BBC TV wildlife presenter and conservationist Saba Douglas-Hamilton
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.”
Right: Saba Douglas-Hamilton and her husband Frank Pope