"IF YOU HAD ASKED ME, when I was ten years old, what I wanted to do," Douglas-Hamilton says, "I'd have said: I want to have an airplane; I want to fly around Africa and save the animals."
Aviation was part of his lineage. His father, Lord David Douglas-Hamilton, had commanded a Spitfire squadron in the Battle of Malta and then died on a reconnaissance mission later in World War II; his three uncles had also been distinguished Royal Air Force (RAF) fliers. One of those uncles had earlier become the first man to pilot an open-cockpit biplane (he was dressed warmly) over the summit of Mount Everest, just for the sheer glorious hell of doing it. After the war Iain's mother was remarried, to a kindly man who read Iain stories about Africa and who took the family to live in Cape Town, then died abruptly himself. At age 13, Iain found himself back in Britain at a Scottish boarding school, nurturing dreams of a getaway. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he would have joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve, following the path of his father and uncles, but poor vision disqualified him. Zoology, fortunately, didn't require 20/20 eyesight.
"Science for me was a passport to the bush," he says, "not the other way around. I became a scientist so I could live a life in Africa and be in the bush." Almost wistfully, he adds, "I would've liked to have been a game warden." But for a young Scotsman who spoke no Swahili, in the early 1960s, just before Kenyan independence, such a civil employment position was out. So he went to Tanzania as a research volunteer and then was offered a project in a small area called Lake Manyara National Park. With a bit of money from selling some inherited stock, he bought himself an old 150-horsepower Piper Pacer, nimble enough for tracking big animals, and learned by trial and error to land it on rocky airstrips.
There at Manyara, Douglas-Hamilton did the first serious study of elephant social structure and spatial behavior (where they go, how long they stay) using radio telemetry. It earned him a doctorate at Oxford. He also became the first student of elephants to focus closely on living individuals, not just trends within populations or the analysis of dead specimens. He used photographic records of visual patterns—unique ear notches and perforations, tusk shapes—for identification of animals in the field. He got to know the elephants one by one, noted their individuating traits, gave them names, watched their social interactions. He had a favorite named Boadicea, a great matriarch with long tusks that converged almost to a point, who made emphatic threat charges but whose bluff could be called by standing firm. There was another, a one-tusked female he called Virgo, very different from Boadicea, who acquired the habit of approaching his vehicle and reaching out toward Douglas-Hamilton with her trunk. After four years of slowly decreasing wariness, she would greet him with raised trunk and let him tickle her on its sensitive underside. He witnessed the infancy of a male named N'Dume, born to a female called Slender Tusks; he watched the calf learn to suckle, to use his trunk efficiently for grazing, and (on pain of chastisement) to avoid collapsing the water holes his mother had dug. Noticing the distinct traits of individuals and the generalized patterns within a population, Douglas-Hamilton began to wonder about motivations. What did elephants need? What did they want? How did their movements on the landscape reflect those cravings? What sort of choices did they make?