Sev­enth heaven

BBC TV wildlife pre­sen­ter and con­ser­va­tion­ist Saba Dou­glas-Hamil­ton

EDP Norfolk - - Inside - Wednesday, Novem­ber 8, 7.30pm, www.kingslyn­ncornex­change. co.uk, box of­fice 01553 764864

GROW­ING UP run­ning free in the African bush and meet­ing her first ele­phant as a babe-in-arms, there was lit­tle chance Saba Dou­glas-Hamil­ton would end up ded­i­cat­ing her life to any­thing else.

A ve­ra­cious and de­ter­mined con­ser­va­tion­ist and BBC wildlife pre­sen­ter, she works tire­lessly to pro­tect the mag­nif­i­cent crea­tures she spent her child­hood with and to re­mind the world of our col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity for the planet.

“I didn’t have a chance of be­ing a bal­le­rina or a banker, not with two such damn hard­core con­ser­va­tion­ists as par­ents and grow­ing up with ele­phants. I never could have es­caped that, nor did I want to. Ev­ery­thing should be about con­ser­va­tion – it’s the air we breathe, the wa­ter we drink.” This month she brings her live show A Life

with Ele­phants to the stage in King’s Lynn and as well as talk­ing about her ca­reer as an ad­ven­tur­ous wildlife pre­sen­ter for the BBC, Saba will also tackle some im­por­tant con­ser­va­tion is­sues and will share some of the in­cred­i­ble sto­ries of her child­hood in Africa.

Saba’s name means ‘seven’ in Kiswahili; she was born in the Great Rift Val­ley in Kenya on June 7, on the sev­enth day of the week, and be­came the sev­enth grand­child in the fam­ily.

Her father Iain was a lead­ing zo­ol­o­gist and con­ser­va­tion­ist and she and her sis­ter Mara spent their early years ab­sorb­ing life in the bush, learn­ing bush-lore from rangers and speak­ing Kiswahili as their first lan­guage.

And of course, the ele­phants were an ever present fea­ture – she had her first en­counter with an ele­phant called Virgo as a six-week-old baby while in her mother Oria’s arms. Stretch­ing out her trunk, Virgo gave Saba a long sniff be­fore coax­ing her own calf over, in a show of trust, introducing her baby in re­turn.

“My mother had no idea about rais­ing chil­dren; she didn’t have a clue so she watched what the ele­phants did. They are very good moth­ers so it wasn’t a bad place to start. Ele­phants are very tactile, they be­lieve it helps their baby feel se­cure and loved and that was some­thing my mum very much be­lieved in. She was very tactile with my sis­ter and I and she cer­tainly al­ways made us feel very safe and se­cure. She was a won­der­ful mother.”

She says that while she finds pre­sent­ing live shows nerve wrack­ing, she be­lieves it is an im­por­tant part of en­gag­ing with peo­ple on im­por­tant en­vi­ron­ment is­sues.

“If I can get through the first minute with­out faint­ing I am OK,” she laughs. “It is a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence though and if you can con­nect your au­di­ence with the things you are pas­sion­ate about, it cre­ates an in­cred­i­ble cu­mu­la­tive en­ergy.

“I love the ques­tions the most, be­cause that’s when you get to ex­plore what peo­ple have con­nected with, what their minds are on. I do think there is def­i­nitely a grow­ing sense of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness. My ex­pe­ri­ence is that peo­ple do re­ally care and want to do some­thing to help, they just don’t know how. There is such a feel­ing of help­less­ness and hope­less­ness that can be over­whelm­ing. But small ac­tions by just one per­son can make a huge dif­fer­ence.”

She says that tech­nol­ogy and shifts in youth cul­ture have cre­ated a gen­er­a­tion which is more en­gaged in world is­sues than ever be­fore.

“Mil­len­ni­als are a very in­ter­est­ing gen­er­a­tion be­cause they are very hard for typ­i­cal cap­i­tal­ism to pin­point. They are

much more in­de­pen­dent in their thoughts, they cre­ate a fan­tas­tic en­ergy in the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment and this way of think­ing is be­com­ing part of their cul­ture.

“It’s a real op­por­tu­nity to en­gage peo­ple in global is­sues and to re­in­force the mes­sage that what hap­pens in re­mote places around the world af­fects ev­ery­one – whether it is the smoke suf­fo­cat­ing parts of East Africa from burn­ing the jun­gles in In­done­sia or the dis­ap­pear­ance of sea ice in the North Pole which im­pacts on us all. It re­ally can be a spring­board, to use that en­ergy and global con­nec­tiv­ity to turn things around. We have to have a ma­jor game changer for the fu­ture of our planet.”

Af­ter study­ing in the UK, Saba’s first job was with the Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia, be­fore be­com­ing aca­demic direc­tor at the School for In­ter­na­tional Train­ing in Tan­za­nia and later, an­thro­po­log­i­cal con­sul­tant for the Na­tional Mu­se­ums of Kenya.

But it was while work­ing as chief op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer for Save the Ele­phants, which he set up in 1993, that she was spotted by the BBC – launch­ing her ca­reer as a pre­sen­ter and pro­ducer of wildlife doc­u­men­taries – in­clud­ing Big Cat Di­aries and The Se­cret Life of Ele­phants.

She works tire­lessly for her father’s char­ity Save the Ele­phants, along­side her hus­band Frank and her sis­ter Mara, who works in Lon­don for the Ele­phant Cri­sis Fund, a coali­tion of NGOs, govern­ments, in­di­vid­u­als and or­gan­i­sa­tions work­ing to end the ivory trade.

The il­le­gal ivory trade, she says, is still the great­est threat to ele­phant pop­u­la­tions across Africa – the char­ity es­ti­mates that be­tween 2010 and 2012 around 100,000 were killed across the con­ti­nent.

“In Kenya, it reached its peak in about 2012 and we are hav­ing some suc­cess, but in other parts of Africa sadly it is still very much at its peak and it is a des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion. But while there is still work to do, govern­ments are start­ing to lis­ten. The is­sue is of­ten one of pop­u­la­tion size with those coun­try’s in­volved, for ex­am­ple 99pc of Chi­nese peo­ple don’t buy ivory, but 1pc do and the size of the pop­u­la­tion means that’s still 13.5m peo­ple.”

Saba lives in Kenya with Frank and their three young chil­dren, run­ning the fam­ily tented eco lodge Ele­phant Watch Camp, about which the BBC series This Wild Life was made in 2015. She also works closely on a num­ber of con­ser­va­tion projects with dif­fer­ent ele­phant pop­u­la­tions and lo­cal no­madic peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties.

“Eco tourism can be a very won­der­ful tool, if it is done prop­erly, and if it is not just a to­ken thing,” she says care­fully. “Here, we are con­ser­va­tion­ists first and a tourist lodge sec­ond. I didn’t re­ally have any busi­ness ex­pe­ri­ence what­so­ever but if you fol­low your heart it can only be good for your busi­ness. We offer a very beau­ti­ful, safe en­vi­ron­ment and give visi­tors a very raw in­ter­face with na­ture. Af­ter a few days, the city skins seem to fall off and as we talk about con­ser­va­tion it feels like a real con­nec­tion has been made and it is our hope that by the end of their stay, they leave with a clearer idea about con­ser­va­tion, what is hap­pen­ing in the world and how they can help make a change.

“The more we learn, the more we re­alise we all need to wake up. This is the only planet we have.”Š

Right: Saba Dou­glas-Hamil­ton and her hus­band Frank Pope

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