Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Founder of Save the Elephants

Support the ban on elephant poaching

The Indianapolis Star, Dan McFeely

With a simple Google search, Iain Douglas-Hamilton knows that victory in his five-decade fight to save his beloved elephants remains uncertain.

On the Internet, one can find ivory knife handles, $45; ivory gun grips, $600; ivory elephant tusks, $18,500.

Twenty-one years after a worldwide ban on ivory trade helped stop the slaughter of African elephants, the demand for ivory seems to be making a comeback — prompting some African countries to propose the sale of tons of stockpiled ivory, while giving poachers a new incentive to slaughter elephants for their valuable tusks.

“Their existence is hanging on a thread,” said Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save the Elephants, who today will be named the winner of the 2010 Indianapolis Prize for conservation, which includes a $100,000 award — the largest gift of its kind in the world.

Douglas-Hamilton, who founded the organization in 1993 and has written books and made films since, will collect his prize and the Lilly Medal at a ceremony Sept. 25 at the Westin Hotel in Downtown Indianapolis. He was chosen from a group of 29 conservationists nominated worldwide.

Working primarily from his home and office in Nairobi, Kenya, Douglas-Hamilton earned the honor with his reputation as the pioneer of in-depth study of elephant social behavior. He studied their movements — these days, with the help of GPS and Google Earth — and led anti-poaching efforts in the wilds of Africa and in the halls of world governments.

His work is not done.

Decades of unfettered poaching that began in the 1960s led to what Douglas-Hamilton calls an “elephant holocaust.” The number of elephants in Africa and Asia dropped from about 3 million to 250,000 today.

He was among the first to alert the world about the slaughter, most of which stopped in 1989 when the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species made it illegal to traffic in ivory.

But in recent years, some countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia, have said their elephant herds are in good shape. They say they want to stop sitting on an estimated 126 tons of tusks, much of it dating to the days of poaching, but also more recent collections from elephants that died of natural causes or were killed legally by government officials for destroying crops.

Their argument: A limited sale of stockpiled tusks could generate millions to funnel back into the protection of today’s elephants.

But in an interview with The Indianapolis Star last week inside the elephant house at the Indianapolis Zoo, the 67-year-old Douglas-Hamilton vowed to fight efforts to allow the resumed sale of ivory, even if it’s limited.

“They promise the money will go back into conservation,” he said. “But it’s only going to encourage markets as far away as China.”

Other countries, such as Kenya and India, agree and have opted in the past to burn huge piles of ivory.

“The fear is, and it is my belief, that any ivory sales will stimulate a parallel illegal trade,” he said. And that means more poaching.

With a renewed market demand for ivory, especially in China, it appears to be happening already. Conservationists blame poachers for last year’s tremendous spike in elephant deaths — 36,000 were killed, more than in the previous two decades combined.

Known as White Gold

Ivory, known by some as white gold, has become so rare that its value has skyrocketed. Currently, if ivory can be proved to have originated during the pre-ban years, it is legal to purchase. But at $500 per kilo (about 2 pounds) on the Asian black market, the cost for ivory is too high for almost everyone except the extreme collectors.

The average ivory tusk weighs 3 to 4 kilos. The record is about 50 kilos.

“But we don’t get big ivory in Africa anymore. Those elephants are gone,” Douglas-Hamilton said. “Western demand collapsed 20 years ago, and I hope it never comes back.”

There is some fear it might. Beyond the demand in China, recent studies posted on the Save the Elephants website indicate some renewed interest in ivory in U.S. cities such as New York and Los Angeles.

In Indianapolis, if there is much interest in ivory, it’s probably from those who have vintage pianos in need of restoration. Piano keys were once made of ivory because it’s porous and would absorb finger sweat from nervous players.

“Ivory has not been used in many, many years for new pianos,” said Craig Gigax, president of Meridian Music in Carmel. “I think it’s just too controversial. I don’t see it ever coming back.”

Controversial and costly.

“A new custom ivory keyboard would cost up to $5,000 installed, versus an acrylic keyboard for about $700,” said Ron Winter, a Southside expert in piano restoration.

Life of Adventure

Douglas-Hamilton was born in England, raised partly in South Africa and Scotland and studied at the University of Oxford, where he earned his doctorate of philosophy in zoology. As early as the 1960s, as a student, he carried out the first in-depth scientific study of wild elephant social behavior in Tanzania, setting the stage for his life’s work.

“I have always been attracted to elephants,” said Douglas-Hamilton, who on his recent visit to the zoo spent time playing with three elephants.

Recording births, deaths and migration patterns at first, in the 1970s, he expanded his work to include elephants throughout Africa. That’s when he discovered evidence of mass slaughters and began to sound the warning bells to the world about the evils of poaching. In the early 1980s, he led a successful emergency anti-poaching program in Uganda’s national parks, where elephants were on the brink of extinction.

“The plight of the African elephant is intensely personal to Iain,” said Indianapolis Zoo President Michael Crowther. “He truly epitomizes what it means to be a hero.”

In 1993, Douglas-Hamilton founded Save the Elephants in Kenya as a vehicle to raise worldwide awareness and money for elephant preservation through study and habitat preservation. As part of that, he pioneered the system of GPS tracking, in which tiny sensors are placed in collars so each elephant can be tracked.

“Elephants vote with their feet,” Douglas-Hamilton said. “They go to places they feel safe.”

When patterns begin to change, he looks for reasons and for evidence of poachers.

In September, he worked to rescue a rare herd of desert elephants in northern Kenya and Mali, threatened by a severe drought. And earlier this spring, he was in the midst of a devastating flood that destroyed the Save the Elephants camp in Kenya, including years of field research notes.

Douglas-Hamilton and his wife, Oria, raised their two daughters — Saba and Dudu — in Kenya. Both have become active conservationists, especially Saba, who works with the BBC on documentaries.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton getting a lift from a friend