Conservationist Saba Douglas-Hamilton stars in a new TV series that highlights her life in a safari camp and the issues that have been central to her family’s work for decades. She caught up with Laura Griffith-Jones
What was your childhood like? In retrospect, it was pretty unusual. Our first language was Kiswahili and we spent a lot of time bumping around in the back of a Land Rover while our parents observed elephants.
Why has Africa got under your skin? Everything here feels more real: one lives much closer to the harder truths of life, so the better side of human nature comes out. And the wilderness is liberating for the human spirit. The purity of the air, the clarity of the night sky, the ‘silence’ of the open expanses and the vibrant chorus of frogs and birds are riches that we take for granted but are priceless.
And Kenya? It is my home, the place where I was born. I love the colours, the smells, the people, the landscapes, the sunsets, animals and starscapes.
Is it dangerous? Kenya is actually very safe. There’s been a lot of bad press recently, what with fears about Ebola and terrorist attacks, but the wildlife areas are miles from the Somali border. Sadly, these days terrorism afflicts us worldwide. Similarly, we are a long, long way from countries affected by Ebola. Kenya has had zero cases. You’re more likely to be involved in a terrorist attack or to contract the disease in London.
What tips would you give parents bringing their children to Kenya? My advice is to come soon and spend as long as possible here. People are often worried about malaria but it’s preventable and treatable, and many areas are malaria-free. So as long as your vaccines are up-to-date and you’re taking prophylactics when needed, you’ll be fine. Other than that? Take sunblock, sunhats, binoculars, diaries, coloured pencils and drawing pads.
How do you give back to the Samburu? At Elephant Watch Camp we employ people almost entirely from the community, and we have an on-going training and education programme that we run with Save the Elephants to help bright but impoverished students complete their education. Together with our team of Samburu workers, our aim is to enchant our guests in order to win them over to the conservation cause. We also work closely with STE to raise awareness and funds for anti-poaching efforts.
Tell me more about Save the Elephants. My father Iain founded this small NGO in 1993. Through detailed long-term monitoring (over eighteen years) of a known population of more than 1000 elephants, crucial data is being collected. We work for the preservation of a modern Africa with intact ecosystems and abundant wildlife. STE is at the forefront of a coalition fighting to stop the illegal ivory trade.
Where has your inspiration come from? My mother and father are my role models, fighting for the cause they fervently believe in – the intrinsic right of elephants (and by extension, all other creatures) to exist on this planet. I share their passion and it has shaped the way I think about the world. We live on a finite planet, a fact that we ignore at our peril.
What challenges lie ahead for elephant conservation? Currently the illegal ivory trade is the greatest threat to elephants, but hard on its heels come loss of habitat and human encroachment. We need to act internationally if we are to prevent their extinction in the wild. Most importantly, we need China to ban its domestic ivory trade. That would be a game changer.
How can tourists help? We urgently need people to show their love and concern for wildlife by coming to visit the protected areas and national parks of Kenya. Without tourist dollars, conservancies and parks struggle to pay salaries and put fuel in anti-poaching vehicles. STE needs all the support it can get.
Are you planning to set up any more charities? At some point I’d like to get involved in family planning, or ‘child spacing’ as they call it these days. The world’s burgeoning human population is an environmental disaster that needs to be addressed.
Tell me a bit about your next documentary. This Wild Life follows the behind-the-scenes dramas of our daily life, showing what it’s like to run a high-end safari camp in a remote location, where elephants hustle for seedpods outside the kitchen and wounded crocodiles need rescuing. Hopefully, the series will encourage people to visit Kenya.
The documentary This Wild Life is due to air in September on BBC2. For more information on Elephant Watch Camp, go to www.elephantwatchportfolio.com. You can donate to Save the Elephants by visiting www.savetheelephants.org.