“Fear is what you feel at night when you have come to your senses,” says Saba Douglas-Hamilton. The young anthropologist props her chin on a slender, bronzed wrist and fixes me with intense hazel eyes. “My biggest fear is that we don’t wake up in time to this insatiable devouring of natural resources and pollution that threatens every lifeline, and we lose everything.”
The naturalist – once described as having the “effortless sex appeal of a young Anna Ford” – captivated the powers that be at the Natural History Unit when she arrived with her father, the zoologist Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton, in 2001. Since then she has fronted series such as Big Cat Diary, which she says was “quite macho” before she came into it. “It was two men out in the bush. When I came in, it did soften a bit, and people realised that, actually, girls can do this too.”
She is fresh from filming a three-part BBC series The Secret Life of Elephants, about her father’s Kenyan-based charity, Save the Elephants. As a graduate she trained with Blythe Loutit, the revered rhino conservationist, in the Namibian desert. Loutit, who dedicated her life to pulling the last of the desert-adapted rhinos from the brink of extinction, was “a real eco-warrior who lived on absolutely nothing”.
Her take on the emotions and awareness that large mammals display attracts vast audiences. Elephants, for example, have traits such as empathy and a sense of mortality, and plan for the future in a way that “makes them a lot more like us than we think”. At present, she says, of all the money given to animal charities, most goes to domestic pets. She hopes, by helping people to engage with wild animals, to redress the balance. “The rhino, for example, may look like a throwback from a prehistoric era, but it thinks and feels and does things for intelligent reasons.”
Douglas-Hamilton bases herself on the outskirts of Nairobi in her “biodegradable house” – a ramshackle hut that she built with her husband, Frank Pope, a writer and marine archeologist. “It’s easy to forget how lifestyle affects the environment – eating Chilean sea bass or buying ivory. Don’t buy ivory! It equals dead elephants, most often killed illegally. If you like sushi or tinned tuna, be aware of what species you are eating, where they come from and how they are fished. I feel very strongly that we need to bring a stronger conservation ethic back into making films, how we’re selling stories, how we’re awakening people’s consciences.”
She grew up in the Kenyan wilderness with her younger sister, Dudu. Her father introduced her to their extended family of 400 elephants at just six weeks old – so understanding animals is second nature. “I find human beings far more scary than animals because they are much more unpredictable,” she says. She likens film crews to “parasites. We go out there, find the best stories, suck out all the information, take beautiful images and then leave. The scientists who are there day in, day out, collecting data and finding those stories are the real heroes. Like rangers taking bullets from poachers, they are in the front line. My job is to link these worlds. What I love is to bring the wilderness into people’s sitting rooms and then, hopefully, they’ll feel a passion for what’s going on”.