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Effort to study, save African elephants earns top conservation prize

By Ford Cochran

Zoologist and conservationist Iain Douglas-Hamilton went to Africa more than 40 years ago to study wild elephants. His passion for the creatures evolved into a crusade to protect them, an effort he pursues through the non-profit he created, Save the Elephants. National Geographic has supported Douglas-Hamilton through its research and exploration grant programs, and National Geographic magazine has recently profiled his work with the elephants of Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve.
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Now, Douglas-Hamilton’s lifelong commitment to elephants has earned him the world’s top honor for animal conservation, the Indianapolis Prize. He will receive $100,000 in unrestricted funds and the Lilly medal at a gala in September.
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Douglas-Hamilton spoke with me at the Geographic’s D.C. headquarters while visiting Washington for the announcement of the prize. This is the first of two blog posts about our conversation.

I’ve been studying elephants for nearly 45 years. That’s involved doing behavior studies, and later very much applied work connected with the ivory trade and the impact that was having on the elephants. So for 20 years, I studied the terrible effect of the ivory trade on the elephants.

Lately I went back to the bush, resumed my behavior studies, and founded the organization Save the Elephants, which is a British non-profit that operates in Kenya and in a few other African countries as well.
Tell me a little bit about the elephants that you work with and what their status is today.

The elephants I work with directly are a … population living in the north of Kenya in the Samburu National Reserve, and they go across [a river] into Buffalo Springs National Reserve. It’s almost like an elephant paradise, or has been until recently, because the elephants had plenty to eat, they were well protected, and they were very used to people.
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Just a few years ago, though, the price of ivory started rising, and we had a simultaneous disaster, a drought. So we went through the most terrible drought. [See "Elephants, Other Iconic Animals Dying in Kenya Drought."] That was in 2008 and 2009. And then, the way Africa often is–a continent of total extremes–the rains came, and with the rains came ferocious flash floods that actually wiped our camp away. About half of it was washed straight into the river. That was on March the 4th, 2010.

My wife also has a tourist camp called Elephant Watch Camp, and she’s a little bit upriver. She was able to give us just a few minutes warning that the waters were on their way, and she was completely swept out, just managed to rescue her guests in time. Some of her employees actually had to climb trees for their lives to get away from the raging waters that came right through her camp.

Everything was either destroyed or covered in thick layers of mud, and we’ve been digging ourselves out of mud for the past few months.

Just to complicate the matter, there was a big political crisis that took place when a couple of African countries asked to be allowed to sell their ivory stocks. This put the whole conservation world into a ferment, because it had been agreed two years earlier that only southern African countries could sell off their ivory stocks in a one-off sale, and then there would be a nine-year moratorium. These two countries were breaking that nine-year moratorium.

They said, well, we’re allowed to, it’s in the small print, it was agreed. And there was a lot of discussion about that. I saw that as a very big threat, because they were claiming elephants were no longer endangered, they were claiming that their ivory stocks came from animals that had just died of natural mortality. But we knew that in fact there was a lot of illicit poaching going on in those two countries. So we fought that motion at the CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] treaty, and I’m glad to say that they were denied their application.

So there’s been a lot going on in the last few years for Save the Elephants and our work. I’m glad to say that we’ve recovered from the flood. Some very generous donations came in. And now we’re looking to address some more of the long-term problems.

I think one of the chief long-term problems all comes down to one word, which is China. This desire for ivory is a great threat, and the Chinese have developed a great interest in Africa. They’re coming a serious way to get resources that they need. And most of them are not at all aware of the dangers to the environment of using products from endangered species.

Our next mission is going to be to take the results of our research to China and to contact Chinese academics, get respectable in the eyes of the government, and try to inform the Chinese public, not only of the dangers of buying ivory, but also to try to develop an affection on their part by sharing with them what we know about elephants. We’re going to open up our research camp, we’re going to invite Chinese interns to come join us in the work, and I think we’re going to join up with some groups that make beautiful little short movies that explain the dangers of buying wildlife products. Because when you buy wildlife products, you cause killing.
The Indianapolis Zoo created the Indianapolis Prize with funding from the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation.
Photos of Iain Douglas-Hamilton and the Lilly Medal courtesy the Indianapolis Zoo; photo of African elephants by Mike Crowther

Ford-Cochran.jpgFord Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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