Site icon Conservation news

A lifetime with elephants: an interview with Iain Douglas-Hamilton

This interview is an excerpt from The WildLife with Laurel Neme, a program that explores the mysteries of the animal world through interviews with scientists and other wildlife investigators. “The WildLife” airs every Monday from 1-2 pm EST on WOMM-LP, 105.9 FM in Burlington, Vermont. You can livestream it at or download the podcast from iTunes, or

Dr. Laurel A. Neme is also the author of ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species.

This interview was transcribed by Dustin Circe.

Infant elephant in Kenya. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton has dedicated his life to elephants. “I like elephants because of the way they treat each other,” he says. “They’re very nice to each other most of the time, but not all the time … You see a lot of play…a lot of tender touching, caressing, tactile contact of one sort or another.”

The affection goes both ways. Douglas-Hamilton recalls one curious female who would always approach his vehicle. “Eventually I got so friendly with her that…I could walk with her and feed her the fruits of the wild gardenia tree. That was a very special elephant for me. She eventually brought her babies up to meet me.”

Douglas-Hamilton’s dedication extends to protecting the species from harm, and especially the ivory trade. He calls the current ivory trade “totally unsustainable” and recommends a total ban on the trade. In the 1970s and 1980s, he witnessed how the legal ivory trade decimated elephant herds throughout east Africa. “I then saw the ivory trade ban come in [in 1989],” he explains, “and I saw elephants recover for nearly 20 years … The ban worked. The ban worked beautifully … It’s only really been since 2008 [it] has stopped working properly … [That’s when] some partial sales [took] place that stimulated demand that was dormant.”

He reflects on what it means when governments decide to burn their stockpiles of ivory, as happened in Kenya in 1989 and 2011, in Zambia in 1992, and in Gabon in 2012. “When a country burns ivory it means that they put behind them any chance of underhanded dealings. It’s not like pretending to have a ban and then selling the ivory under the carpet, which often happens. I think it was a very courageous decision.” He proposes an expansion of this action and suggests donors buy up ivory and give the money to governments. “Then I’d like to see that ivory burned.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton pioneered the first in-depth scientific study of elephant social behavior in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park at age 23. During the 1970s he investigated the status of elephants throughout Africa and was the first to alert the world to the ivory poaching holocaust. He and his wife have co-authored two award-winning books and have made numerous television films. In 1993, he founded Save the Elephants, a Kenyan conservation organization dedicated specifically to elephants. In 2010, he was named the recipient of the prestigious Indianapolis Prize, in recognition for his lifetime achievements.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.


Laurel Neme: What first attracted you to elephants?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: I was attracted to Africa. I wanted to do lions but as it turns out George Schaller was coming to do the lions and so I got elephants. In a very interesting little national park in Tanzania, called Lake Manyara, the elephants were pushing the trees over, and these were the trees that the lions sat in. So people wanted to know why they were doing it and how. That was literally my first job after university. Once I started studying elephants I got completely hooked on them.

Especially because I used a technique that’d never been done before of learning to look at them as individuals and learning to recognize them. I eventually knew about 500. And actually I based all my study on that ability – to learn and recognize [individual] elephants.


Laurel Neme: How do you tell the difference between elephants?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: It’s quite easy to tell the difference between elephants because you can look at the ear outline. Every ear has little details in it – holes and nicks and funny shapes – and you can memorize those. If you do it for a while, you can become quite expert at it and you can tell them apart just as easily as you can tell human beings apart.

Forest elephant in Gabon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Laurel Neme: Do skin tones differ at all among elephants?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: Not really. Skin tone doesn’t differ very much because you can seldom see it. Usually they have a fine coat of dust or mud on top of it. Sometimes you get white elephants, sometimes you get red elephants. It just depends what soil is being rubbed where they last went.

Laurel Neme: I ask partly because of my interest in wildlife forensics. I’m always interested in species-specific characteristics and individual characteristic so that you can identify the species when you have only a part of the animal. For instance, elephant skin is something that is sometimes traded.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: I understand. I actually think that if you’re looking at skin in that detail you could probably look at the wrinkles and get a distinct pattern. I don’t actually know how wrinkles change over time, but it’s possible that they’re as fixed as fingerprints, in which case that would be a good way of attaining identity.

Infant elephant in Kenya. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.


Laurel Neme: In your experience, what are some of the most endearing characteristics of elephants?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: Well, I like elephants because of the way they treat each other. When you get a look at elephants, you get the impression of them as conscious beings, of figuring things out in their environment, including its relationships with you as an observer.

They’re very nice to each other most of the time, but not all the time. Our species is highly social, and they’re pretty miserable if they don’t have company. So, you see a lot of play, you see a lot of tender touching, caressing, tactile contact of one sort or another. They rub up against each other. They lean against each other. Sometimes they rest their head on another elephant. You get the impression that they’re just very loving, friendly creatures to each other.

Laurel Neme: We know that they have matriarchal societies, but what is the composition of a typical herd?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: The typical herd might be eight animals or it might be 15 animals. If it’s a small herd, it will be a mother, maybe a grandmother, she may even be a great grandmother, and she’ll be accompanied by her immature offspring and her female offspring. Females may stay with their mother most of her life. They have a very strong matriarchy, where the eldest female is really the dominant animal who makes all the decisions.

Laurel Neme: A story I worked on recently involved an elephant poaching incident in Chad, and an orphaned baby who was rescued. That three-week old baby, who was nicknamed “Toto,” later ran away and was adopted by another wild elephant mother and her herd. Is that common?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: It happens. It depends on the age a bit. If the baby is very young and the mother dies, the likelihood is that she will die too. If the baby is very lucky and she has an aunt who is very close to her mother and who’s also got milk, then it’s possible that she could be rescued by that aunt. You see babies actually running from one female with milk to another, so it can happen. But the rule is that the mother is the one who should look after you and if she dies it’s quite likely, if you are under the age of three, that you will die too.

Asian elephant in Sumatra. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.


Laurel Neme: Tell me about some of the elephants you’ve known. Have there been specific elephants that have captured your heart?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: Yes, definitely. It always goes back to my earliest days with elephants, when I was young myself. I was just 22 years old when I came up and studied 500 elephants in five years. One of my favorites was a huge matriarch, who used to come out and charge you. She hated cars. But it was always bluffs. It took me a long time to learn that, but she was enormously impressive. She would charge, and usually stop just short of the car or demolish a bush, usually in front of you and tear it apart.

Then another one I had was a female who was very curious. She used to come towards my car, and eventually I got so friendly with her that I could get out of the car and I could walk with her and feed her the fruits of the wild gardenia tree. That was a very special elephant for me. She eventually brought her babies up to meet me. So one does have favorites over the years.

Laurel Neme: That seems very unusual to be able to walk with her and feed her.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: I don’t think most people have done that at all.


Laurel Neme: In 2009 you released the film “The Secret Life of Elephants” that has been hailed as groundbreaking. What was different with this film, and what allowed you to film and follow their lives so closely?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: I don’t think I was closer to any elephant than ever before. Habitually the elephants come extremely close. But certainly this is as close as they get anywhere. The groundbreaking thing was really, we were quite lucky to see some rare behavior. You’ll always get to witness rare behavior if you spend the time watching elephants.

One of the instances that interested me the most was a time when the elephants were short of food, and they got irritable. And a young female of a fairly junior ranking family knocks over the calf of another high-ranking female that let out a tremendous squeal. Almost in the same motion, the matriarch of her group, tall and dusty, sniffed around and gradually figured out what had happened and then moved in on the offending family. But that family had already beaten a hasty retreat. So it looked as if they knew that one of their numbers had caused stress by knocking over this calf of the powerful family. That really intrigued me to see in action.

It was only because we had a very good cameraman that we were able to record it. He quickly caught the action as it happened.

But I realized then that there is a subtle hierarchy between families that you occasionally see. It is usually hidden, but you do occasionally see it come out into the open. It’s probably very important for elephants that they know their place each time relative to every other family.

Laurel Neme: Was there disciplinary action?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: [Laughs] Not really because by the time the offended matriarch found out who’d done it, the offenders had kind of slipped away.

Laurel Neme: [Laughs]

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: [Laughs] An elephant never forgets, so maybe she put it out about a week or two later.

Elephants in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.


Laurel Neme: I’ve heard a lot about aggression in adolescent male elephants. Is that true?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: They’re not really aggressive because, normally, they’re held in check by their elders. Probably what you read about was a case where there were some orphaned elephants, whose parents had been killed in a cull, and they were taken off and transported to another place. And there they grew up really very badly managed, and they started killing some rhinos in South Africa. That was very interesting because that was sort of an unintended experiment, when these little elephants were deprived of their parents, then they actually became quite aggressive; they didn’t have anybody to keep them in check. They actually cured that by bringing in a bull from outside, and as soon as big bull was there, all of the aggressive teenage elephants, all of them were male, calmed down.


Laurel Neme: Given the current poaching crisis, I wonder about the destruction of the family unit or community structure. What have you seen regarding the impact of poaching on elephant societies?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: What you see depends on who gets killed by the poacher. If it’s a leader, say it’s a matriarch, who actually is the memory bank for the family. If that happens it can have very bad effects, and the elephants will wander around looking leaderless, young females may not make good decisions, they might cross the river at the wrong time when it’s too rough for their calves, or might not respond in time to get to a new place to find food during a drought. All these things can happen when you lose the good leaders, which is why it is important for them [the good leaders] to survive and why poaching can become so much worse, because for every big female you destroy, you probably destroy a calf at the same time which can’t be looked after properly.

[Note: The first detailed analysis on the impacts of illegal killing on an elephant population was published by Save the Elephants by PLOS One in January 2013. The study, which examined over 900 elephants in two adjacent Kenya national reserves over a 14-year period, how poaching alters the age structure and age-related social organization of elephant herds. In the studied elephant populations, the proportion of bulls (who bear more ivory) dropped from 42 percent in 1998 to 32 percent by 2011. The number of breeding females also declined precipitously over the same period, with 10 of the 50 elephant groups studied with no breeding females remaining and 13 with no breeding female over the age of 25.]


Laurel Neme: If you were writing a history book from the elephants’ perspective, what have been some of the critical moments in their history? [Laughs]

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: [laughs] I’m thinking whether to go back to prehistoric times or not. But there used to be hundreds of different species right across the world, including North America. Now, of course, there are none in North America and only two major species (and one which might be a third species in the Congo forest). So, their greatest moment, per se, was a long time ago, when they were at their maximum number of species.

But I think if you were talking about more recent history, a critical moment for the elephant was when the slave trade and the ivory trade really got going in Africa. The two trades were totally, inexorably mixed. The people after ivory used slaves to carry the ivory off the continent. And for every slave there’d be one or two tusks carried.

Now that surge of poaching and slavery happened in east Africa, in the middle of the 19th century, and it was quite devastating for both the people and the elephants. In fact, huge tracts of land had no people left because they’d all run away from the slavers. And the elephants likewise, their numbers were hugely reduced.


Laurel Neme: There’s been some debate about making ivory and rhino horn legal in a limited way. What do you think of that and why?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: I think it’s a ridiculous idea coming right now, when there’s a huge surge of killing [elephants for ivory] going on. The current ivory trade is totally unsustainable, so why would we want to legalize it? Especially when bans have worked in the past. I think what we have to do is now make all of ivory totally illegal and not start talking about legalizing ivory. I don’t know who is actually talking about it but I think it’s a crazy idea.

Laurel Neme: Some people are saying that the 1989 CITES ban on elephant ivory didn’t work…

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: But they’re wrong. It did.

It’s only in the last three years its succumbing to pressure. But the reason for that pressure is not because ivory is illegal. The reason for that pressure is that the price of ivory is very high. And the reason the price is very high is because the demand is high, particularly in Japan and China.

I don’t quite see how legalizing it would help because legalizing ivory has never helped in the past. There’s absolutely no known example where a legal trade that actually to protect elephants.

The ban worked. The ban worked beautifully. I lived through it. I saw the elephants destroyed by a legal ivory trade. When a legal ivory trade existed, I saw elephants destroyed in East Africa in two decades, the 1970’s and the 1980’s. I then saw the ivory trade ban come in [in 1989] and I saw elephants recover for nearly 20 years. Sure, there was poaching. I’m not saying poaching was ever eliminated. But the question is, could the elephants reproduce faster than they died and the answer is yes, they did. They increased in all the major populations in East Africa for nearly two decades. It’s only really been since 2008 that the ivory trade ban has stopped working properly.

I don’t think it would be any better if that ban was reduced and trade was made legal. On the contrary, it seems to be some experiments in letting some partial sales take place that has stimulated the demand that was dormant.

I think it was very unwise to tinker with the ivory trade ban when it was working. It was in 2008 that they allowed experimental sales, and it was ever since then that things have really deteriorated.

I know there was a previous attempt to have some limited sales and it was questionable whether those led to increased illegal killing. But the difference was that in the previous experimental sale [in 1999 to Japan only], China was not permitted to be one of the ivory buyers. As soon as China became permitted [to become a buyer for the 2008 one-off legal ivory sales], the controls that China had [to prevent illegal ivory from entering the legal market] went to pieces. Right now, the ivory trade is largely illegal in China. It’s supposed to be legal internal trade but in actual fact most of the ivory on sale in the shops in China is illegal in this origin.


Laurel Neme: I know you were at the burning of the ivory stockpile in Gabon in June 2012. What did that meant to you?

Iain Douglas-Hamilton: I take my hat off to the Gabonese. I think they’re amazing. When a country burns ivory it means that they put behind them any chance of underhanded dealings. So it’s not like pretending to have a ban and then selling the ivory under the carpet, which often happens. I think it was a very courageous decision.

In fact, I’d really like to see all ivory available bought up by donors, who give the money to governments, and then I’d like to see that ivory burned.

Related articles

Exit mobile version