‘Want to tackle climate change? See the world from an elephant’s perspective’ – in conversation with Saba Douglas-Hamilton


Robbie Hodges, The Telegraph

Date Published

See link for photos.

Unlike her peers, Saba Douglas-Hamilton’s childhood wasn’t spent pushing her nostrils up against glass zoo enclosures but confronting the reality of Africa’s poaching epidemic first hand. By day she could be found traipsing the savanna, by evening gunfire lullabies carried her to sleep; such is the bizarre life of a conservation dynasty heiress.

“There was the first ever ivory burning that happened in 1989,” Saba recalls, “My sister and I painted our backs with ‘Burn ivory! Burn! And watched 12 tonnes of tusks go up in flames. Some of my friends would keep a photograph of a poached elephant in their purse and every time they saw people wearing ivory, they’d pull it out and show it to them. And so,” she says cheerily, “again, that was all formative stuff”.

Perhaps given that her father is the Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton – pioneering zoologist and founder of Save The Elephants – such an unusually political childhood should be expected. Today, as Special Projects Director of the charity, her methods of persuasion might be a little more sophisticated but she remains uncowed in her conservation battles.

At Save The Elephants HQ in Samburu County, Kenya, the whole family mucks in. Her father continues to lead the scientific missions as he has done since 1965; her husband, Frank, is the charity’s CEO; while her mother, Oria, helps Saba with the day-to-day running of the palatial Elephant Watch Camp just downstream.

When it opened in 2002, it was one of the first hotels which offered tourists the opportunity to step into the grubby field of conservation research – a progenitor of what would become ‘ecotourism’. Today, it’s a brightly-bedecked, wibbly-wobbly architectural feat – “the ultimate in eco-luxury” – and, like a family palace, it provides the clearest distillation of their dynastic aims.

“The whole purpose of Elephant Watch Camp is to show how people can join hands and start becoming part of the conservation solution in the long term because I think many people feel utterly impotent and helpless when confronted by the world’s vast environmental problems.”

When we talk, following her nomination as Pioneer of the Year in the 2019 Revolut Everywoman in Travel Awards, Saba doesn’t mince her words. “I don’t do frontline anti-poaching, I don’t do the hard scientific work or any of that stuff. I’m a communicator,” she says. “I connect people and use elephants as a symbol of what’s happening environmentally on a much bigger scale”.

Okay, she’s no scientist, but so far she’s proven more effective than the hadron collider in producing feats of nuclear fusion, with radiation felt across the globe. Fashion, in particular, has proven an unlikely but fruitful pairing for the Elephant Watch Camp.

One of her most successful collaborations started as a conversation over lunch.“This couple from New York came to stay [at Elephant Watch Camp]. They had no idea who we were and vice versa, but we just clicked. It turned out that this guy was David Bonnouvrier who owned a model agency in New York. He and his partner, the ex-supermodel Trish Goff, wanted to help somehow. ‘Model schmodel,’ I thought, ‘what are you gonna do with a whole lot of models?’”

Quite a lot, it turns out. It started with a hashtag: “30,000 elephants dying per year? #KnotOnMyPlanet”. Once the world’s prettiest faces started pumping it out into the ether (to the tune of 1.5 billion social media impressions) the jewellery behemoth, Tiffany & Co., caught wind.

Months later, herds of gleaming silver elephant pendants hit the counters of Tiffany & Co. on Fifth Avenue with 100 per cent of the profit going straight into the coffers of The Elephant Crisis Fund, a funding mechanism set up by Save The Elephants. No sooner had they landed than they were snapped up and fastened to the city’s most glamorous do-gooders.

“This thing just took off,” says Saba, “and it ended up being one of Tiffany’s fastest selling jewellery lines”. Since then, Porter magazine has splashed Save The Elephants across their pages and various superstars have lent their voices to the conversation. The moral of the tale? Virtue sells.

As for where the money actually ends up? Saba’s a little exasperated by the question. “It goes straight out to individuals working on the front line,” she says before unspooling a seemingly endless thread of issues – land degradation, desertification, poaching, reducing demand for ivory – all of which are interconnected. “There is so much that needs fixing,” she says.

“Ivory trade is an awful monster. It was the main battle for us between the mid-70s and the end of the 80s,” she says reflectively. While China banned the legal trade of ivory in 2017, a bustling black market continues to feed the 14 million affluent Chinese consumers for whom tusks remains a treasured status symbol.

But the real catch-all issue is human overpopulation, says Saba – not before adding a personal caveat. “I don’t want to be a hypocrite as I have three children,” she says, “but the reason I have three children is that I only planned on having two and my second bunch were twins. That’s my excuse.”  

By 2100 the United Nations predicts human population to reach 11 billion. If not handled intelligently such drastic change could spell the extinction of certain animal populations.

“What we need to do, is to try to maintain the critical connectivity that keeps ecosystems whole by using elephants as the umbrella species. We need to protect where elephants go in the dry season, in the wet season, and when they feel unsafe. By looking at long term movement over decades to see how elephants utilise landscape, we can get into their minds and see the world from their perspective. That way we can hope to meet their needs.”

Saba transposes the situation in Africa to pre-industrialised England – a time before our ‘mountains green’ gave way to those ‘dark satanic mills’. “Lots of people in Britain don’t want wildlife around anymore. It’s an inconvenience,” she says. In order to regain the ecosystem services lost to industry, “we need to rewild Europe; we need to re-wild Britain, big time!”

Africa’s not there yet. Rather than seeing the continent’s predicted boom as a cause for concern, she considers it an opportune moment to prove that industry and wildlife can harmoniously co-exist. “There’s a huge amount of infrastructural development going on across the continent with people trying to connect one side of Africa to the other. There’s no reason why it can’t be done intelligently, with corridors for wildlife and rivers in mind, keeping wild ecosystems intact.”

As the human population increases, elephants are losing large tracts of their former home range, leading to conflict with farmers, an issue which will only worsen as more players plonk their houses on Africa’s evermore saturated monopoly board. One of Save The Elephants’s latest conflict mitigation techniques posits the humble honey bee as an effective marshal; much like us, elephants would rather not broach a fence of beehives, no matter how green the grass looks on the other side.

It’s a promising basis for the future and part of the magical alchemy that keeps people coming back to Elephant Watch Camp year on year. Some might call it ‘ecotourism in action’, though Saba finds the term uncomfortable.

“Ecotourism can often be corrupted by greenwashing,” she explains. According to Saba, the most ethically bankrupt culprits are ‘walking with lions’ holiday packages, which are intimately linked to the canned lion hunting industry.

In such situations, “lions are removed from the wild and raised in enclosures, with cubs forcefully removed from their mothers to bring on early oestrus. Then, these cubs are put in ‘sanctuaries’ where well-meaning tourists feed them with milk bottles, all the while unaware that these lions are being bred solely to be shot by hunters who seize their purpose-reared trophies”.

It doesn’t just stop there, she explains. “The worst part of all is that the South African government has legalised the sale of lion bone back to Asian countries as an alternative to tiger bone: they are actively promoting the sale of lion bone from these canned lions and are endangering wild lion populations across Africa”.

From ‘greenwashing’ to ‘virtue-signalling’, a whole vocabulary has evolved to accommodate the trappings of today’s economy which thrives on the conspicuous consumption of moral values but holiday-makers shouldn’t feel powerless, says Saba. “It’s about doing your due diligence before you go to places and just using your common sense”.

Her parting words for the conscious travellers among us? The future is in our hands, or pockets. “You can make a huge difference by voting with your credit card, by making sure you go to places that might be more expensive but that you know are 100 per cent doing something positive”. 

The 2019 Revolut everywoman in Travel Awards will take place on 13 November. Click here for tickets.