Elephant expert opens Woods series

Iain Douglas-Hamilton opened Butler University’s J. James Woods Lectures in the Sciences and Mathematics on Monday.

Douglas-Hamilton is a leading conservationist for African elephants who founded Save the Elephants in 1993 and is recent a winner of the 2010 Indianapolis Prize for his lifetime achievements.

Douglas-Hamilton began his work after completing his doctorate from Oxford University through pioneering research on the social behavior of elephants.

He was the first to alert the world to the ivory poaching holocaust.

He also published two award-winning books, “Among the Elephants,” and “Battle for the Elephants,” with the help of his wife Oria.

Beyond that, he has also produced several documentary films about African elephants.

During his lecture, videos, pictures and personal experience allowed Douglas-Hamilton to bring Africa to Butler.

He had a lot to share from rare video footage of an elephant birth to unique stories of raising his two daughters in Africa.

While his stories and visuals were entertaining, at the core of his lecture, Douglas-Hamilton’s speech packed an important message on the conservation of elephants.

Nearly 20 years ago, he said the high price of ivory was devastating to elephant populations in Africa and the nation lost nearly half of its animals to poaching.

“Africa’s most famous national parks were littered with elephant carcasses,” Douglas-Hamilton said.

In 1989, Kenya led the way in a “protest of sorts,” by burning a massive stock of the ivory tusks, he said.

At that time, Douglas-Hamilton was already involved in putting an end to the poaching—chronicling how Africa’s elephant population was halved between 1979 and 1989 and helping to bring about the world ivory trade ban.

After the ban lessened the effects of poaching, Douglas-Hamilton said he was able to focus on the topics that really interested him—elephant population trends, movements and social behavior. He founded Save the Elephants and began research on a national reserve in northern Kenya.

The organization follows 50 different elephant families. Researchers take notes and study the animals every single day, he said.

The organization also worked with the BBC to make the documentary, “The Secret Lives of Elephants,” in which researchers explain elephant behavior and their striking similarities to humans.

Douglas-Hamilton said one of the most challenging obstacles the organization has recently faced is trying to keep the elephants away from trampling and eating local village crops.

“These huge animals are moving through their fields and homes and it’s scary to the villagers who are unarmed,” he said.

Douglas-Hamilton said his organization developed a natural method to keep the elephants away from the continued from page 3

villages by relying on the Kenyan myth that elephants will flee from buzzing bees.

He said researchers captured African honeybee hives and moved them to form a wall along the fields. The hives were attached by a thin wire that would shake slightly and cause the bees to buzz when elephants attempted to cross the fields. The elephants would then immediately turn around and eventually stopped coming into the fields, he said.

Research like this has been vital in helping elephant and human interactions become much less violent because it has raised local awareness of the elephants.

“The key element will be to get a good relationship with the local people,” Douglas-Hamilton said. “I’m a huge believer in international conservation of animals and not just a particular group.”

Students that attended the event said they enjoyed the variety of research and the realistic aspects of the lecture.

“I thought the birth video was very interesting—gross, but very cool,” freshman David Promisel said.

Douglas-Hamilton said the price of ivory is rising again and illegal poaching is once more becoming popular.

He said his organization is working with locals to combat the elephant deaths.

“I learned a lot that I never knew before, definitely about the ivory trade and poaching. I feel inspired to go save the elephants,” freshman Megan Donisch said.

Along with speaking at Butler, Douglas-Hamilton has spoken at the Wildlife Conservation Network Conference, the 7th Annual World Wilderness Conference and he was a keynote speaker at the International Elephant Foundation Conference.

Having the opportunity to win the Indianapolis Prize and work with the Indianapolis Zoo has been very beneficial to both he and his team in these rough times, he said.

“The Indianapolis prize is something that really boosted our morale and we were very honored to accept it,” Douglas-Hamilton said. “The boost it gave us was felt by all of our team members.”

Stories from Africa: Iain Douglas-Hamilton shared stories of his time in Africa with his wife and two children while educating his audience about the importance of African elephant conservation. (Photo by Rachel Senn)

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