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Saba Douglas-Hamilton

Saba Douglas-Hamilton Sam Gracey
21 Dec
Saba Douglas-Hamilton is a conservationist, film-maker, and presenter of wildlife television programmes. After growing up in the African bush, she joined her father’s conservation charity, Save the Elephants, and manages the family’s eco-lodge, Elephant Watch Camp, in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya

I’ve had the great fortune of growing up among many different cultures. In Kenya alone there are 42 different tribes, and within each are all these different sub-groups. That’s something I’ve always been interested in, so I went to university and studied anthropology. I did try and segue off to be an anthropological consultant, but inevitably my heart always came back to conservation.

When I was younger, I actually found it too heart-breaking to deal with, because I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what prompted me to shift into film-making. I found film-making to be a way that I could do something positive, by telling stories. I think the role of the story-teller is incredibly important in improving our relationship with the environment. But now that I’ve had children, I’ve gone back into conservation with a vengeance!

Urban society has become too dislocated from nature. So what I try to do now is peel back the layers of meaning, get people to slough off their urban skins, and try to give their experience in nature the depth and substance it deserves so that people actually understand what it is that they’re hearing, seeing and losing. It’s simply lack of understanding. We only know what we’ve seen since our childhood, and the problem is that every generation inherits a more impoverished Earth, a weaker biosphere.

2012 was the worst year for poaching. In north Kenya, we have an incredible coalition of conservationists, all working together with the local government and Kenya Wildlife Service, putting huge amounts of time and effort into trying to reduce poaching, and they have got it down in the last two years. This year we’re back down to pre-crisis 2008 levels, but that’s just in north Kenya.

The Maasai Mara still has terrible poaching problems. Tanzania’s lost 67 per cent of its elephants, mostly in the last five years. Mozambique is the same. It’s just gone crazy. What we’ve done at Save the Elephants is start an Elephant Crisis Fund, which is accumulating donations and then getting 100 per cent of those funds out into the key areas with the most effective people who are making real change – stopping killing of elephants, stopping trafficking of ivory and stopping demand. It’s a very effective model and the wonderful thing is that it’s forcing everybody to work together. That’s what we need; to have a united voice.

Things are changing so fast now. We’re losing our wild areas, vernacular languages are being lost, traditions are being lost and knowledge is being lost that developed over millennia. I find that equally devastating because I think there’s so much that we can learn.

Responsible tourism is very important anyway, because it brings money to protected areas, and the parks and reserves cannot survive without it. But we’re trying to move away from ‘ecotourism’ – which is now a much-abused term – to ‘conservation tourism’. It’s a whole new level of engagement. It’s about becoming enamoured with elephants, engaging with the conservation movement, understanding how that movement fits into the bigger picture, and waking up to each individual person’s role in that.

Elephant Watch Camp is my mother’s creation. She built this beautiful eco-lodge, all made out of trees that had been pushed over by elephants or washed down the river. She employed entirely from the local community, the nomads literally left their livestock and were trained up from scratch to be room stewards, guides, carpenters and drivers. We consider ourselves to be highly luxurious, but we don’t have hair dryers, we don’t have air con, you don’t get digital TV. What we have instead is a very bohemian chic and total one-on-one immediate connection with the natural world. Elephants wander through camp, leopards come padding through at night, and the trees are full of monkeys.

There’s always been this assumption that the animals and the wilderness will always be there. But everything’s becoming increasingly threatened. The tourism industry has to change its way of doing things, there has to be a lot more giving back. Not just in the conservation aspect, but also in the community.

We’re all in great need of a wake up call, and really understanding what’s happening to our planet as the life support system that we rely on. We talk about it a lot, but I don’t think there’s a real deep understanding of the urgency of it, and how precarious it all is.



1970 Born in Nairobi, Kenya

1993 Graduated from University of St Andrews with an MA in Social Anthropology; Joined Save the Rhino Trust, Namibia

1997 Joined Save the Elephants as Chief Operations Officer

2000 Became a wildlife TV presenter, going on to front shows such as the BBC’s Secret Life of Elephants and Big Cat Diary, and Animal Planet’s Heart of a Lioness and Rhino Nights

2014 Takes over as manager of Elephant Watch Camp, Kenya

2015 Presents BBC’s This Wild Life, documenting management of Elephant Watch Camp

Find out more about Save the Elephants – supported by Real Africa – at savetheelephants.org, and about Saba Douglas-Hamilton and Elephant Watch Camp at sabadouglashamilton.com

This article was published in the December 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.

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