Oria Douglas-Hamilton

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Oria Iain and Oria  

Born in Kenya, the hub of colonial East Africa in the 1930s, Oria Douglas-Hamilton's story started with a romance set in another era.

Her mother, Giselle Banau-Varilla, was a French sculptress who trained under Rodin and her father, Mario Rocco, an Italian cavalry officer who had been a pilot during the 1914-18 War. Falling in love at first sight at a recital in Paris, they eloped to New York. Then a dizzying trail led them, on the advice of a baron, to the then Belgian Congo in 1928 to seek their fortune - shooting elephants for ivory.

After a gruelling year-long foot safari, Giselle became pregnant and the couple headed to Kenya to find a hospital. They stayed, joined the expatriate crowd and spent their days playing polo, flying, hunting and attending cocktail parties.

Their Lake Naivasha estate grew to produce some of the finest veal and lamb in Kenya. At its heart was Sirocco House - its architecture inspired by a West African palace, its interiors dotted with glass and silverware from Paris, and Giselle's striking African warrior sculptures - where Oria grew up.

In 1969, she met Scottish zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Just 26, he was living in the jungle in the Lake Manyara area of Tanzania, conducting the first in-depth study of elephant behaviour and ecology, for his D Phil in zoology from Oxford University. After a whirlwind courtship she married him, and joined him in Tanzania.

All Oria knew about elephants was from her parent's hunting tales and the children's book Babar the Elephant - which was written by her mother's cousin. But meeting Iain turned her life around, as she became passionate about preserving them. "Was it their size, their power, or their gentleness that attracted me? I could not tell," she writes in Among the Elephants, a book about their time in Tanzania which became an Anglia TV film. "I just knew that I loved being surrounded by elephants."

Iain and Oria's two daughters, Saba and Dudu, were born in Tanzania in 1970 and 1971 respectively. Unsurprisingly, after a childhood spent with elephants, both have joined their parents' conservation efforts. Saba is a wildlife presenter for the BBC and Dudu produces films on wildlife and extreme climates.

But although family life may have been idyllic for the Douglas-Hamilton's, elephant slaughter at that time was reaching unprecedented levels. Battle for the Elephants, the second book they wrote together, tells of how they risked their lives to save the elephants - both in bloody skirmishes with poachers and in attempts to anaesthetise belligerent elephants to fix radio collars.

They emerged victorious, however, having helped to bring about the world ivory ban, imposed in 1989. Iain is now recognised as the foremost expert on the African elephant and has been honoured with many awards, including an OBE in 1993.

But closest to his heart is the charity he established in 1993, Save the Elephants. Using a cutting edge GPS tracking system, he is leading research into the movement of 750 of the 2,000-strong elephant population in the Samburu area.

Meanwhile Oria renovated Sirocco House, turning it into a luxurious, and very 'in', guesthouse. More recently, up-river from Iain's research centre, she has created the Elephant Watch Safari Camp - the only place in Africa where you can be introduced to elephants and learn about their lives.

Wildlife conservationist Oria Douglas-Hamilton is a trustee of Save the Elephants, a charity based in Samburu National Reserve in the Great Rift Valley, Kenya. Save the Elephants carries out rigorous studies of elephants, including elephant collaring and sophisticated elephant-tracking techniques. Through the charity, she has worked to support, protect, and increase awareness of issues that threaten African elephant populations and their habitats.

Oria and her husband Iain Douglas-Hamilton co-authored two award-winning books, Among the Elephants and Battle for the Elephants, and have made numerous television films. Douglas-Hamilton has appeared in a number of wildlife documentaries, including a three-part BBC documentary, The Secret Life of Elephants, which explored the lives of elephants in Samburu reserve and the work of the Save the Elephants' research team. Oria and Iain also co-wrote "African Elephants: Can They Survive?" in the November 1980 issue of National Geographic, which documented the havoc caused by ivory hunters and human population pressure.

In 1997 Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton established the Research Centre in Samburu to study the elephants that frequent the reserve and range beyond it. Four years later Oria opened Eco Camp, Elephant Watch, where guests can go out daily to spend intimate hours with the known elephants. Changila was one of the few remaining big bulls in the area, but was killed for its ivory in 2013. 


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Last modified: Saturday, 18 March 2017