Saba Douglas-Hamilton: Saving the Elephants



By Judy Carmack Bross




Saba Douglas-Hamilton, BBC star of This Wild Life, a show about raising her family in the African Bush and running Elephant Watch Camp, will be guest of honor at the inaugural benefit dinner for Save the Elephants here October 3. A conservationist, anthropologist, author and presenter for BBC’s long-running Big Cat Diaries, she is the daughter of world renowned scientist Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the first person in the world to study elephant behavior. 


Saba grew up with elephants and today lives among the elephants of Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya.


Chicago’s extraordinary conservationist Lori Souder invited Saba to Chicago. Lori heads Here Today, Africa Tomorrow (HTAT), a cause-based travel company that offers group travel adventures to those inspired by Africa and those who want to meet the Save the Elephants team. The benefit committee is composed of those who have traveled with Lori: Meredith Wood Prince, Alison McNally, Maggie Meiners, Lisa Bailey, Meghan Benjamin, Suzette Bulley, Jennifer Kasten, Alissa Shulkin, and Wells Ryan.

We asked Lori how she first met Saba, whose husband Frank Pope is the CEO of Save the Elephants:


Lori Souder in her favorite place, Kenya.                                                                                                                                                 


Serendipity!  In 2009, my husband Ted and I visited Kenya for what was supposed to be a once in a lifetime adventure. I watched every episode of a BBC nature documentary called The Secret Life of Elephants on my flight to Nairobi. The documentary details the lives of several elephants and the work of Save the Elephants in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya.  The program follows Saba and her father. It was our first day in Kenya when I met a delightful woman named Oria on the veranda of our safari lodge.  We were having tea and admiring a family of elephants splashing in a watering hole. Oria explained to me that elephant researchers identify elephants by the shapes of their ears. Imagine my surprise when Oria let it slip that her surname is Douglas-Hamilton, as in the wife of Iain Douglas-Hamilton and mother of Saba.   I was completely in awe and totally star struck!  I was having tea with a ‘Douglas-Hamilton,’  in the company of elephants! Someone pinch me, please!  But Oria put me at ease.  She was charismatic, warm and shared story after story about Africa and its culture, its wildlife, but especially the elephants.

By the end of that adventure, Africa was imprinted on my heart and I vowed to return as soon as possible. This self-fulfilled prophecy resulted in multiple trips back to Kenya, a wonderful friendship with the Douglas-Hamilton family and a personal commitment to help save elephants.

We were very fortunate to speak with Saba before her trip to Chicago:

You grew up in Kenya and are the daughter the first person on the planet to study elephant behaviour. You have spent the majority of your life living among the wild elephants of Africa, how has that shaped you?

I was born in Kenya, but spent the first few years of my life in Manyara National Park, Tanzania, where my father was doing his pioneering research on the social behavior of wild African elephants. When he got his PhD from Oxford, our family moved back to Kenya where my parents began their fifteen-year campaign to stop the ivory trade. Both my parents have been enormously inspirational to me as role models, leading by example in their battle to save Africa’s elephants and protect the intrinsic right of wild species to exist on this planet with or without mankind. I share their passion and it has shaped the way I think about the world, from the perspective of a conservationist where life’s truths are founded in biology and science. We live on a finite planet – a fact that we ignore at our peril.


Elephant families are lead by a Matriach, the oldest and wisest of the group.   


What have you learned from the elephants around you?

Their love for one another and consistent mutual support is the social glue that binds them together. The importance of an extended family in raising offspring is central to their society. Matriarchs have also shown me that being female doesn’t make you the weaker sex. In fact the opposite is true. Their ferocity and courage are legendary, especially when it comes to protecting their young. As is their wisdom and the social reach of their long memories. In fact, the intense lifelong relationships elephants have with their female offspring epitomizes the saying “you get back what you put in.” Which is why I’m a firm believer in the role a mother plays raising her kids to be conscious, altruistic, ethical and responsible citizens of the world. We have tried to raise our daughters to be Mighty Girls with integrity, courage and compassion, fluent in the ways of the many different creatures and cultures around them.

I’ve also learnt from other animals, the big cats especially. When a leopard mother or lioness has to leave her cubs to hunt, she’s quite strict about it. She’ll settle the cubs down then signal that she’s about to leave. When she walks away, she does so with purpose and doesn’t look back, no matter how much they mew. She knows they are safe, but she has things to do that are critical to keeping them alive. And, of course, the cubs must learn on their own merit how to respond intelligently to the threats around them. So, I like to draw occasionally on the wisdom of lions and at other times on that of elephants, but most of all I treasure the wisdom of my mother, who is the greatest matriarch of them all!


Elephant watching is an intimate adventure. When one meets them one immediately senses a complex consciousness, and an intelligence that is at once familiar and very different.


You and your husband are currently living “this wild life” in Kenya. Tell us about your family and your life raising children in the African Bush.

When I first met Frank he’d just come from six years of working as a marine archaeologist on shipwrecks off the coast of places like Vietnam, the Cape Verde islands, and Mozambique. At the time, he was living as a penniless surfer in Cornwall, writing his first book, “Dragon Sea.” Our mutual love for the natural world brought us together and has led us on many adventures since, none perhaps as exciting as starting a family and relocating to Samburu. Maybe it was my childhood among elephants on the banks of the Ndala River in Manyara that left me craving a simple life in a tent by a river, raising our children among wild creatures. So now, each morning that we wake to the dawn chorus of woodland birds, monkeys scrambling across the roof of our tent, baboons grunting, or the low hubbub of owls charring in the towering acacias close by, I thank my lucky stars. 

The kids have taken our stripped-down lifestyle in their stride, learning how to make bows and arrows with the warriors, turning giant seedpods into substitute dolls, and sliding easily between English and Kiswahili in conversation.  At the moment we do home-school following the British curriculum online, but also “warrior school” that teaches them how to track animals, which plants to use to make fire or medicine, and how to read the nuances of animal behavior. I love the fact that there are big predators close by of whom we must be mindful, and that our kids have learnt to identify nine different scorpion species (using their proper Latin names) as a necessity.  This elastic use of language and skill sets should serve them well in the future.

Seeing an elephant for the first time in the wild must be exhilarating–especially when you are up close and personal–does it ever get old? Is it dangerous?

No, it never gets old. Elephants are special because they’re so like humans in so many ways, yet utterly different. They feel things very deeply, just like us – love, grief, anger, lust – and even much more complex emotions like empathy and compassion that, as far as we know, are shared only by cetaceans like whales or dolphins, and great apes. They’re super-intelligent too, so when one meets elephants one senses an immediate mutual recognition of a parallel consciousness. As highly social animals they are always doing something interesting, and the more you get to know them as individuals, the more you understand that each one has its own unique personality and character, is defined by its life experiences, and relies heavily on the elephants it knows for love and support. All of which is very similar to humans.  Is it ever dangerous? Not if you are respectful and know what you are doing. Elephants were certainly one of my first loves, but they’re important to me because they also symbolize something much greater – as a keystone species, their presence or absence shapes entire ecosystems, so if we manage to protect enough space for wild elephants then we are also potentially protecting the biodiversity of their natural habitat that we need for our own long term survival.


Elephants show great emotion, just like us. Love, grief, and anger are all on display, along with more complex emotions like empathy and compassion.


Dedicating your life to saving a species is no small undertaking. Tell us about the current situation with the elephants.

Elephants are still being killed at an unsustainable rate for their ivory, which is illegally moving across Africa and into Asia at an undiminished rate. Even Botswana, which holds Africa’s largest elephant population, saw an increase in poaching in 2017 and into 2018—though still not yet enough to have an impact on the total population there. Although we began this year with positive news of the final closure of ivory markets in China and the decision to close them in Vietnam and Hong Kong over a two and five-year period, respectively, we are still seeing signs of increased illegal ivory activity with increased trafficking in West Africa and along China’s southern border, particularly in Laos and Myanmar. In reality, though great strides have been made, the ivory crisis is far from over but we have a plan of action in place to help tackle this.

Beyond the ivory crisis, elephants face a longer-term challenge in Africa. The increasing global human population is driving species loss across the planet. Elephants need a lot of space in which to live, but in Africa that space is shrinking, fast. Currently there are around 1.3 billion people on the continent; by the end of the century this is projected to have increased to over 4 billion. Africa’s economies are developing fast, with agriculture on the rise and huge infrastructure projects being put together that threaten to slice up the remaining refuges for nature. Africa’s people urgently need a brighter future but we also need to maintain the connectivity of wild ecosystems. With the kind of data that STE is collecting on how elephants live, where they go, and what they need to survive, we can help guide the planning process so that elephants can continue to thrive even in a human-modified landscape.


Elephants are a keystone species; their presence or absence shapes entire ecosystems. Protect them and we help protect the biodiversity of their wider habitat.


Is it true that saving elephants is as much about supporting the people, as it is about saving wild life? How are they connected?

Adult elephants don’t have much to fear in the natural world, beyond the occasional powerful alliance of lions. But they have everything to fear from people. The destruction caused to Africa’s elephants by the ivory trade boils down to human desires and greed. But human generosity is now helping to turn things around. Beyond the ivory trade elephants are not going to be able to thrive in an increasingly crowded continent unless we can convince the people that live alongside them to give them the space they need. That means opening peoples’ eyes to the complexity of elephant consciousness and their intrinsic right to exist, explaining the science of how elephants create ecosystems and hold them together, and showing them ways of overcoming the challenges that living with elephants sometimes present. We do this at all levels, from top levels of government all the way through to the communities on the ground.

The power of watering the grass roots of public awareness is amazing to witness. We have an on-going scholarship program that Elephant Watch Safaris runs jointly with Save The Elephants to help bright but impoverished students complete their education. So far, more than 120 students have won elephant scholarships to attend secondary school or University, and our field trainees, mostly guides, carpenters and cooks, have gone on to find employment in some of the best safari camps and lodges in Kenya. Every single one of our Camp staff has been trained up from scratch, and we’re hugely proud of them all.


The distant steep-sided slopes of Ololokwe, the sacred mountain in Samburu County, northern Kenya. Walk up and down in one day or camp on the top under the stars and lie beneath the Milky Way.


Elephant conservation in general is a global problem. What is working? What progress is being made?

A global effort is what we need. The ivory crisis is too big for any one organization to resolve; it requires a concerted response from a coalition of effective leaders, NGOs, institutions, media, and governments and that is why in 2013, Save The Elephants and the Wildlife Conservation Network, in partnership with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, created the Elephant Crisis Fund (ECF), to galvanize human generosity and channel it to the most effective, strategic, and catalytic projects that can address the ivory crisis.

This coalition works in a three pillared strategy to end the crisis: anti-poaching efforts to stop the killing of elephants; anti-trafficking projects to prevent ivory from reaching markets; and demand reduction efforts that reduce the profitability of the trade in ivory products. With funding from visionary supporters of the ECF, and collaboration between governments and NGOs, effective deployment of resources and an integrated approach to dealing with poaching and trafficking, projects aimed at eliminating the ivory crisis are working. Unfortunately, the improved situation in parts of southern and eastern Africa often overshadows the on-going tragedy in other places, particularly in the central African rain forests, where the slaughter continues. But the situation on the ground for elephants has improved in 10 of the 22 elephant range states supported by the Elephant Crisis Fund, so far. This gives us hope that the tide can be turned, even in some of the most difficult parts of Africa. What is needed is more funding, more collaboration and more political will from governments. Saving elephants will still be a long struggle, but now we know that it can be done.


The rooms at Elephant Watch Camp are draped in multi-colored cottons, covered with high thatched roofs and scattered with unique pieces of furniture hand-made from driftwood and the trees that elephants have felled.


What are some of the specific things you are currently working on in support of saving elephants?

Frank deals mostly with the research, conservation, and international policy/lobbying side of things, whereas my work is locally focused and intimately entwined with the nomads from the local communities. My chief interest at present is how to preserve the integrity of the habitat, which is under siege from every angle. It means working from a grass roots perspective, joining hands, initiating dialogue across different cultures, sharing information so that we’re all on the same page, and catalyzing change.

You and your family run a well-respected eco safari camp in Samburu, Kenya. Paint us a picture of what that is like.

What I love best about our eco-camp – Elephant Watch – is the minimal impact it has on the environment. It was designed and built by my mother, Oria, who wanted to create a beautiful place where people could come to learn about elephants.

Each tent is built to fit the shape and needs of the tree under which it has been erected, along the banks of a slow-flowing brown river called the Ewaso Nyiro. It’s truly one of the most beautiful places I know. In the morning, not only is one serenaded by birds, but one hears the secret rustlings of wild animals awakening all around – it feels like you’re peeking out at the world from in amongst the roots of the Tree of Life.

Despite its simplicity it’s actually rather luxurious – you have everything you need and more but it’s all super eco-friendly. Every drop of water is pumped up by hand from our well, and as dusk falls there’s a hot shower in the old safari style from a bucket hung on a branch. At night the clicking, burbling, chirruping, blurting sounds of the frog and insect chorus tumble in through the wide, netted windows. The only light to disturb your dreams comes from the beams of the moon. The rooms are exquisite and all the food is fresh, homemade and heavenly.

In general, our policy is to go beyond zero impact to positive impact when it comes to sustainability. This is particularly evident in our relationship with the local nomads. And that’s what makes the camp really special – living and working shoulder to shoulder with the Samburu nomads. We employ 96 percent of our staff from the immediate communities that live directly around the Reserves, which gives us an intimate insight and informed perspective on their world. They are exceptionally brave, stoic people, who follow the rains with their livestock over vast semi-arid landscapes. Talking to them one-on-one is often humbled by the hardships they face day to day, yet their wicked sense of humor is never far from the surface. Our aim is to enchant our guests with all things African and elephant, in the hope of winning people over to the conservation cause and growing the constituency that votes in favor of nature.

With the Save The Elephants research center half an hour downstream, we have unparalleled access to the 20 plus years’ study of Samburu’s 1000 or so elephants that use the reserves as part of their range. Their characters, families, hormones, migration routes, likes and dislikes are all plotted, analysed and assessed, giving us a fascinating glimpse into the secrets of elephant society. We introduce our guests to the many individuals we know well, like Cleopatra and Anastasia from the Royals, Cinnamon from the Spices, or Euphrates from the Rivers families, and knowing each elephant’s triumphs and tragedies, we can explain how each individual chooses to negotiate the trials of life.

In fact, we know the elephants so well that many feel like an extension of our Samburu family. Bull elephants wander through Camp at all times of day and night, and in the sagaram season (when juicy seed pods fall from the Acacia tortillis trees) they live with us almost permanently. It makes for some interesting detours when you’re trying to get back toyour tent at night. I was once held hostage for six hours in the mess tent by three bulls who wouldn’t let me leave.

We know each one by the patterns of its ears and shape of the tusks, so they become like old, if somewhat belligerent, friends. Sarara, the biggest and boldest, often comes to scrape seedpods off the roof of our hut. He is extremely noisy and flatulent which has led to many sleepless nights. Some like to lie down on the banks of the sandy paths and fall fast asleep right next to us! We’ve had a pack of wild dogs and even lions coming through camp, and leopards are a common feature. Our kids have learnt by necessity to be bush-wise, keep their eyes open for elephants, snakes, and scorpions, and look twice if they sense anything unusual. I’m quite proud of how savvy they’ve become, helped by some of the young warriors who are their mentors. Allowing them this time to open their eyes and hearts to the wild world is the greatest gift we can give them.


Saba and Frank have shared many adventures together, but none as exciting as starting a family and relocating to Samburu National Reserve.


What is on your schedule while you are in this country?

We’re on a whirlwind tour across the US. The big elements for us are Lori’s Chicago event and the Wildlife Conservation Network’s annual Expo in San Francisco. Along the way we’ll be meeting with allies and partners, all of whom are using their different skills to help elephants. We’re seeing technologists, jewelers, model agents, musicians, each of whom has found a way to turn their trade into a way of helping elephants and the wild world. And while it’s always a pleasure to be spending time with them, we’ll try to let the wonders of this part of the world soak in as well – it would be wonderful to sneak in some time playing in the waves of California!

What is your message for those who want to help “Save the Elephants”?

Join hands with us! Alone we might achieve great things, but together we can change the world!


Doum palms shadowed by the setting sun in one of the last great unfenced Savannah wildernesses in the world.


We asked Lori about her own travels to Africa to see Saba’s work.

Each HTAT trip is organized and hosted by yours truly, so guests who sign up for a HTAT journey, can expect an up-close and personal introduction to wild elephants, and an opportunity that allows for a much deeper understanding of the connection between elephants, people, and our environment.  Every trip I design connects people directly to Africa and the world of elephants and generates awareness, cultivates ‘conservation ambassadors,’ and provides meaningful financial contributions to support the vital work of Save The Elephants. It is one thing hear about the elephants in crisis, but to see them with your own eyes, and know that they will go extinct if we sit here and do nothing.  It ignites the soul and inspires action!

“The next ‘Here Today, Africa Tomorrow’ Journey departs October 8.  On this sold-out adventure we will be meeting the world’s last two surviving Northern White Rhinos in the world, as well as the endangered elephants of Northern Kenya.

To learn more about Save the Elephants visit

To join a future HTAT Journey contact: or visit

Photo Credits:

David Bebber

Tim Beddow

Suzette Bross

Nina Constable

Sam Gracey

Jane Wynyard