Saba warns of elephant 'holocaust'

By Marion Brennan | Dudley | News | Published:

Saba Douglas-Hamilton is raising eyebrows at West Midlands Safari Park by waxing lyrical about the M6 motorway, which she describes as a 'total delight' compared with the highways in her native Africa.

"It's such a pleasant, relaxing experience – in Kenya you are never far away from instant death on the roads from potholes, animals or other drivers," she laughs.

The elephant conservationist and TV presenter stopped off in Bewdley to meet its small elephant family during a UK-wide tour promoting her work with elephants in Africa.

With her husband Frank Pope, she runs the Save The Elephants(STE) charity, started by her zoologist father Ian Douglas-Hamilton in 1993. She was born in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya on June 7 at 7pm on the seventh day of the week, and became the seventh grandchild in the family. Her name means 'seven' in Swahili.

She met her first wild animal, an elephant called Virgo, when she was six weeks old and with her sister, Mara, grew up in the African bush learning bush-lore from the rangers and absorbing all there was to know about elephants, just like her own three children now.

Her first job after leaving St Andrews University in Scotland with a Masters degree in social anthropology was with the Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia and she went on to work in academia before joining STE as chief operations officer.

It was here she was talent-spotted by the BBC and has since presented several wildlife series, including Secret Life of Elephants, Unknown Africa and Big Cat Diary.

She currently runs the family’s luxury tented eco-lodge, Elephant Watch Camp, started by her mother Oria, a pioneer in conservation tourism, which offers holidaymakers the chance to live under canvas observing wildlife at close range.

In between times, she lectures extensively to raise awareness about conservation issues. Her message is simple: elephants are in crisis.


She identifies two elephant 'holocausts'. During the first, in the 1970s – 80s, the African elephant population plummeted by half, from 1.3 million to 600,000 in a decade due to the illegal ivory trade .

After a long global campaign, when STE teamed up with CITES(the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), a ban on international ivory trade was brought in and had an immediate effect.

"Almost overnight the price of ivory dropped, except for places like the Congo, and a 25-year ceasefire allowed elephants to recover," says Saba.

"But the South African countries - Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia - were pushing to re-open trade as they felt they were being punished for their good custodianship of their elephant populations."


So in 1997, as an experiment, a one-off sale of 50 tons of ivory from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana, was sold to Japan, indicating to poachers that they were back in business.

Then in 2008, 117 tons of stockpiled ivory was sold to China and Japan for £11.4 million in the expectation it would cause the value of the ivory to crash. But the move backfired badly.

"It opened the floodgates for illegal trade," says Saba, 47. In the ongoing second elephant holocaust, populations across Africa have shrunk by a third, driven by the value of ivory, which can sell for around £850 a kilo in China.

"It's been a very bleak period," she says. "We've all jumped on board but the decline has been utterly overwhelming.

"So on this tour it's my job is to get people to connect with elephants and fall in love with them, and feel that they are part of the elephant world. They are such social animals, they need love and security, they're intelligent and self-aware, they feel grief and compassion."

Already on board is retired 7ft 6in Chinese basketball player Yao Ming who is doing his bit to wean his fellow countrymen off their love of ivory, and our own Prince William.

Saba says: "The Duke of Cambridge has been a number one emissary for us."

She finds it difficult to reconcile the Brits' love of domestic pets with their general lack of awareness of what is happening to wild animals in the natural world. "My mother always said if ever she came back, it would be as an English dog because they are so well looked after."

And she recognises that places like the West Midlands Safari Park and Dudley Zoo can be controversial. Some are awful but others really do help the conservation cause.

In a cared-for environment, she says, animals are 'ambassadors for their species', raising awareness for their brothers and sisters in the wild.

* Saba Douglas-Hamilton will be speaking about her work at Birmingham Town Hall next Wednesday

Marion Brennan

By Marion Brennan

News and features reporter, specialising in human interest and local history stories.


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