It’s shortly after midday and my guide, David Daballen, has calmly, if not firmly, told me to stop moving. No more than a hundred feet in front of us, a large female elephant has stopped, her curving, prehensile trunk sniffing us out. She’s adopted a posture that falls somewhere between curious and defensive—ears forward, the full weight of her body towards us. And for good reason. Behind her, a herd of some 15 or so elephants—infants among them—pass beneath the shade of a leafy Acacia and Kiegelia grove on their way to a nearby watering hole, kicking up clouds of rust-colored dirt in their wake. Save for the sound of cracking dry branches underfoot and the varied, gusting-like sounds of the elephant’s exhalations, the herd’s procession before us is one of surprising silence. As the tail end of the herd nears, the large female standing between us and them turns away, rejoining the ambling group and ending our stand-off of sorts. Taking a deep breath, seemingly my first since encountering the herd, I turn to Daballen who, with a big smile on his face, remarks in a thick Kenyan accent, “Wasn’t that remarkable?” “More like unforgettable,” I reply.
Until you see an elephant up close and catch its eye, observe the tenderness between a mother and her calf, or watch as a herd gracefully tracks across the wild expanse of a grassy, golden-colored savanna, it’s hard to reconcile the creature most of us have come to know in popular culture with a living, breathing animal. Encountering an elephant in the wild for the first time is not without a feeling of disbelief, a sense of shock that accompanies witnessing an animal long spoken off, but never seen. And for conservation groups like Save the Elephants, that revelation is exactly the point.
Founded by zoologist and elephant expert Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton in 1993, Save the Elephants conducts extensive field research on a population of around 900 elephants that inhabit the Samburu National Reserve, located along the banks of the Ewaso Ng'iro river in Northern Kenya. A pioneer in his field, Douglas-Hamilton is recognized as one of the earliest to raise the alarm about the devastating effects ivory poaching was having on elephant populations across Africa and his research from 1979 to 1989 was instrumental in bringing about the worldwide ban on the trade of ivory. And while much progress has been made to combat against the now black-market trade in ivory, poaching and other human-caused fatalities pose a serious threat to the continent’s indigenous elephant populations.
A simple glance at the statistics regarding elephant mortality reveals as much. Between 2007 and 2015, the total African elephant population has declined by 110,000. Some of the most recent census data suggests that Africa’s elephant population fell by 30% between 2007 and 2014. In parks and reserves across Africa, the numbers are equally dire. Garambra National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo saw its population decrease from around 10,000 in the early 90s’ to little more than 1,000 today. In Chad, Zakouma National Park’s elephant population now total some 450, down from the 5,000 reported in 2002. And the threat to elephants posed by poachers extends to those who aim to protect them as well. In 2017, Wayne Lotter, a leading conservationist and co-founder of PAMS, a Tanzania-based NGO responsible for organizing the country’s anti-poaching efforts, was gunned down on his way to a hotel in the city’s capital, Dar es Salaam. And, while significant in-roads have been made to cut the demand for ivory off at its source in China and Japan—China now has a ban on ivory sales—there is still, by all accounts a thriving black market in South East Asia, particularly in the countries that make up the Golden Triangle—Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar among them.
In more recent years, Save the Elephants has taken a decidedly unique approach to its conservation practices, one that utilizes the worlds of fashion and celebrity, in particular, to help take its message directly to potential consumers of ivory. Together with the Wildlife Conservation Network, Save the Elephants helped found the Elephant Crisis Fund, which distributes every dollar directly to front-line conservation groups like the PAMS Foundation. Prominent American jeweler Tiffany & Co. is a key partner, donating 100% of the profits from its Save the Wild collection, which as part of the #KnotOnMyPlanet campaign has the support of such high-profile ambassadors as Cara Delevingne, Doutzen Kroes, and Naomi Campbell. Tiffany’s efforts have done much to raise vital funds to allow more than 70 different conservation groups to do work that is desperately needed.
My guide in Samburu, David Daballen—who is STE’s head of field operations—understands the impact Tiffany’s funding has perhaps better than most. Tracking elephants and monitoring them in the wild, getting as close as possible to them, Daballen is on the front lines of STE’s mission. “Tiffany's economic support,” he notes, “as well as their ability to get the message out to the world, is a huge relief because the more people we have on board, the more people who are aware, the more people who are educated about wildlife, the better.” For Douglas-Hamilton, Tiffany’s support is essential to the success of the elephant conservation program he founded. “Without the support of Tiffany,” he tells me one afternoon, sipping Kenyan tea at our temporary base camp amidst the open savanna, “many of the things we have accomplished today wouldn’t be possible.”
Another of STE’s initiatives, in partnership with Tiffany & Co. and the #KnotOnMyPlanet campaign is to bring influencers, celebrities, and models from Asia to create editorial content that focuses upon the elephants, documenting real-life experiences in the hopes of changing the perception of the ivory trade for a new generation of potential consumers in Asia. During my trip to Samburu, STE’s CEO Frank Pope and his wife, Saba Douglas-Hamilton—daughter of Iain—played host to a major Chinese actor and a noted model and influencer popular in Japan, orchestrating photoshoots in the wild, providing aerial surveys of elephant populations, and tours of STE’s facilities.
One evening, during a meal staged on the dry bed of the Ewaso Ng'iro river near the Elephant Watch Camp—an eco-friendly lodge that plays host to the reserve’s visitors founded by Oria Douglas-Hamilton, the family’s matriarch—Saba discusses the importance of these cultural exchanges and the power they have to change perceptions of the ivory trade. “By interacting with the elephants up close,” she tells me, “they become very real to the people who interact with them.” The aim, she tells me, is to draw a direct line from the ivory that is consumed with a living animal, and in turn, dissuade people from consuming it. If popular influencers in China or Japan are seen to be supporting a ban on the purchase of ivory, the hope is that their legions of fans will follow suit.
To be sure, there is much work still to be done to ensure the survival and protection of Kenya’s–and Africa’s—elephant population. With the threats that have grown to include the encroachment of local communities into once wild habitats—the result of increasing populations—the danger that elephant’s face is still very much clear and present in the minds of conservationists. And yet, speaking with members of STE, one comes away with a feeling far from despondent over the current state of the elephant’s future. Rather, you can sense the dedication and profound determination that each has for their mission at hand and, perhaps most tellingly, a gratitude for being able to share their lives with such remarkable creatures.