Surviving floods, droughts, and poachers' bullets to save elephants
For four decades Iain Douglas-Hamilton has been an advocate for elephants, the endangered giants of Africa.
When Iain Douglas-Hamilton first started studying elephants in Africa, he had to invent ways of tracking the giant mammals. Over the course of 40-some years in the field, the zoologist learned how to fly airplanes and use radio collars and other high-tech means to follow their movements.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures African elephants
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
He also learned how to get out of the way – fast. "I learned how to climb trees very quickly," says Dr. Douglas-Hamilton, winner of the 2010 Indianapolis Prize, the largest prize ($100,000) given for animal conservation in the world.
As cofounder of the nonprofit group Save the Elephants, he also has learned to be an activist, author, and politician.
But when he returned in 1972, the country's national parks looked more like a war zone. Douglas-Hamilton often found more dead elephants than live ones.
"Never in all our wildest dreams did the small group of scientists who worked in Tanzania's national parks [in the 1960s] imagine that men armed with automatic weapons would one day stride through the national parks. It was just not in our thinking," he says of the heavily armed poachers who had moved in.
The soft-spoken conservationist now lives in Kenya with his wife, Oria, who co-founded Save the Elephants. Together they have written two books, "Battle for the Elephants" and "Among the Elephants."
During the height of the ivory poaching, Douglas-Hamilton rode in small planes wearing one flak jacket and sitting on another as he helped park rangers in Uganda bring back elephants from the brink of extinction. He's been repeatedly shot at and has survived plane crashes, droughts, floods, malaria, and once, being squashed by a rhinoceros.
He campaigned for years for a worldwide ban on ivory sales, which finally took effect in 1989.
His long-term commitment to saving elephants across Africa impressed the prize jury, says Michael Crowther, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoo, which administers the prize. Douglas-Hamilton pioneered the first scientific study of elephant social behavior, Mr. Crowther says.
Among his discoveries: Elephants have a matriarchal society and travel in families.
"He has been creative, committed, and consistent," Crowther says. "And he's been courageous – politically courageous and physically courageous."