert Arts Centre, 25 April, 7:30pm (www.macrobertartscentre.org); Oban Corran Halls, 26 April, 7.30pm (www.argyll-bute.gov.uk); The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 1 May, 7pm (www.aberdeenperformingarts.com); www.aardvarksafaris.co.uk

Conservationist Saba Douglas-Hamilton with her husband and their daughters, six year old Silke, and four year old twins Luna and Mayan and Mporian, as well as a local Samburu warrior who babysits the children

Conservationist Saba Douglas-Hamilton with her husband and their daughters, six year old Silke, and four year old twins Luna and Mayan and Mporian, as well as a local Samburu warrior who babysits the children