Chatting about elephants

New_Credit Sam Gracey - Saba Douglas-Hamilton looking at a herd of elephants

What a whirl! So many new faces and places!  Part of the growing alliance of environmentally conscious people that care deeply about the future of elephants and the state of the natural world.  Thank you all for being so warm and welcoming. I’ll be back in 2019!


My Favourite Elephants

Nick Nichols

Nick Nichols – Samburu’s 1000 strong elephants roam freely throughout the Northern Rangelands

The Save the Elephants team in Samburu can individually recognise about 1000 elephants, and have been monitoring them closely since 1997. For ease of reference each family is named after a category, like the Storms, Winds, Acacias, or Native Americans, so individuals bear names such as Tempest, Harmattan, Polyacantha or Sioux. What makes these elephants special is that they are part of one of the biggest remaining free-roaming wild elephant populations in Kenya that come in and out of the Samburu and Buffalo Springs national reserves at will, ranging vast distances across the wild frontier of the Ewaso ecosystem in the Northern Rangelands.

The conservation efforts in north Kenya stand heads above other parts of Africa, because of the collaborative nature of the work that is done by the NGOs, community conservancies, game ranches, government agencies and parastatals based there.  Nothing is achieved in isolation, so for all our successes and triumphs at Save the Elephants and Elephant Watch Camp, I’d like to credit also our partners at Kenya Wildlife Service, Samburu County Government, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Northern Rangelands Trust, Ewaso Lions, Grevy Zebra Trust, Milgis Trust and the many Community Conservancies whom we have the pleasure to work with. In addition, from time to time we find orphaned or injured elephants (and other animals), and have to call upon the services of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust who unfailingly answer our cries for help by scrambling a rescue plane or immediately sending in their mobile veterinary unit. Thank you all!
Babylon copy©  STE – the beautiful Babylon, matriarch of the Biblical Towns

Right! Back onto elephants. Today, I’d like to celebrate some of the elephants I love best. Like Babylon, above, from the Biblical Towns, the oldest and most beautiful matriarch in Samburu, so tall and broad in body, that from a distance she looks like a bull. Her wisdom and guidance has steered her family through many crisis, and for over 20 years nurtured the brave but broken bodied Babel, a crippled female with a badly broken back leg and twisted spine.  Sadly, Babel succumbed to the devastating drought of 2009, but Babylon, Jerusalem and the rest survived and are thriving.

DSC_0122©  Saba/EWC – Matt in full musth

Matt is a gorgeous 45 year old bull from the north whom we only see in Samburu reserve when he’s in musth.  This year, after decent rains, he sailed in like a battleship, oozing secretions from his swollen temple glands, that were irresistible to female elephants.  His first paramour was Blizzard’s teenage daughter, whom he guarded and mated  over a three day period. Once he was sure the oestrus window had passed, he moved on to lovers new.

JH_IMG_2049_Habiba the teenage elephant who leads a rag tag herd of orphans©  Max Hug-Williams – Habiba (collared) and the orphan herd

Habiba is a 14 year old orphan matriarch whose entire (adult) family was gunned down by poachers. Since the age of about 11, she’s been in charge of a ragtag bunch of orphans, all that remains of her once abundant Swahili family. She has a distinctive wrinkle in her right ear, and wears one of our radio collars so that we can track her movements for the PhD study of STE researcher, Shifra Goldenberg. Habiba has developed a special relationship with Cinnamon, the last remaining adult and now matriarch of the Spices family, who tolerates the presence of the Swahili orphans and allows them to tag along with her own family.

DSC01811©  Saba/STE – Rommel in 2008

The one elephant that made our hair stand on end whenever he came into the reserve was Rommel, infamous for having rearranged one of our research vehicles during a fight with Abe Lincoln in 2002. Rommel was losing the fight, and took his frustration out on the car. The researchers, George Wittemyer and his assistant Daniel Lentipo, were lucky to escape with their lives, and amazingly the car kept on going for a few more years, despite its striking new bodywork! Head of field operations, David Daballen, tried to collar Rommel in 2004, but his neck was too big for even the largest collar. He was last seen in 2008. Now MIA presumed dead.


©  Melanie/EWC – Anwar says hello to an Elephant Watch Camp vehicle

Anwar is a super friendly bull who likes to play with our cars. He’s a bit clumsy and has smashed David’s windscreen twice by mistake. He’ll occasionally rest his tusks on the bonnet, and has even sat on the bumper. It can be quite alarming if you don’t know who he is!


©  Saba/EWC – Sarara hoovering up seedpods at Elephant Watch Camp

Yeager, Sarara, Malasso, and some of their younger cohorts have learnt to make the most of both the Save the Elephants and Elephant Watch camps. They’ve realised there’s a huge advantage to venturing where few others dare – into the centre of human “settlement” – where trees have been protected and thus provide an untapped bounty of succulent seeds. A high risk, high gain strategy that reaps great rewards, and keeps us all on our toes!


©  Saba/EWC – Sarara and Simon Lekalaile at Elephant Watch

Prestige Herding


© STE – Iain Douglas-Hamilton meets passing Tuareg nomads in the Gourma desert 

Back in about 2001, I travelled to the Gourma Desert in Mali to join a Save the Elephants team removing radio-collars from a handful of elephants darted two years previously.  The collars had been transmitting crucial data on elephant movement between Mali and Burkina Faso. The data showed that the elephants were covering a range of 38,000 kmsq, which lead to the discovery that no other elephant population in Africa has a migration that encompasses such a large area. Now the collar batteries were running out and the transmitters had to be recovered.  It was a brutally hard operation but successful.

Saba & El Med and collar

© STE – Saba & El Mehdi, the wonderful Tuareg representative of the Min. des Eaux et Forets

The Gourma is truly the back of beyond – south of the Sahara, almost level with Timbuktu – it is exceedingly arid and remote.  At midday, temperatures rise to 51°C in the shade, and beyond the few Tuareg herders that gather around the desert oases to browse their livestock on desiccated trees, there’s nothing else beside these extraordinary desert elephants. The only reason they survive in such extreme conditions is because of their intelligence and their ability to walk long distances between food and water.


© STE – Desert elephants at Lake Banzena

About a year after our de-collaring mission, a researcher from Oxford, Susan Canney, took over the elephant study.  Sadly, recent political turmoil and the incursion of Al Qaeda linked militants into the area forced her out of the field, and, for the first time in decades, these most northern of Africa’s elephants are once again plagued by the horrors of ivory poaching. Since only about 400 elephants remain in Mali, each loss impacts hard on the population.

Last week Susan and I had a chat about community sentiments towards elephants. But the most interesting part for me had nothing to do with elephants.  It was her discovery that most of the livestock she’d assumed belonged to the Tuareg nomads, were actually “prestige herds” belonging to affluent businessmen in distant cities. More often than not, the Tuareg were simply hired hands who owned nothing themselves. I’d not heard the term prestige herding before, but it struck a deep chord with what I’ve seen in North Kenya.


© STE – A Tuareg encampment, by far the coolest way to live in the desert

So much of what we deal with in conservation is the “tragedy of the commons”.  The disastrous over-exploitation of vulnerable species or habitats, often by desperate people scrabbling to put food into the mouths of their children, with no thought of long term sustainability or investment in the future. Sometimes, the people are not desperate at all, just ruthlessly greedy and uncaring. Unfortunately, this heedless rush for resources is often exacerbated by the breakdown of traditional values and lines of authority, and further damned by a lack of alternative systems of management.

It seems so tragic to me that nomadic pastoralists who’ve survived for centuries relying entirely on their livestock, no longer even own their livelihood. In the arid north of Kenya we see a similar situation to Mali. There’s far too much livestock, the landscape is increasingly degraded, and each year things get tougher for both humans and animals. According to Mike Harrison, the CEO of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) – now of our main conservation partners in Samburu District – a recent study by ICRAF has shown that 30% of the land in the northern rangelands is at or below the minimum organic carbon level necessary to support plant growth. A further 40% is severely degraded. It suggests that we’re witnessing desertification in fast forward, and most of this is thanks to excessive livestock.

Having lived and worked in Samburu on and off for the last 18 years, I have witnessed first hand the changing landscape. Just as in Mali, prestige herding is a big part of the problem.  Rich politicians and traders bank-rolling on the meat business, hustle livestock deep into protected areas to graze illegally. The wild flora and fauna that attracts tourists to the area, bringing in critical funding to the County Governments, is starting to get severely depleted, in some cases even moving towards a threshold of no return.

If this abuse of the wild environment continues unchecked, then inevitably we will witness the slaying of the golden goose. It’s a massive vicious circle fuelled by frustration, desperation, poor management, greed and apathy. Nobody is doing anyone any favours by allowing it to continue, and, as always, the people who suffer the most are the poorest.  So what to do?

We need a radical rethink of how we deal with all this stuff. There are already brave ventures afoot trying to combat it, initiated by the Northern Rangelands Trust and other NGOs, but we need more ideas, more energy, and even more hands on deck.  Above all, we need to stop hiding our heads in the sand.

Nomads are just as open to the benefits of new ideas and technology as anyone else, and the advent of the cellphone is a good example of how quickly things can change. I’m convinced that the solution lies in offering alternative solutions, investments, livelihoods and better education to draw people away from the traditional practice of putting all their savings into livestock. It’s no longer viable environmentally, it fuels inter-tribal conflict, and it is destroying the one resource that really does bring income into the area – the wildlife.

Our Wild Life in North Kenya

1-SG Saba Samb ele_4139 © Sam Gracey – Saba with some of Samburu’s big bull elephants

The more you watch elephants, the more you slip into their mind-scape and begin to see the world through their eyes. Most of what I know about them I learnt by osmosis, growing up amongst them while my parents did their research in the 1970s. Later on, I was able to match my intuitive interpretations with what I read, which opened my eyes to the deep magic of the natural world.

Spending time with elephants you appreciate how tender they are to one another, how independently minded each can be, the daily challenges faced by a matriarch as she tries to persuade her family to follow her lead, or her courage in times of danger. Watching them opens up a window onto the whole world around them, because they are constantly interacting with all the other animal and plant species they live amongst. So you can slip quietly from intense observation of one species to the next, until the inter-connectedness of all things becomes apparent.

Perhaps what I’ve learnt most from growing up with elephants is the importance of this inter-connectedness – the fabric of life upon which we all depend – and of how critical wild spaces are for our sanity. It was perhaps this longing to return to natural “silence” that prompted Frank and I to relocate to Samburu district to bring our kids up at Elephant Watch Camp. Both of us are deeply committed to the cause of saving elephants, but we also felt it was an amazing opportunity to open our kids’ eyes to a very different way of life and give them time to explore their imaginations and creativity while their brains were still uncluttered.

At first they were scared by the monkeys stealing mangos at breakfast or howled when thorns pricked their baby-soft feet, but it was merely a matter of learning the ropes. Pump action water pistols work a treat at keeping monkeys at bay, so the sharpshooters are now locked and loaded in time for tea, and they’ve learnt to scuff their feet in the dust to get rid of most thorns.

IMG_6083 © Saba Douglas-Hamilton – Sarara, a common visitor at Camp

More worrisome are the bull elephants that take up residence in camp during the sagaram season. As these nutritious Acacia seeds rain down onto the tents, the bulls hustle in to make the most of it. On one occasion, when one of the twins was being rather disobedient, tromping off on her own not looking where she was going, she almost bumped into the backside of a bull called Sarara. He whirled around with a great whoosh of annoyance and sent her scampering for cover, luckily into the arms of a warrior called Mporian who was keeping an eye on her. It was a very close call that made the hair on my arms stand on end, and afterwards I could feel her little heart fluttering in her chest like a trapped bird. So far Sarara has proved to be more bark than bite, but you can never take elephants for granted.

The fact that elephants come into camp at all is the most amazing show of trust, and is thanks to the protection they get here in Samburu reserve and the gentle touch of the staff at Elephant Watch Camp. Even better is their inclination to seek out comfortable sand banks close to our tents at night and lay down for a snooze, so that you can hear the calm of their deepening breath as they succumb to elephant dreams under the stars. Now and then leopard also pad through camp, which sets the vervet monkeys into a frenzy of alarm calls as they warn us about the presence of civet cats, wild dog, servals, or hyaena which wakes us up quite a lot at night. But since they are our extra eyes and ears it’s always good to listen to what they have to say.

My favourite time of day is twilight, as the Verreaux eagle owls take flight from their perch above Tent Two and disappear like shadows into the night sky. I love the delicious cool of the evening, the balm of a sun-warmed shower, tucking the kids into bed with a goodnight story, and then heading off to sort out dinner for the guests.

JH_IMG_0996_Saba, Frank, Mporian and the girls at Elephant Watch camp

© Jez Hunziker – Mayian (above), Frank, Luna (below), Mporian, Saba, Selkie 

But camp is a lot of work, and it isn’t always easy. Trying to keep the standards high is an enormous challenge – vehicles break down, people get sick, nomads go on walkabout, termites gnaw through the infrastructure, and sadly, every now and then we find that an elephant has been killed – but that’s just part of life in this part of the northern frontier.

Samburu national reserve is a pocket-handkerchief of a protected area that’s part of a much greater wilderness that stretches all the way up to the Ethiopian border. Part of Frank’s work at Save the Elephants is to monitor where the elephants go in that wilderness and why. So we don’t often find time to put our feet up. This only happens during the rains when we pack up camp completely and take a proper break, heading down to the coast for a week or two of swimming in the Indian Ocean.

Our favourite place is Lamu, a 1,000 year old town that’s part of an archipelago of Bajuni islands, where we stay with friends or at Manda Bay. It’s a very different kind of wilderness with endless sand dunes and islands to explore, whale sharks, dolphins, and even turtles hatching on the beaches, but one that speaks to our hearts in much the same way. Kenya is simply magical, and while I know that nothing can last forever, right now, I’m very happy with this wild life.

#ThisWildLife #ElephantWatchCamp #SavetheElephants

A very late bloomer!

Today I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, like a cat with hair on-end and claws scraping along the floor, during a day-long tutorial on streamlining social media. It’s been making my head spin. Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, FB, YouTube – each requiring far too much energy and concentration.  And it takes up so much time!  How do people manage?  

For example, I’m now scraping around wordpress trying to find my old blogs … several years out of date and kindly posted here by my husband when my website crashed.  But there’s neither sight nor sound.  So WHERE the HELL are they?????

Cherie’s Final Breath


© Patrick Evans – Litus, Saba, Mayian, Luna, Letoiye, BBC producer Sanna Handslip & Mporian

This last month, a BBC film crew joined us to make an obs-doc series called This Wild Life, about life in the bush with our small family, working side by side with Samburu nomads at both Save the Elephants (STE) and Elephant Watch Camp (EWC).  A typical morning starts with the low chat of Verreaux eagle owls on their favourite perch by the Mess tent, or vervet monkeys alarming at the low-slung presence of a cat.  Dancing acacia leaves scatter the early morning light as we drink our tea, and the river sighs by in a soft rush. Then the children arrive, clamouring at the door “Maaaama! Fungua ‘lango [open the door]! Taka chai [want tea]”.  Just two and a half years old, the twins baby-talk Kiswahili better than English – it’s often much easier to keep on speaking Kiswahili if one wants to be properly understood.  Selkie (their older sister), fluent in both, leaps into bed for a cuddle.

SH_P1060257_Cherie stretching tighter

© Susannah Handslip – Cherie stretching out her back leg to ease pain, with calf Sokotei

After breakfast I jump into the Land Rover to join the film crew.  A female elephant is sick – Cherie, from the First Ladies. She has a five-month-old calf.  She keeps stretching out her back legs or leaning uncomfortably forward, as if trying to ease pain in her stomach.  Apparently she’s been like this for weeks. Her calf tries to suckle but she brushes it off the nipple with her leg.  At this age he relies almost entirely on her milk.  I notice her deeply sunken temples, and the sharp pinch around her cheekbones. Signs of dehydration.  This is serious.  We wait and watch for days, finding her mostly alone with her calf, now unable to keep up with the herd.  She takes to resting on raised edges of roads or sloping riverbanks, which make it easier to get to her feet.  I sense her determination to live for the calf. But she’s dying, and without milk the calf starts losing condition.


We call the Kenya Wildlife Service vet, but he feels that Cherie is too far-gone so survive being tranquillised.  He asks us to keep on monitoring her.   Night falls and Cherie finally collapses. The calf nudges her emaciated body with its head, encouraging her to rise, then lays its trunk softly across her hip and leans in close for comfort.  They stay like that for a long time.  It’s so quiet. So dignified. There is clearly so much love in this deeply private moment.  For the first time in my life I pray that an elephant will die.  But she is hardier than I imagined.  The night passes, and another long day goes by.  I’ve barely slept a wink.  Somehow she just keeps on getting up and walking away.

Cherie and Sokotei

© Saba Douglas-Hamilton – A dying Cherie rests on a sandbank by the river

Elephants have a strong sense of their own mortality.  So does she know that she is dying?  Is she struggling on because her calf is so young?  Would she otherwise have given up a long time ago?  In these terrible days of poaching, it is most unusual to be watching a natural death and I am deeply aware of the sad privilege.  I just wish I could ease her pain.   The poor vet is faced with a hard moral choice.  She has lost her milk and the calf is rapidly deteriorating, so does he save the mother or the calf?  Convinced that there’s no hope for Cherie, he requests permission to euthanise her before the calf becomes too weak to survive.  But the go-ahead must come from way up the KWS ladder, so we have no choice but to wait.


Gazing up at the star-scape later in the evening, taking the second watch, I wonder if she has noticed the intense beauty of the night.  Perhaps it will be her last in this shimmering, moonlit landscape.  The calf eats leaves and grasses nearby, but I see that he has trouble controlling his little trunk and much of the food drops to the ground.  He must be so hungry.  She rests a long, long time, then suddenly gets up and stands ghostlike on the edge of the riverbank.  Gathering her courage she launches into a long-legged stride, disappearing into a thicket with the calf.  I lose them completely in the darkness.  Depressed, tired, and dreading every possible outcome of the morrow, I drive back home, the rough familiarity of the Land Rover providing some comfort. If she dies tonight, I think, we will make every effort to rescue the calf and give it a second chance at life.  That, my beautiful Cherie, I promise.

In bed, I listen to the frogs down by the river. A Scop’s owl calls, cicadas sing, and a lion’s roar echoes off the far side of the riverbank.  Our room is simple, humble even.  We only have the most basic things we need.  But, here, where each hour is marked by a fresh croaking, burbling chorus of animal life, I feel like the richest person in the world – bejeweled by the sounds of the night, perfumed by the purest air, clothed in the softest darkness hung with stars – doing what I love.



© Max Hug-WIlliams – Sokotei’s tries to feed, but still unweaned weakens by the day

We find Cherie back with her family the next morning, eating the branches of a Commiphora. The Samburu tell me they use its roots as medicine for stomach ailments. It seems to be the one thing she likes, but she eats it only at night.  Biodynamic biomedicine?  She certainly seems a little stronger.  The vet feels there is no way he can now justify putting her down, not when she clearly has such a will to live.  Against all odds, she just might pull through.  But the calf is suffering.  Surrounded by family it feels secure, and is comforted by the presence of its mother.  It’s making a valiant effort to eat and drink, but I fear that without milk it will die.  There is nothing the vet can do.   He heads back to HQ, a two-hour drive away.  Keep on monitoring, he says.  But I have to leave Samburu. The BBC film crew depart and I head back home, desperate to see my children.  It’s up to the Save the Elephants field team now.

Cherie rests for most of the day, and the team take it in turns to keep watch.  The calf is increasingly listless.  He eats continuously, shoving leaves and soft grasses into his mouth to sate his gnawing hunger.  At dusk, Cherie crosses the river and collapses into an erosion gully.  Acting on intuition, David Daballen, head of field operations, steps out of his car and gently touches her eyes.  She’s dead.  At last.  The calf flings his little trunk across her body then steps his front legs up onto her stomach.  He rocks to and fro.  David decides to keep guard overnight so as to try to capture the calf the following morning.  But as the night deepens, a pride of lions start to roar nearby, shattering the tranquility.  They circle closer.  David knows the team must act now or it will be too late.


Three times they capture the calf and three times he breaks free, bigger than expected, strong as an ox and ferocious with grief. Vast black storm clouds block out the moon and suddenly the heavens open.  Hit by the deluge, the team race between Salvadora trees in a last heroic effort to catch the calf, slipping in the mud, acutely aware of lions around the corner.  Panting with effort, wet to the bone, and shivering with exhaustion, the team give up.  The calf spins around and runs off into the night.



© David Daballen – Sokotei sedated in a DSWT plane with Chris Leadismo from STE

Early next morning David finds him again, close to his family and two large musth males.  It’s an awkward context for a rescue, complicated by the presence of the bulls. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust vet and aircraft are scrambled into action in Nairobi.  The calf’s family shows a keen interest in him, touching his back and smelling him to catch up on the dramas of the night.  David waits for a gap then gently eases his vehicle between them, isolating the calf from the other elephants.  This time round, with enough people on hand, the capture is successful.  Within a few hours, the calf is secure in an aeroplane sent by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) heading for Nairobi, sedated and on a drip.  When he arrives at the orphanage he guzzles down four bottles of milk within minutes.  This is a baby that wants to live.

A few hours later, I go to visit him at the orphanage with the children. He’s surrounded by other little elephants, making friends but still as wild as can be, charging the keepers.  “Sokotei”, I think – the local name for Salvadora – in honour of his courageous escape from his would-be rescuers as a wild storm sent his mothers soul up into the Universe.  Yes, that’s the right name.  I know he is missing her madly, but he’s strong and has a fighting chance.  If only he can make it through these first few weeks.

Back at home the kids dive under the duvet and pretend to be baby ice-bears, mewling for my attention.  I think of the snug snow-caves mother polar bears dig out for their cubs in winter, and of the deep, instinctual, tenderness with which she cares for them.  How lucky we are, I think, to be alive.  To have health, love, and family.  Long may it last.  Then I slide into the snow cave, and join the game.

JH_IMG_4632_Sokotei's first days at Sheldricks elephant orphanage JH_IMG_4161_Sokotei and his new friend

JH_IMG_4405_elephant feeding time at Sheldricks elephant orphanage JH_IMG_4792

© Max Hug-Williams – Frail but fighting, Sokotei makes new friends at the DSWT orphanage

The Secret Life of Elephants

March 30, 200712:00 First Ladies at river crossing drinking.15:00 Mating between Leopold and young female in First Ladies.15:10 Mating between Leopold and another female in First Ladies15:15 Patten, who was at river drinking, hears the cows cries, and arrives with the group. He chases Leopold away, and starts following the female Leopold mated with. 15:30 Patten, trying to mate with M20.99 and fending off Leopold and other bulls in the area who are also following M20.9917:00 Patten attempting to mate with M20.99 who is too young to be mated with.

© Michael Nichols        Two mature bulls weigh up their strength, communing head to head.

Elephants care for their friends and family, feel emotions deeply, and may even be aware of their own mortality.  In Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, research from Save the Elephants (STE) is revealing new insights into their remarkable hidden world.

The series the Secret Life of Elephants was filmed in high definition, and is about our team in Samburu as they follow the dramatic and emotional stories of 500 plus individually known elephants, and reveals the groundbreaking work of the Save the Elephants research team.

Spanning two wet seasons in Samburu, the show is co-presented by four researchers from Save the Elephants – Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, David Daballan, Onesmas Kahindi, and Saba Douglas-Hamilton, with guest appearances from Kenya Wildlife Service vet, Dr. Stephen Chege.


© Saba Douglas-Hamilton – Rommel in full musth

The most exciting part is the unexpected reappearance of an infamous bull called Rommel.  The first time the team came across him was in May 2002 when he was in full musth – a heightened state of sexuality and aggression – and in battle against a well known resident male, Abe Lincoln.  When Rommel started to lose the fight he took his frustration out on the nearest “inanimate” object, which happened to be one of the research vehicles.  The researchers inside, George Wittemyer and Daniel Lentipo, were extremely lucky to escape with their lives.

Rommel has an unmistakable tear (a bit like a half Joker’s smile) in his right ear, so he’s easy to recognise.  In all the time he’s been in Samburu the team have only seen him twice, until now.  The reserve seems to be at the far edge of his home range and he visits it occasionally when he’s searching for oestrus females.  Unfortunately, their sole attempt at collaring him in 2004 failed as his neck was too big for even the largest bull collar, so where he roams in between the rare sightings is a mystery.  Yet, despite living in an area that is dangerously hostile to elephants, somehow he survives.  His latest absence of four years convinced the team that he was dead, but they were wrong.  For he’s back – bigger, bolder and badder than ever!


© Saba Douglas-Hamilton – Breeze and friends       

The main star of the show is much smaller, a delightful newborn baby called Breeze.  She belongs to the Winds family, led by the matriarch Harmattan.  In the film we meet her on her very first day of life, see her take her first shaky steps and follow her story through the most challenging nine months of infancy.  Her older brother Buster is a bit of a mummy’s boy.   Initially he is jealous of Breeze, until his mother teaches him to have better manners.  Then, as he starts to gain some independence, he reveals a real talent for getting into trouble.  Boys will be boys, everywhere!

Showing on Animal Planet

Central African Republic


© Saba Douglas-Hamilton – Skulls of poached lowland gorillas in Dzanga Sanga, CAR

Bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo (previously Zaire), Uganda, Sudan, Chad, Cameroun and Congo (Brazzaville), it’s fairly unsurprising that Central African Republic has a history of unpredictable politics.  The most infamous of its dictators, Bokassa – who crowned himself emperor in the style of Napoleon Bonaparte (said on occasion to feed human flesh to foreign dignitaries) – is now long gone, but the country remains tense and at the time of filming rumours of a potential coup were rife.  We avoided the capital Bangui by flying straight from Douala in Cameroun, to a small logging town in the heart of the Central African forest, Bayanga, with a dirt strip that borders Dzanga-Sanga National Park in the southwestern corner of the country.

Here, two passionately dedicated researchers – Andrea Turkalo, who studies forest elephants, and Angelique Todd on lowland gorillas – hosted our visit.  Veterans of the jungle and committed conservationists, both amused us with horror stories of insect-borne parasites like filaria (which leads to elephantitus), or putze flies whose eggs, laid on wet clothing, hatch into infestations of larvae which burrow into your skin.  A tip on removing these revolting worms is to wait until they pop their heads out to breathe then roll out the rest of the body on a matchstick. Inevitably the most common cloth target is freshly laundered underwear, so ironing one’s clothes is a must – but beware of jungle coal irons which should be dipped briefly in to a basin of water to cool before being applied to clothing.  I managed to burn a massive hole in the seat of my trousers which didn’t help!

Returning to the theme of insects, one of my father’s favourite stories was of a Christian saint who’d pick up maggots as they fell from his suppurating wounds and press them lovingly back into his flesh, saying, “Eat what God hath given thee!”  Whilst I’m sure it had its medical upsides, and clearly delighted my father’s wicked sense of humour, I can’t admit to my love of maggots, mango worms, mosquitoes or filaria stretching quite that far.  There’s definitely an element of paranoia to one’s first days in the forest, but soon the discomfort recedes into a background of permanent itchiness and you just get on with life.  The Ba’Aka people deal with insects and the heat of the jungle by shedding most of their clothes, I often wished we could follow suit as the brush of rain droplets against skin was sweet relief.

The most interesting insect event we came across – apart from thousands of communal spiders in a palace of towering webs – was the slow motion horror story of an ant devoured from the inside out by the parasitic fungus Cordyceps.  It’s not a nice way to go, but does leave one in total awe of the day to day dramas of life in the forest.


© Rowan Musgrave –  Saba meets the mythical forest elephants of Dzanga Bai, CAR   

In one of the “Babar the Elephant” children’s books the elephant king visits a planet of alien pachyderms. Approaching Dzanga Bai and seeing forest elephants for the first time reminded me of his experience.  The burbling sound of these secretive creatures blowing air onto mineral salts in stream beds echoes through the forest until, suddenly, you step out of the tangled vegetation into a very private elephant world.  Their vocal range is sensational – ranging across ten octaves – and can slide six octaves in a single scream. Andrea has recorded infra-sound in forest elephants down to a record breaking 3Hz, which is far lower than the infrasonic range of 20-14Hz in their savannah cousins.

The most sobering fact we learned was that forest elephants are highly sensitive to any kind of human disturbance and thus are good indicators of the vulnerability of forest to human exploitation.  Any track cut into the forest leaves a swathe of human impact up to 50 kms wide on either side of it – snares, logging, gunshots, scarcity of elephants, and a forest that is rapidly emptied and silenced through commercial hunting for bush-meat.  We filmed a traditional Ba’Aka hunt of duiker with nets – which is how they’ve always lived in the forest – but I was shocked by the number of Bantu poachers that have invaded Ba’Aka hunting grounds, who use snares and guns and whom we saw daily with poached duiker strapped to their shoulders.

Rising demand for hardwoods leads to an increase in logging concessions that are now cross-sectioning the Congo forest, building roads into previously impenetrable areas.  Even selective logging has a negative impact, for on the back of increased commerce and access comes growing human settlement and a corresponding demand for bushmeat.  Conservation NGO’s are alarmed at the rate of empty forest syndrome where the commercial bush-meat trade is clearing the forest of animal life particularly in Cameroun and DRC, bringing a deafening silence to the great Congo ecosystem.  No animal is safe, and we found mangabey, antelope and even elephant meat in the markets.

Whilst some logging companies apply strict ethical standards, others have no qualms about clear-cutting forest and wiping out animals.  There is also an imminent “protein-crisis” looming due to the upward trajectory of a growing human population, and the forest fauna simply cannot meet the demand.

With global warming at the front of our minds, I would urge airlines or large companies needing to offset carbon emissions to buy up logging concessions as quickly as possible and conserve the trees in perpetuity.  The longer we can keep the Congo forest whole the better, for a sustainable future on our planet.

Part of the BBC series, Unknown Africa

Comoros Islands


 © Liz White – the crater of Mt Karthala

We’re on top of Mt. Karthala – an active volcano dominating the largest island in the Comoros archipelago – filming Unknown Africa for the BBC.  It’s a long hike to get to the top but once you’re at the summit a sensational view spreads out across the islands and into the volatile depths of what is the largest live caldera in Africa.  We spent the night huddled close to the rim up in the crater, supposedly shielded from the wind and plummeting temperatures, but it was still bitingly cold and we didn’t sleep a wink.  Early next morning an explosion shook the ground beneath us and the crater floor was filled with snakes of cooling lava.

I’ve come here to find out what animals live on these little known tropical islands – strung halfway between the African continent and the island of Madagascar – like a necklace of jewels gracing the throat of the Mozambique channel.

The most famous of creatures found in the Comoros is the coelacanth, presumed to have gone extinct 70 million years ago.  In 1938 a most peculiar specimen caught off the coast of Mozambique was picked out of a fish pile by a budding museum curator, Marjorie Latimer.  In great excitement she sent it off to be identified by a famous ichthyologist, J.L.B. Smith, whose “remarkable feat of mental agility” recognized it as a modern coelacanth.  This extraordinary living fossil makes its home in the Comoros islands 200m below the surface, and being sensitive to light and pressure sleeps by day at depth in black volcanic caves.


 ©Liz White – the rediscovered “dinosaur” fish, the Coelacanth

One of the great delights of the Comoros are the people.   Despite the islands being described as “trés tendus” (very tense), I spent wonderful time with a group of women who taught me how to use a paste of coral and sandalwood as a face mask to protect skin from the sun.  It was deliciously cool and felt wonderful.

Although the islands are geologically quite new, they’ve been colonised by a fair variety of different animal species, one of which comes to nest on the beaches.  Green turtles spend most of their lives at sea, but return to the shores of Moheli, the smallest of the Comoros islands, in spectacular numbers.  At night, with a silvery lit ocean and arcing star-scape, turtles drag themselves above the high tide mark to dig deep nests and lay 100 – 200 eggs each.  Hearing the sound of scores of turtles on the beach exhaling in rasping bursts as if they were still in the ocean was magical.  I loved being surrounded by these ancient creatures, knowing of the thousands of aching kilometers they’d swum to return to the very same beach on which they were born.  

Our interest in a local conservation NGO, Action Comoros, and the pterodactyl-like Livingstone’s flying fox (fruit bats) that live in the highest parts of the montane forest, intrigued local media enough to invite us onto a live TV chat show on Anjouan. They loved our close up footage of the bats and broadcast a half hour special.

Led by Mr. Mutui, Action Comoros are doing sterling work to protect the remaining pockets of primary forest, the last montane refuge where the bats can roost.  Deforestation on the island has led to the loss of most of its rivers, serious erosion, sedimentation of coral reefs, and loss of biodiversity.  Action Comoros explain that the Livingstone bat is a flagship species whose fate reflects the eventual fate of the islands and the inhabitants.

The end of each day in the Comoros is a gentle wildlife spectacle.  As the sun sets across the sea, Comorian fruit bats dip their chests into the surface of the waves to lick saltwater from their fur.  It’s a daily ritual as integral to the island as the Islamic call to prayer.


Part of the BBC series, Unknown Africa