He married a Kenyan-born Italian beauty named Oria Rocco and took her back to the Tanzanian bush, where she shared his field life and his passion for elephants. Together, during the 1970s, they produced one best-selling book, Among the Elephants, and two luminous daughters. Photos from the time show Iain Douglas-Hamilton as a thin young man with wild, sun-bleached hair and nerdy glasses, wearing bush shorts and boots, sometimes a field vest but no shirt, deeply tanned, living a dashing life in the midst of friendly pachyderms: an amalgam of Tarzan, Clark Kent, and Doctor Doolittle.
Then came the grim years of the late 1970s and '80s, when Douglas-Hamilton played a lead role in raising the alarm against an ugly development—the wholesale slaughter of African elephants. Killing elephants for their tusks wasn't new, of course. People have been doing that ever since the invention of the spear. But this modern phase, driven by a sudden sharp rise in the price of ivory and made gruesomely efficient by automatic weapons, was on a different scale. Between 1970 and 1977, according to one assessment, Kenya lost more than half its 120,000 elephants. Ivory exports from the continent—just the legal exports to major markets, not even considering small markets or smuggling—totaled about two million pounds a year. Based on that weight of tusks, Douglas-Hamilton calculated elephant losses throughout Africa at somewhere above 100,000 animals annually. He decided to do something.
With funding from several conservation NGOs, Douglas-Hamilton organized a hugely ambitious survey to gauge the status of elephant populations throughout the continent. He mailed out questionnaires to field biologists, game wardens, conservationists, and other well-informed people, asking for their counts or best estimates of local and regional populations, and he flew surveys himself. From the results, compiled in 1979, he figured that Africa then contained about 1.3 million elephants. It might seem like a sizable number, but there was a devil in the details; the trend lines pointed down. African elephants were dying at an unsustainable rate, Douglas-Hamilton concluded, putting the viability of their populations at risk.
Some experts in the field disagreed, arguing that elephant populations were doing just fine, or at least that Douglas-Hamilton's data were unreliable. Those disagreements eventually carried through the 1980s in a series of contentious meetings and bureaucratic battles that became known as the Ivory Wars. (Management of elephant populations is still a complex and contentious matter; see the Elephant Management story.) Meanwhile Douglas-Hamilton had set aside his behavioral studies and spent years investigating the status of beleaguered elephant populations in Zaire, South Africa, Gabon, and elsewhere, both by overflying to count animals and by amateur sleuthing on the ground. He went to the Central African Empire, nosed into the ivory trade there, and left quickly when the emperor, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, began to get curious about this visiting elephantologist. He flew into Uganda amid the turmoil after Idi Amin's fall, and saw bullet-riddled elephant carcasses littering the national parks.