SABA Douglas-Hamilton was introduced to her first elephant as a six-week-old baby when her mother Oria held her as she walked to greet a one-tusked elephant called Virgo.
The extraordinary moment is captured on a photograph shown on the website of TV presenter Saba, whose name means seven in kiswahili as she was born at 7pm on June 7 on the seventh day of the week, and it perfectly illustrates her first experience with wild animals.
Unused to humans, Virgo let Oria and Saba come close before stretching out her trunk and sniffing the baby before coaxing her calf forwards as if reciprocating the gesture.
While Saba was born in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, the encounter took place in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania where her father, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a zoologist, was studying the social interactions of the African elephant.
Saba and her sister Mara, born a year later, spent a childhood “running wild in the African bush learning bush-lore from the rangers and absorbing all there was to know about elephants”. Their first language was kiswahili and they “hardly ever wore clothes” before she began school for the first time at the age of seven in Nairobi.
And it is these early memories of an unusual childhood that Saba is sharing on her current month-long speaking tour of the UK, called A Life With Elephants, which includes a date at Clair Hall in Haywards Heath on Saturday November 4.
“I’m going to be talking about some of my first memories of elephants,” Saba tells Pique. “My parents were elephant researchers and among some of my first memories is one of being charged by an elephant called Boadicea when I was very little. I found these encounters terrifying – they thought I was a threat because they were protecting their families. Now that I’m a mother, I can sympathise.”
Saba, now 47, says her childhood was “beautifully documented” by her parents, giving her the fabulous material she needs to illustrate her talk, which will include her education later on at the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales and then St Andrews University in Scotland, where she graduated with a first class degree in social anthropology.
Unsurprisingly for a woman whose childhood was spent among the wild animals of Africa, her first job was with the Save The Rhino Trust in Namibia and eventually led her to join Save The Elephants, the charity founded by her father in 1993, to help build up their research centre in Samburu National Reserve in north Kenya. It was here that she was talent-spotted by the BBC, and the direction of her life changed.
She became a producer and TV presenter of wildlife documentaries, co-presenting the BBC series Big Cat Diary with Jonathan Scott and Simon King, and presenting the BBC documentary series The Secret Life Of Elephants with her father, who was awarded the 2010 Indianapolis Prize for his work on elephant conservation. A 10-part BBC series called This Wild Life was also made in 2015, documenting the lives of Saba, her husband Frank Pope, a shipwreck excavation specialist who was once the world’s only Ocean Correspondent, for The Times newspaper, and their children, twins aged six and another aged eight, in Kenya.
“I’m trying to bring my children up in a very different way,” says Saba. “We’re home schooling them, as there is no school nearby, and following the British curriculum, which is a real revelation to me. You can add in all sorts of stuff, such as sign language.
“We want to create little eco warriors and in fact, we have been able to brainwash them from an early age,” she laughs. “They love scorpions, for example, and they know all the Latin names for everything. They look at a creature and conjure up up these names, and they end up sounding just like Harry Potter spells.”
Echoing her own childhood, wild elephants form a big part of the their lives. The family currently runs the luxury tented eco-lodge Elephant Watch Camp, an idea that came from Saba’s mother Oria after working on a film about Africa’s elephant kingdom in the late 1990s.
Her vision was to encourage a “balanced, respectful and profoundly meaningful engagement with the wild world so as to enchant guests with all things elephant and recruit people to the conservation cause” and guests of the lodge, which is unfenced and sits in a shaded oasis of kigelia and acacia trees on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, help preserve its wildlife simply by visiting.
Here, in a forest also inhabited by leopards, hyenas, porcupines, civets, genets, impala, dikdik and other antelope, Saba continues to communicate with wild elephants. “There are about 6,000 wild elephants in the reserve, and around 1,000 near here,” she says. “All of them have names. We have one bull called Anwar, a funny fellow who just loves to fiddle with things on cars. He likes to put his bum on the bonnet.”
As well as the 66 families of elephants that roam through the reserve are around 120 adult bulls in search of food, family and friendship. They can fall prey to poachers and the Elephant Watch Camp website lists some of the bulls already lost to them: Mungu, Picasso, Martin Luther King and Gorbachev, adding that they are “dearly missed”.
As Saba describes: “Elephant Watch is about bringing people to meet elephants in a very different way – as individuals and as characters. Each has its own unique personality and character and is defined by its life experiences, relying heavily on the elephants it knows for love and support.
“We believe that elephants are special because they are highly intelligent, sentient creatures that share much in common with us. They are self-aware and feel complex emotions like empathy and compassion that suggests a type of consciousness similar to our own.”
Saba Douglas-Hamilton: A Life With Elephants is at Clair Hall, Perrymount Road, Haywards Heath, at 8pm on Saturday November 4. Tickets £16-£18. Phone 01444 455440 or visit clairhall.org.
Saba also appears at Dorking Halls, Reigate Road, Dorking, Surrey, at 8pm on Friday November 10 (phone 01306 881717 or visit dorkinghalls.co.uk). For more information, visit http://www.josarsby.com/news/2016/1/13/saba-douglas-hamilton-a-life-with-elephants.
Above and main picture, top: Saba Douglas-Hamilton with wild elephants. Pictures: Sam Gracey
Above: Saba with her husband Frank Pope. Picture: Frank Pope
Below: Saba with a rhino in the background. Picture: Frank Pope
Bottom: Saba is on a UK speaking tour, A Life With Elephants