Difference Maker

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.

By , / Correspondent

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    Save the Elephants cofounder Iain Douglas-Hamilton has been named the 2010 recipient of the Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation. Four decades ago, he pioneered the first in-depth scientific study of elephant social behavior, which revealed their matriarchal society.
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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.

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.

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When Douglas-Hamilton left Tanzania, in East Africa, in 1970 to study at Oxford University in Britain, he left behind "an elephants' paradise," he recalls.

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."

"He shows bravery ... [and his work is so important," says Laurie Marker, a finalist for the Indianapolis Prize who founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund, based in Namibia. When CCF expanded into Kenya, it began working with Save the Elephants in Samburu National Reserve, in Kenya's Great Rift Valley.

Douglas-Hamilton has given practical assistance to CCF, from making introductions to sharing researchers and resources, Dr. Marker says.

Despite the ivory poaching ban, the future of African elephants is far from secure. Douglas-Hamilton describes the conditions in the Congo, for example, as "catastrophic" – and not just for elephants.

In 2009, he worked to save a rare herd of desert elephants in Mali from the worst drought in more than a decade.

There have been other successes, particularly in East and Southern Africa, whose elephant populations have rebounded since the ivory ban. At this year's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meeting in Doha, Qatar, conservationists, including Douglas-Hamilton, defeated an effort by the governments of Tanzania and Zambia to downgrade the status of their elephants so that they could sell off their stockpiles of ivory.

"If there's to be a future for elephants, there has to be an accommodation about how they're going to live in juxtaposition with people," says Douglas-Hamilton, who considers the rapid expansion of human populations one of the largest challenges facing all wildlife. "This is where science and research comes in. It has to be linked to community development."

Elephants "need space," he says, including protected corridors so that they can travel from one protected area to another. (Such corridors would also benefit other large mammals, such as zebras, wild dogs, lions, and giraffes.)

Douglas-Hamilton has proposed the idea of a mobile national park, where the protected land would follow elephants as they travel. No country has yet adopted it.

"I know we're dealing with poor people who have immediate needs," he says. "But we have to escape from the tyranny of poverty in order to have the luxury of long-term planning. If we don't, the poverty is not going to get any better and the environment is going to deteriorate."

He's also thrilled that young African-born conservationists now are joining the effort to save the continent's elephants.

Even after decades of research, Douglas-Hamilton still enjoys the company of these gentle giants, the largest of land mammals.

"I love to sit with them and be with them," he says. "I have the greatest joy just to be with elephants at peace."

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