9. Among the Elephants: Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton 1975

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1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
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1.3 Books
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1.3.9

I read ‘Among the Elephants’ when I was 18 and I so wanted be Iain Douglas-Hamilton, or Oria Douglas-Hamilton, or even their newly-born daughter, Saba! They lived this impossibly exotic life, literally among the elephants, at Lake Manyara National Park in northern Tanzania. Iain was there to study the elephants for his PhD at Oxford and the observations are so new and personal that he brings not just the species, but the individual elephant (and its family) to life. For the first time I learnt that elephants can be distinguished by their unique ear shapes (and all the cuts and tears), that they have wildly varying personalities, that the matriarchal family unit is deeply strong, touching and protective, and that they are even more intelligent problem-solvers than I previously imagined.

Douglas-Hamilton’s initial question was to address the all-too-common one for large grazing and browsing mammals worldwide: were their numbers out of balance with remaining habitat, and as such were they causing irreparable damage to the vegetation and ecology? He was unable to answer this definitively at Manyara, but did confirm the truism that the larger the area available the more likely natural cycles and little or no intervention was possible, and vice versa, and as Manyara was quite small, possibly permanent damage was occurring. His solution to this was the logical ‘increase the area’.

While never able to emulate the Douglas-Hamilton’s life and achievements, I was lucky enough to go to East Africa in 1979 and instantly fell in love with the elephants. I could have watched them all day and was transfixed by their enormous size and complex social behaviour. There were still reasonable numbers roaming wild then, and the passing of a great herd of 80 or so at Masai-Mara on the northern edge of the Serengeti is one of the great sights of my life.

This is an eminently readable book: part field ecology, part adventure, part conservation practice, part photographic essay (Oria’s pictures are wonderful). Read it and be transported into the world of one of Nature’s great gifts – the elephant.

 

1 Douglas-Hamilton, I and O. 1975. Among the Elephants. William Collins Sons, Glasgow, UK.

(Cover photograph: Penguin Books edition, 1978).

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