Saving the Elephants: Saba Douglas-Hamilton
For this wildlife filmmaker, saving elephants is all in a day’s work.
-Kathryn H. Cusimano
For Saba Douglas-Hamilton, trustee of Save the Elephants and wildlife filmmaker, elephants aren’t just the animals you admire at the zoo; they are practically family. “I was extremely lucky to be born and brought up in Africa to parents who were elephant zoologists,” Douglas-Hamilton tells BettyConfidential. “I was born into the world of elephant population, and I absorbed that into my heart, into the core of my being, as something that was deeply important. Not just elephants, but protecting the natural world.”
Douglas-Hamilton is the daughter of Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, zoologists who have spent their lives researching African elephants and fighting to stop the ivory trade. Her father founded Save the Elephants in 1993, and together they anchor The Secret Life of Elephants, which airs Sunday, May 16 at 8 p.m. on Animal Planet.
The film tracks the lives of elephants that roam the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, and a few elephants are singled out. Douglas-Hamilton tells us that the filmmakers had the rare opportunity to follow the early development of a calf – starting from the day she was born.
“There’s an absolutely adorable baby elephant called Breeze who we follow from her very first day of life,” Douglas-Hamilton says. “Her mother has just given birth to her a few hours before, and you see her taking her very first steps in the world and going down to the river, her very first taste of water, her first experience of mud, you then watch her develop, growing up and gaining more confidence and developing a relationship with her brother.”
According to Douglas-Hamilton, Breeze had to fight with her jealous older brother for her mother’s attention. It’s surprising to hear of a typical sibling rivalry developing among wild animals, but for elephants, this behavior is par for the course.
“[We see] these very human qualities in these animals coming out,” Douglas-Hamilton says. “They have complex emotions like empathy or compassion, which you see in the way they react to dead or dying elephants,” she adds, referring to a particularly somber scene in the film.
So how on earth does one learn all this about these massive, wild animals? Douglas-Hamilton explains that the findings of the film are based on years of complex research, which includes careful observations (their researchers know some 900 elephants by name!) and radio collaring. Using radio collars, the research team can track an elephant’s every movement – they even know when an elephant is running or sleeping! Their efforts have led to some surprising findings about the emotional complexities of the great beasts – many of which are caught on film. But the research isn’t just for our entertainment; their findings are an integral part of conservation efforts in the region.