Saba was born in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya on the 7th June at 7pm on the seventh day of the week, and became the 7th grandchild in the family. Her name means “seven” in Kiswahili.
When Saba was six weeks old she met her first wild animal, an elephant called Virgo who was one of approximately 400 elephants that her zoologist father, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, was studying in Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania, for his DPhil. Virgo had a single right tusk and at eighteen years old hadn’t yet learnt to be afraid of man. Being both inquisitive and friendly it wasn’t long before she became habituated to the researchers and would walk over to greet them when they called her name.
On Saba’s first meeting with Virgo, her mother approached the elephant on foot holding her newborn baby in her arms. Virgo let them come close then stretched out her trunk and took a good long sniff of the baby. She then coaxed her own calf forward as if to introduce it to the humans. Their friendship lasted two decades, until Virgo disappeared in the mid 1990s.
© Iain Douglas-Hamilton
Saba and her sister, Mara, ran wild in the African bush learning bush-lore from the rangers and absorbing all there was to know about elephants. Kiswahili was their first language and they hardly ever wore clothes. At seven years old, Saba went to school for the first time in Nairobi. Later she attended the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales, and then the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, graduation with a first class degree in Social Anthropology (MA).
Saba’s first job was with Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia, working in the hinterland of the Skeleton Coast on a Crafts for Conservation project. She was then head hunted by the School for International Training to work as an academic director in Tanzania, and later did a stint as an anthropological consultant for the National Museums of Kenya.
© Sam Gracey
In 1997 Saba joined her father’s charity Save the Elephants (STE) as Chief Operations Officer to help launch the research centre in Samburu National Reserve, north Kenya. It was here that she was talent-spotted by the BBC and began her life as a TV presenter and producer of wildlife documentaries.
Saba lives in Kenya with her husband, Frank Pope, and their children, and runs Elephant Watch Camp where she is pioneering the concept of “conservation tourism” with the help of the Samburu nomadic community. A 12 part BBC series – This Wild Life – has been made about their lives in Samburu, aired on the BBC and PBS, and now showing on syndicated channels around the world.
Her favourite achievements in life, so far? Falling in love; the natural births of her children; being investigated from head to toe by a wild bull elephant (while lying on the sand pretending to be dead); collecting a species of scorpion previously unknown to science (later named Somalibuthus sabae by the experts); filming an individual leopard over a period of five years and learning every inch of her territory; and, finally, surviving a plane crash, viper bite, being hunted by a man-eating lioness, several bouts of malaria, and being ‘shipwrecked’ off the coast of Angola.
© Mirella Ricciardi