ANISA KAMADOLI COSTA: Iain, I want to start off by saying that I’m a big fan of your work. You have made such a significant impact on wildlife conservation efforts through Save the Elephants and the Knot on My Planet campaign. How did you first become interested in zoology?
DR. DOUGLAS-HAMILTON: Well, my father was killed in the war, and I had a wonderful South African stepfather. We went to live in South Africa, where he read me fascinating stories about wildlife. I knew by the age of 10 that my life was going to be flying around Africa working with animals.
AKC: What was your first experience meeting an elephant in the wild?
IDH: When I was about nine, my mother took me to Kruger National Park, and we saw an elephant about half a mile away, and it was a big thrill. There it was, drinking at the pool. My first real in-depth experience came when I was about 22 and went to the Serengeti as a summer intern working AKC: And what moved you to establish the elephant survey and the conservation program back in 1976?with wildlife.
Tiffany & Co. Schlumberger Elephant clip.
AKC: And what moved you to establish the elephant survey and the conservation program back in 1976?
IDH: I spent a blissful five years living with the elephants and writing my thesis, but then the price of ivory increased hugely between 1969 and 1970. People had started poaching elephants in Kenya. It was obvious that somebody needed to look at that. So I switched from behavior studies to looking at how many elephants were in Africa, and could they withstand the impact of the increasing ivory trade? Early in the ’80s was really the holocaust for elephants. Then we had the first ivory trade ban from 1989 through 2009 and more or less had a cease-fire for the next 20 years, before the poaching got out of hand once again.
AKC: Why do you think we were able to achieve that degree of success and have these poaching issues come back again in full force decades later?
IDH: We started a campaign back then to sensitize people to the terrible things that the ivory trade was doing and it had a huge effect to turn people against ivory. What changed after 20 years of cease-fire was a growing ability of people to buy luxury items like ivory with little awareness of what the consequences were on the natural world. So a large part of what we’ve tried to do the last 10 years has been to share our awareness with people about the consequences of buying ivory: that it actually destroys elephants and elephant lives.
“Elephants cannot be manufactured. Once they’re gone, they cannot be replaced.”
Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton
AKC: I believe that to affect change, you need to have movement from the top down and the bottom up. It seems to me this is exactly what you’ve been able to help accomplish. You have complemented your work at the government level in the U.S. and in China with your global education efforts such as the Knot on My Planet social media campaign, which is critical to driving change more quickly.
IDH: Absolutely. And in this recent spate of trading, the critical year was 2012 that the world suddenly became aware once again of this resurgent trade. It all started with scientific data coming to the fore, which showed that elephants were declining in all four regions of Africa. Then Hillary Clinton announced a policy change in September 2012 on behalf of the American government and she made a statement about the work of conservation groups that I found particularly inspiring. She said: “The truth is they cannot solve this problem alone…. This is a global challenge that spans continents and crosses oceans, and we need to address it with partnerships that are as robust and far-reaching as the criminal networks we seek to dismantle.” This positive shift in U.S. government policy proved to be a significant milestone in the struggle to save elephants.
“We’ve tried to share awareness about the consequences of buying ivory, that it actually destroys elephant lives.”
Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton
AKC: I was so heartened to see the importance of elephant protections reinforced at CITES this year.
IDH: So was I. We were very encouraged. By the way, I’m not one who sounds an alarm about imminent elephant extinction. I think that extinction can happen in specific countries. But I don’t say that if we do nothing, elephants are going to be extinct in 10 to 15 years, because elephants will not go extinct. They will survive in zoos. They will survive in well-protected national parks. It’s not a kind of absolute extinction that is imminently threatening them. What is very serious is that we could be losing the majority of the elephants in Africa and elsewhere, and that, worse, we could lose the wonderfully habituated elephants that you find in these fabulous national parks, so that people could no longer come to enjoy them because they’d all be so terrified they’d run away from cars. So those sorts of things can happen.
AKC: We’ve seen the increased use of technologies like satellite monitoring and drones in protecting the oceans from illegal fishing. I know that Save the Elephants has been working with chip-enabled collars to help track elephant migration. How does this new technology affect your work?
IDH: We use GPS-enabled radio collars that transmit the information to a vast database that can be accessed by people who use it to help save elephants and maintain the law. We do this in collaboration with African wildlife departments and we’re very careful to keep the information out of the poachers’ hands. We then got into a relationship with Google Earth whereby wardens and national parks people could use the program to see where their elephants were, then send out patrols. The most recent development is that we’re working with Vulcan to establish the DAS (Domain Awareness System) where all of this information can be put onto screens in a central control room. Within that we also have the Save the Elephants Tracking System, which is software designed by Vulcan alongside our own in-house engineers encapsulated on a smartphone or tablet app. It’s quite incredible. We can put this in the hands of a warden out on patrol and he can direct things literally in the field. So this is how technology is helping.