Published: September 2008

Africa's Elephants

Elephant Flowers

Africa's Elephants: Can They Survive?

(Originally published in the November 1980 issue of National Geographic)

Wildlife consultants Oria and Iain Douglas-Hamilton tally the continent's embattled giants, documenting the havoc wreaked by ivory hunters and human population pressure.

By Oria Douglas-Hamilton
Photograph by Oria and Iain Douglas-Hamilton

In the immense silence of dawn, before the sun rose and burned the skies, I watched through the opening of our tent the morning beauty of an untouched place, and dreamed how lucky we were to be here in one of the strongholds of the elephant in Africa.

Then, across the hills of Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, a gunshot echoed and broke all dreams. A terrible stillness followed; then two, three, four shots blasted out and set my heart pounding. I could see an elephant limping away from a line of tents. People were running.

I fell into some clothes and ran down the green slope. The elephant was limping badly, his right side stained red. I joined some half-dressed game scouts. One, draped in a towel, held an empty gun. He was going back to his tent to get more cartridges.

The elephant kept walking away, and we, 15 of us, followed. He had such a sad look on his face—no anger or violence. His head was bobbing from side to side to keep watch on us, his trunk testing the ground ahead. The scout returned, fired, and missed; fired again and hit in the shoulder, and the blood ran through the crackly skin.

My husband, Iain, took the gun from the scout. He did not want to shoot the elephant, he hated shooting elephants, but there was no choice. Iain aimed and fired.

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