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An elephant in Samburu, Kenya; Photograph by Kim Havell

Save the Elephants: Challenge 21 Climbers Find the Other Side of Wild

Chuck Yaeger stops by my tent at 4:30 a.m. Yaeger, a wild elephant that occasionally roams the Elephant Watch Camp for its tree snacks (seed pods), is a large bull. He is five feet from my head. I lay flat and quiet. Elephants can smell but have poor eyesight. A powerful step or sweep of his trunk could hurt. A long 45 minutes later, he rambles away. I breathe a sigh of relief.

That morning at breakfast, our team of six climbers realizes that we each got a visit. Elephant expert, patriarch, and founder of Save the Elephants, Iain Douglas-Hamilton gives us the scoop. Yaeger swings through and never does anything destructive. But, he could. “Best not to surprise him”, Iain offers.

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Climber-photographer Jake Norton (left) and conservationist Iain Douglas-Hamilton; Photograph by Kim Havell

In July, our team climbed numerous high points on the Mt. Kenya massif as part of Challenge 21, a climbing initiative that is raising money and awareness for Water For People (WFP). With teammates that included world-class climber and photographer Jake Norton and photojournalist Pete McBride, we traced the path of Kenya’s main water supply from its origins at the highest points of Mt. Kenya through its mid-point in wild bush country in the Samburu Reserve to its dissipation in the lowest point in the slums of Nairobi. Norton and McBride filmed and documented our discoveries on behalf of WFP, an organization that works to develop innovative and long-lasting solutions to the water, sanitation, and hygiene problems in the developing world.

Our colorful climbing entourage also incorporated DuDu Douglas-Hamilton and Frank Pope, members of the Save the Elephants clan. Arriving at their bush “eco-hotel” known as Elephant Watch Camp, the mesmerizing Douglas-Hamilton family shared raw stories of life on the front lines in the bush and guided our exploration of water in relation to both the wildlife and the tribes in northern Kenya.

The family is renowned and revered in conservation circles. Iain’s efforts alone have spanned 50 years of observing and protecting wild elephants in their natural habitat. Oria Douglas-Hamilton, Iain’s wife and a second generation Kenyan, oversees day-to-day operations at camp along with two sensational daughters, Dudu and Saba, and their local Samburu staff. DuDu and Saba were raised amongst warriors and wildlife. They roamed barefoot, exploring the wildest parts of Kenya, playing with the Samburu and staying clear of the banks of the Ewaso Ng’rio River that teems with crocodiles.

The lives of the Douglas-Hamiltons are dedicated to education and conservation, and they use every platform possible, from field to film work, for their message to protect elephants. Poaching is the biggest threat to the wildlife in the bush. Asia is the main culprit. Rhinos and elephants are being killed illegally for their tusks. Ivory trade is a top offender, along with those who believe rhino tusk contains cancer-fighting medicinal power. There is unrest on the reserves due to both the attacks and the protection of these animals.

Iain was the first to alert the world to the elephant poaching “holocaust.” He has been instrumental in attempts to impose a global ivory ban. In 2010, he was awarded “The Order of the Golden Ark,” which is the most prestigious honor for conservationists. In 1993 Iain founded Save the Elephants to create visibility for elephants and their fragile existence. The organization manages habitat protection, research, grass roots involvement, and it disseminates information through television, films, publications and new media sources.

As wildlife conservationists from birth, both daughters are involved in the mission to preserve and protect. Saba, the eldest, took her passions to the BBC as a co-presenter of Big Cat Diaries series and DuDu, the youngest, has been involved with wildlife conservation filming as a producer for industry players like Paramount. Kenya is in their blood and the women thrive in their unpredicatable escapades. As DuDu shares with our team, “The crazy, wild, lawless north! I love it so.”

2011 was the worst year on record for poaching in Africa. But earlier attacks also left big scars. From 1979 to 1989, the elephant population in Africa was halved. Even with the seemingly added protection within the reserves, these giants are severely threatened. Chinese basketball star, Yao Ming, just visited Elephant Watch Camp with the Douglas-Hamiltons. With his star power, Ming has single-handedly helped to reverse environmental transgressions in his country via education and awareness. This one visit is one more attempt to save the elephants and rhinos from their increasingly precarious position.

Yao Ming’s new commercial for Wild Aid: 

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