Iain Douglas-Hamilton’s Indianapolis Prize Acceptance Speech


Save the Elephants

Date Published

Westin Hotel, Downtown Indianapolis

“Alfre Woodard, Fellow conservationists, distinguished Members of the Prize Committees, and all who have come tonight.

The Indianapolis Prize and the Lilly Medal is an honour which reminds us of our highest hopes and fears for the natural world. I accept it with deep gratitude and humility on behalf of all those who have struggled to retain what is natural, free and beautiful, and especially on behalf of our team at Save the Elephants.

George Schaller said two years ago that “our task is to endow all species with intrinsic worth, the right to exist… Our moral responsibility is to help protect what one studies.” This vital sentiment is surely felt by each of the finalists here tonight, who have struggled with the odds, and each of whose work I admire so much.

In following in the seven league footsteps of George Schaller and George Archibald, the previous prize winners, I can only say that the creature I follow also leaves giant footprints.

This is a time to remember and thank those closest to me over the years, first my wife Oria, who has always been there for me in good times and bad, my daughter Saba who could not join us, and my daughter Dudu who is here. I thank you for your love. My immediate family have all engaged with Nature through films and books, and now our son in law Frank Pope, Saba’s husband also here tonight, has chosen the ocean as his domain of interest. Alfre, as family and star, you are an inspiration and it is such an honour to have you here.

I have been supported by extraordinary generosity of individuals and institutions too numerous to mention all by name, but Wildlife Conservation Network have been our particular anchor this past 9 years. Many others will recognize themselves in this room to whom I have an undying debt. Our trustees, represented by Professor Fritz Vollrath and Marlene McCay tonight, have given enduring guidance, and moral support. Researchers George Wittemyer and David Daballen represent our scientific and field workers and they know what it is like to be at the sharp end of conservation.

Last and not least I thank Suzy and Fred Fehsenfeld for their vision in spotting what really matters, commiting to it with all their hearts, and opening to us the door to China.

Elephants with their need for space point starkly to the loss of biodiversity, due to the relentless expansion of the human footprint. The Africa we knew in the 60s has changed beyond belief.

In the sad game of triage there are difficult choices that lie ahead, which populations should be prioritized, which abandoned. For elephants the ugly face of the ivory trade is raising its head again. One fears what may get them first, destruction of habitats or excessive take for ivory. And what is the future if elephants ultimately are deprived of their homes and have to rampage across the country, breaking into human food stores to survive, as is happening to some beleagured elephant populations in Asia?

Yet there is much hope, which I see in the people who work with us, the colleagues local and from abroad with whom we make common cause, and their interest in returning areas back to nature. I am encouraged by the burgeoning schools in Africa, the thirst for knowledge, and the quality of young people who are now trained to take up the conservation cause. This keeps me going with hope against the doomsayers.

After roaming all of Africa, I have settled down in one place in Northern Kenya. Here I see a new brand of conservation being made to work. Here traditional forms of nomadic pastoralism are found compatible with new forms of ecotourism and the continued living of wildlife and people side by side. The Samburu people and others have a culture close to nature on which a new ethic of conservation can be built based on local values. Hopefully it will be a role model for elsewhere. It may not be a remedy for the whole of Africa, but good ideas can spread, and replicated according to local conditions.

It’s touch and go as to whether or not the conservation option can keep up with aspirations of people who have suddenly discovered how the rest of the world lives through television and mobile telephones.

Some traditional values however need to be kept. That’s why David Daballen and I are both here in tribal dress.

In Samburu we can still delight in being with the species we are trying to save. We can look at, smell, and listen to elephants, at close quarters, where we know every one individually. We can share this pleasure with others, school children, politicians, administrators and overseas well wishers. We can use the species to show that Nature close and personal still matters. By extension caring for this species makes people look at the wider planetary issues for Nature’s survival and ultimately for our own.

Today we study choice in elephants as a key to their needs. In four regions and 9 countries of Africa we track elephants in desert, forest, bushveld and savannah, who often cross international boundaries. We share real time elephant movements on computer screens with government officials, land planners, local stakeholders and conservationists, both in our study areas and around the world. It is a miracle of technology. Such maps suggest a right for elephants to exist, even to hardened politicians.

Now we have difficult choices to make, like how to resist the building of a road across the Serengeti, what do do with ivory stocks, how to cope with human elephant conflict, whether or not we are going to continue to allow an ever-expanding human footprint across the planet, munching up all the resources without check. Endangered Species’ lives hang in the balance because of illegal international trade.

We must struggle and learn how to transfer our data to the corridors of power so we get wise decisions. Our challenge remains of how to interface science, conservation and politics. Openness and scientific integrity are vital to the highest international bodies like CITES.

What is needed in Africa is far more engagement from the West and from emerging economic super-powers like China. There is no time like now to start with a visit to the continent from which we all came. Africa still holds natural riches whose importance and vulnerability can scarcely be exaggerated.

What Africa has done for me, I would like now to do for Africa. As a young man I wandered into Africa with an idea, and like so many others Africa wrapped her web around me. It is very unusual for me to be in the position of being able to dispense money, with no restriction at all. I will share my Indianapolis Prize with those who have helped me most loyally for our elephant cause, not acquiring great honours or large salaries. I would like to help them and their families for the sacrifices which life as a conservationist has demanded. These will include young and old nationals of Africa.

We have come a long way, I speak for all of us, and we have a long way to go. Please continue to travel with us.”