Published: September 2008
Family Ties
The Elephants of Samburu
By David Quammen
National Geographic Contributing Writer
Update: The riverside research station of Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Save the Elephants, in northern Kenya, was destroyed on the morning of March 4, 2010 by a flash flood, which resulted from a storm many miles upstream. Although no one was killed, due to hasty evacuation, buildings and equipment were wrecked, computers and cameras were washed away, and some precious data were lost. The nearby tourist camp of Douglas-Hamilton's wife Oria, Elephant Watch, and seven other lodges were also devastated. Readers who wish to help the rebuilding effort can do so through the website

The biologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton is walking up on an elephant, a sizable young female, nubile and shy. Her name, as she's known to him and his colleagues, is Anne. She stands half-concealed within a cluster of trees on the knob of a hill in remote northern Kenya, browsing tranquilly with several members of her family. Around her neck hangs a stout leather collar along which, at the crest of her shoulders, like a tiny porkpie hat, sits an electronic transmitter. That transmitter has allowed Douglas-Hamilton, flying in by Cessna, proceeding here on foot through the tall grass and acacia scrub, to find her. Crouching now, he approaches upwind to within 30 yards. Anne gobbles some more leaves. She's oblivious to him, or maybe just not interested.

Elephants can be dangerous animals. They are excitable, complex, and sometimes violently defensive. Douglas-Hamilton is a world-renowned expert who has studied them for 40 years. Don't try this at home.

He wants a clear look at the collar. He has heard reports that it may be too tight—that she has grown into it since having been tranquilizer-darted, fitted, and thus recruited as a source of research data. Ordinarily, Douglas-Hamilton does his elephant-watching more cautiously, from the safe containment of a Land Cruiser, but no vehicle can drive this terrain, and Anne's comfort and health are at issue. The collar should hang loose, with a dangling counterweight below. He wants to be sure that Anne's isn't snugged up to her throat like a noose. But at present, amid the thicket, she's showing him only her imperious elephantine butt. So he creeps closer.

Three other men lag back. One is David Daballen, a bright young Samburu protégé of Douglas-Hamilton's, who often accompanies the boss on missions like this. The second man is a local guide holding a Winchester .308 rifle. The third is me. As we watch Douglas-Hamilton edging forward, we notice another female elephant, a big one, probably the group's matriarch, sidling around craftily on his right flank. We duck low to escape the matriarch's view. We freeze. As this female comes on, suspicious and challenging, Douglas-Hamilton seems unconcerned with her, but Daballen begins to look nervous. He is calculating (he'll tell me later) how fast an elephant might be able to charge across such a rocky, rubble-strewn slope.

Then the big female commits herself to a sequence of gestures suggesting nonchalance, if not outright contempt: She pisses torrentially, she defecates galumphingly, and she turns away.

Anne herself swings daintily out of the brush. She steps toward Douglas-Hamilton. The gap between them is 50 feet. For a few seconds the young female graces him with a frontal view of her large forehead, her flappy ears, her pretty tusks, as though posing for beauty shots in the glow of a flash. She gives him a profile. He raises his camera and clicks off several frames. Then she too turns and ambles away. Through his lens, in those seconds, he has seen that the collar hangs just as it should. The alarm was a false one. Anne is in no danger—or anyway, no danger of chafing or choking.

As we withdraw, circling back toward our vehicle, I think: So that's how it's done. Show a little caution, a little respect, get the information you need, back off. And everybody is happy. After four decades Douglas-Hamilton knows this species about as well as anyone in Africa. He has a keen sense, well earned by field study and sharpened by love, of the individuality of the animals—their volatile moods, their subtle signals, their range of personalities and impulses. Nothing about his interaction with Anne has prepared me for the moment, some weeks later, when I'll watch him charged, caught, thrown, and nearly tusked through the gut by an elephant.

SOON WE'RE ALOFT again in Douglas-Hamilton's Cessna, flying low over the contours of the landscape. It's his preferred style, flying low; why go up a thousand feet when you can caress the topography? So we rise and descend gently over the rocky slopes, the ridges, the dry acacia plains, the sand rivers, returning northeast toward a place called Samburu National Reserve. Just beyond the reserve sits a gravel airstrip and, not far from that, his field camp. We'll be home before dark.

Samburu National Reserve is one of the little known jewels of northern Kenya, taking its name from the proud tribe of warriors and pastoralists in which David Daballen, among others, has his roots. The reserve is a relatively small area, just 65 square miles of semiarid savanna, rough highlands, dry washes (known locally as luggas), and riparian forests of acacia and doom palm along the north bank of the Ewaso Ngiro River. Lacking paved roads, sparsely surrounded by Samburu herders, it teems with wildlife. There are lions, leopards, and cheetahs, of course, but also Grevy's zebras, reticulated giraffes, beisa oryx, gerenuks, Somali ostriches, kori bustards, and a high diversity of showy smaller birds such as wattled starlings, pin-tailed whydahs, and lilac-breasted rollers. But the dominant creatures are the elephants. They play a major role in shaping the ecosystem itself—stripping bark from trees or uprooting them, keeping the savanna open. They intimidate even the lions. They come and go across the boundaries of the reserve, using it as a safe haven from human-related dangers in a much larger and more ambivalent landscape.

The larger landscape includes all of Samburu District (within which the reserve lies) and parts of three other districts, most notably Laikipia, a high-elevation patchwork of private ranches and sanctuaries, community conservation areas, wheat fields, fences, mountain slopes, stream valleys, roads, and shambas (small family farms) just to the south. In Laikipia, zones of wildlife habitat, crop production, cattle husbandry, and human habitation are juxtaposed like a spilled box of multicolored mosaic tiles. Samburu, by contrast, has fewer shambas and scarcely any fences. The Samburu people, who speak a dialect of the Maa language, have shown little inclination to surrender their traditional ways—tending goats and cattle, costuming themselves resplendently (especially the young men) in beads and feathers and red shukas (blankets), exchanging raids against their ancient enemies—in favor of modern, pusillanimous practices such as growing crops. Their traditionalism, along with a shortage of good soils and water and a growing awareness of the economic benefits of tourism, has so far spared Samburu District from the sort of intensive land conversion seen in parts of Laikipia. The combined Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem comprises roughly 11,000 square miles, and within it live about 5,400 elephants—the largest population of Loxodonta Africana existing mainly outside protected areas anywhere in Kenya.

That population size and its current growth (at perhaps several percent a year) reflect the fact that Samburu-Laikipia is a productive, hospitable landscape for elephants, but two other adjectives are also applicable: edgy and complicated. Within the mosaic of mixed uses and shifting seasonal conditions, elephants face certain risks. So do people. Conflicts occur, resulting occasionally in a crop devastated by raiding elephants, or a cow killed, or an elephant shot, or a person trampled and tusked. And with Kenya's human population also growing by more than 2 percent annually, the potential for such conflicts can only increase. Decisions will be made about what should be protected (elephant travel corridors? cornfields? the right of people to continue establishing new farms?) and what must be sacrificed. Douglas-Hamilton's goal is to supply the makers of those decisions with scientific information more detailed and more timely, and therefore more useful, than any hitherto available. It's not precisely the same research agenda with which he began his career, but it's in the same spirit. It's where the contours of the landscape have led him.

"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?

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.

"It was a dreadful time. I really spent a terrible 20 years doing that," he says now. His dangerous, gloomy work helped immeasurably to support the 1989 decision under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to outlaw the international sale of ivory. But on a personal level, it cost him—anxiety, years of his life, time away from his daughters, and time away from living elephants.

One of his colleagues in Kenya, Cynthia Moss, herself a highly respected elephant behavioralist, called my attention to that last category of cost. It's so important for an elephant researcher, she said, during a lunch in Nairobi, to be in the presence of known individual animals. Flying is useful, counting is useful, but those are no substitute for close, prolonged observation. Moss began her own career, back in 1968, as a research assistant to Douglas-Hamilton at Manyara, and she feels an old friend's sympathetic concern. "He didn't really come back to ground," she told me, "until he started up in Samburu."

HIS WORK in Samburu National Reserve has reflected a new role in Douglas-Hamilton's life: mentoring young scientists. He came, in 1997, along with a student he had placed there.

The student was George Wittemyer, an American Fulbright scholar who wanted to study elephant social relations. By that time, Douglas-Hamilton had established his own research-and-conservation organization, Save the Elephants (STE), based in Nairobi. He supplied Wittemyer with contacts, an aegis, and a couple of used tents, with which Wittemyer set up a simple field camp along the Ewaso Ngiro River, in the shade of some large acacia trees and near a conical hill. Just as Douglas-Hamilton had done three decades earlier at Manyara, Wittemyer began learning the local elephants, sorting out their family affiliations, and naming them.

As in other elephant populations, each family was dominated and guided by a matriarch, an older female, mother or grandmother to most of the members. Wittemyer grouped the names in mnemonic familial clusters, a system that has been continued by later researchers at Samburu: the Spice Girls (including Rosemary, Basil, and Sage), the First Ladies (Eleanor, Martha, Lucy Kibaki, Jackie), the Biblical Towns (Babylon, Nazareth, Jerusalem), the Royals (Victoria, Cleopatra, Anastasia, Diana), and many others. Bulls tend to travel solitarily or in male affiliations, so the Samburu bulls are named more variously: Mungu, Gorbachev, Mountain Bull, Genghis Khan, Marley, Amadeus, etc. Roughly 900 individual elephants use the Samburu reserve in the course of a year, either as residents or as short-term visitors, and most of them are identified in STE records.

Gradually the two-tent camp became a permanent compound, ascetic but comfortable, comprising a dozen wall tents, a thatch-roofed kitchen, an office-and-dining-hall structure with a concrete floor and wireless Internet, plus outhouses and bucket showers. Douglas-Hamilton made this gracious outpost, now called Save the Elephants Camp, his base of operations.

The Save the Elephants project grew—into a doctorate for Wittemyer and a long-term monitoring program on social and spatial behavior for Save the Elephants. Other young men and women turned up, from within Kenya and far beyond, and with guidance from Douglas-Hamilton assumed a variety of responsibilities. Onesmas Kahindi, Maasai by descent but Samburu by affinity, took over the behavioral study, then found a role better suited to his gifts: gathering data on elephant mortality. Tall and charming, a natural schmoozer, Kahindi prowls the ecosystem like a traveling salesman, using records from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and his own network of local informants to guide him to every elephant carcass—both natural mortalities and elephanticides—that turns up. By documenting and tallying all those deaths, he maintains a crucial detection system (part of an international program called MIKE, meaning Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) against resurgent poaching. Henrik Rasmussen, an ecologist from Denmark, complemented Wittemyer's work on female behavior with a study of reproductive tactics among the males. David Daballen, my companion for the outing to see Anne, was a high school graduate with a Ph.D. mind, recruited by Kahindi from a group of volunteer rangers; he worked as a field assistant until Rasmussen recognized the greater scope of his potential. Daballen is now camp manager as well as co-researcher on the long-term behavioral study. Daniel Lentipo, another local Samburu, with keen eyes and a wizard memory, became the other chief research assistant on that study. Douglas-Hamilton says: "I love the interface between these high-powered, overseas scientists and the Samburus of camp."

Of the 900 elephants that pass through Samburu National Reserve, Daballen and Lentipo can each recognize about 500 individuals on sight. Having watched births, matings, deaths, and group behavior over time, they also know the family histories. Daballen can tell you, for instance, that this magnificent female on the south bank of the river, so huge she looks like a bull, is Babylon, matriarch of the Biblical Towns; that she's nearly 50 years old; and that her breasts are full because that's her young calf standing nearby, along with her older daughter and her granddaughter. He can point out a youngish female limping piteously on three legs and explain that she's Babel, of the same family, probably crippled when she was mounted too young by a bull; but that the other Biblical Towns, taking their cue from old Babylon, move slowly so that Babel can stay with them. When Daballen looks at an elephant in this ecosystem, he sees an individual with a story embedded in a matrix of relationships and other stories.

Meanwhile Douglas-Hamilton, working with still other young collaborators, concentrates on the spatial dimension—that is, the study of which elephants move where, and when—using global positioning system technology. The spatial study forms a high-tech complement to the low-tech behavioral observations.

DOUGLAS-HAMILTON REMEMBERS the first GPS unit he ever saw in action, brought to Kenya by friends in 1991 and rigged onto an airplane for use in counting elephants within Tsavo National Park. That GPS unit registered only the whereabouts of the airplane, as the plane traced the whereabouts of the animals. Still, he says, "It was quite a revelation to see how the elephants moved and circled—the patterns they adopted." The patterns were important because they reflected informed choices by the elephants as to where they might best satisfy their most urgent imperatives, finding what Douglas-Hamilton calls the three S's: sex, sustenance, and security. GPS technology now offered a way to chart such patterns in detail. "As soon as I saw one of those gadgets," he says, "I wanted to put it on an elephant."

About 20 elephants in the Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem currently wear Save the Elephants GPS collars. The latest model delivers one positional point from each elephant every hour. The technology of the new collars is not only intricate but also economical: To save expense, conserve battery power, and minimize weight, the collar mechanisms receive positional information from GPS satellites but then transmit that information by way of low-cost SMS (short message service) blurts on Safaricom, Kenya's leading cell phone network. In other words, everybody in Kenya has a mobile phone, even the elephants. A few Grevy's zebras are now also transmitting via Safaricom, and who knows what might be next—rock pythons, kori bustards, lilac-breasted rollers? For the present what this means is that each of 20 elephants sends a text message to Douglas-Hamilton's computer, each hour of every day, saying: "Iain, yo, here I am."

Save the Elephants now has GPS tracking projects under way not just in Kenya but also in Mali, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One important discovery to come from GPS tracking is what Douglas-Hamilton calls "streaking" behavior: the occasional event wherein an elephant or a group of elephants sets out at high speed and travels a long distance in a short time, from one secure area to another, by way of a perilous or at least inhospitable route. A bull known as Shadrack made such a streak—from the green highlands of the Marsabit massif through a town, across the Kaisut Desert, to the Mathews Range of north-central Kenya—covering 50 miles in 36 hours. Another elephant, a female known as Mrs. Kamau, made an even more ambitious streak from Marsabit northeastward, roughly 100 miles in 48 hours, to a solitary zone of lava-paved desert, where she somehow found water and food as well as security in a sere, ragged landscape. Still another male, Mountain Bull, performed an astonishingly discreet series of down-and-back streaks, traveling between the safe northern slopes of Mount Kenya, through a maze of villages, wheat fields, roads, and a safe area along a Laikipia canyon—making this journey not once but 14 times within the space of a year. Each of these animals was a collared representative of what was possibly a whole group of streaking elephants. Their cross-country dashes, recorded by Douglas-Hamilton's system, and interpreted by him collaboratively with a senior scientific colleague, Fritz Vollrath of Oxford University, have helped delineate crucial travel corridors within the Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem.

The data points have been accumulating—about 1.5 million of them by now, forming both the widely spaced dots reflecting high-speed travel and the less dramatic specklings representing smaller scale, quotidian movements. Software created by another young team member, Jake Wall, allows those data to be mapped and animated on Google Earth's vivid topographic Kenya. So if you are Douglas-Hamilton himself, or anyone otherwise privy to the access codes, you can turn on your computer any morning and see which of the collared animals have gone where. You might notice that Mountain Bull has streaked back to Mount Kenya; or that Jerusalem, presumably accompanied by her five-year-old calf and probably other females of the Biblical Towns, has descended from the safe hillsides south of Samburu and come to water along the Ewaso Ngiro.

And there is uptake by the decision-makers. When I visited the director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Julius Kipng' etich, at his office in Nairobi, I noticed two maps of Kenya on his wall. One was festooned with blue pins: antipoaching squads, he said. The other map was crisscrossed with squiggly lines, each line bearing a red directional arrow. "All these red arrows are elephant corridors," the director told me, then added that such data allow him to present good wildlife-management and land-protection advice to the government. As he spoke, I noticed a single red line running northeast from Marsabit far into the desert, and I thought: There goes Mrs. Kamau.

OF THE CARDINAL INCENTIVES that drive elephant behavior—that is, Douglas-Hamilton's three S's: sex, sustenance, and security—the most difficult to calibrate is the third. Finding food, finding water, and finding reproductive opportunities aren't always simple tasks, but compared with finding security they are relatively straightforward. Real security, lasting security, is more unpredictable and elusive. The local people have a word for it: neebei. Every person wants neebei—freedom from danger, menace, uncertainty, fear—and it's not anthropomorphism to say that every elephant does too.

Even in northern Kenya, even in the 21st century, with the ivory trade banned and the KWS policing against poachers, the life of an elephant (especially a bull with large tusks) can be precarious. Sometimes an animal is killed by an angry farmer who has seen a crop wrecked, or by an outraged herder who has found a precious cow fatally gored and taken vengeance on the next elephant to appear. Sometimes people still kill for ivory, blasting an elephant full of high-caliber slugs, hacking the face off to wrench out the tusks, moving that ivory into the black market. And sometimes an elephant dies an untimely death for reasons that can't be discovered. When I returned to Kenya for a second visit, after a month away, Douglas-Hamilton told me that Anne, the young female whose collar we inspected on foot, was dead.

She had been shot by persons unknown for reasons unknown. Her tusks, smallish but valuable, hadn't been taken; they were still in place when a KWS patrol found the carcass, by which point they could be pulled from the rotting skull without the need to hack. There was no trace of the perpetrator and no clue to the motive.

A week later I visited Anne's remains, this time with Onesmas Kahindi, the carcass-data man. We found her (with help from Iain, who had flown over the last GPS position and caught a glimpse of white bone) in a soggy, spring-seep valley of western Laikipia, just upstream from a rectangular lake. A cruising vulture lingered nearby, but there wasn't much left to interest it.

Anne's skull, resting beneath a yellow fever tree, was painted with bird dung. Her lower jaw, several ribs, a shoulder blade, and other bone fragments lay scattered about, along with a smear of grassy stomach contents and a patch of dried skin. Her jaw joints showed gnaw marks from a hyena. The whole area reeked of death, but approaching downwind, we hadn't smelled her until we saw her. She had been dead about three weeks. The maggots and flies, like the hyenas, had already come and gone. Kahindi measured a molar. He snapped a photo. The sky began darkening toward an afternoon shower as he recorded his data.

Anne had made her choices, and one choice brought her to this little valley, probably for its water and good grass. Whatever else she found, she hadn't found neebei, but the details of her misfortune were inscrutable. Kahindi, a tireless worker for elephant conservation but no sentimentalist, capped his pen. "Finished," he said. "OK, let's beat the rain."

IT'S ALL ABOUT CHOICES. Elephants are smart, they know what they need, and they generally know where to get it; if they don't know, their mother or grandmother will teach them. They seem to calculate risks. They can be dangerous, but they prefer to avoid conflict with other big, dangerous creatures such as lions or people. They are herbivores, after all, with no reasons to kill except defense, confusion, panic, and desperation when their needs are unmet. In the Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem they manage to live in the spaces between human farms and settlements with far lower levels of conflict and higher levels of mutual tolerance than exist in most other areas where elephants range. Douglas-Hamilton talked thoughtfully to me about such things, both before and after the day I nearly got him killed by an elephant.

It happened like this. Late one afternoon, he stopped by my tent and asked: Want to drive out and see some elephants before sunset? He often rewarded himself that way for eight hours' deskbound effort. On this occasion I said: How about a walk instead? I knew that foot travel within the reserve was generally inadvisable, but couldn't we at least climb the little conical hill just behind camp? Yes indeed, he said; and so we did. From the hill's rocky top we savored a magnificent view westward, with the brown slick of the Ewaso Ngiro winding its way downstream between banks bristling with palm and acacia. Just north of us was a larger hill, a double mound known as Sleeping Elephant. Have you ever climbed that one? I asked. No, said Douglas-Hamilton, with a mischievous glint in his eye … but we could.

Thus we set out on foot toward Sleeping Elephant: two middle-aged white men and a young Samburu from the camp crew, a skinny lad named Mwaniki, in his beads and his shuka, whom Douglas-Hamilton asked to tag along. We walked only five minutes through the high, sparse brush before we saw elephants ahead: a female with two calves. We paused, admiring them from a safe distance until they seemed to withdraw, and then we went on. Seconds later Mwaniki muttered a warning, and we looked up to see the female glowering at us from 70 yards away. Her ears were spread wide. She was agitated. Seventy yards might sound like a long distance, but in personal space for an elephant, it isn't. Trumpeting vehemently, she charged.

I turned and ran like a fool. Mwaniki turned and ran like a gazelle. Douglas-Hamilton turned and ran—then thought better of it, turned, threw his arms out, and hollered to stop her. Sometimes this works; some elephants (such as old Boadicea, back at Manyara) make bluff charges, or half-hearted ones, and can be halted by a gutsy challenge. But this charge wasn't bluff. The female honked again and kept coming. Douglas-Hamilton turned again and ran.

By this time I had a 20-step lead and Mwaniki was gone. At the rate he'd been moving, he might have been halfway to Lamu. But no: He ran straight back into camp (we learned afterward) and shouted in Samburu: "Etara lpayian ltome!" Meaning: The old man has been killed by an elephant! This announcement, though premature, brought people back to the scene fast.

Meanwhile the elephant caught Douglas-Hamilton as he tried to evade her by circling a bush. From 50 feet away I watched her lift him with her trunk and then toss him, as you'd toss dirt off a shovel. He uttered a single piteous word: "Help." She stepped forward and stabbed her tusks downward. Douglas-Hamilton's body was now obscured by tall grass, and I couldn't see whether she had nailed him. Then she backed off about ten steps and paused. This was the moment, he told me later, when he had time to wonder whether he would die.

She turned away. She marched off to find her calves.

I ran back to Douglas-Hamilton, and to my surprise, his innards weren't hanging out like ratatouille. He was scratched, dazed, bruised, rumpled; his shoes, glasses, and watch were gone; but he was OK. I felt all over his rib cage: no tusk holes. Between us, we got him to his feet. And then a dozen people arrived, running and driving from camp. Someone found his glasses and shoes. The watch was busted but ticking. Quickly we vacated the area, lest the elephant change her mind and come back.

In the aftermath Douglas-Hamilton and I pieced together what had happened. There was much relief, much apologizing (especially by me, for getting us out there on foot, but he wouldn't hear of that and claimed the blame himself), and much hypothesizing. With help from Daballen and Lentipo, he established that this female must have been Diana, of the Royals, with her two youngish calves. Maybe we startled her because the wind had been at her back; therefore she couldn't smell us before we got near. Maybe she feared for her calves. Maybe she had been put on edge by a pushy bull, or a lion, just before we blundered along. Is there anything in the records on Diana, he asked his people, that would suggest a recalcitrant disposition? There was not.

Diana. She was "just" another elephant: sensitive, volatile, and complex. Her behavior that afternoon, though violent, had been nuanced. At the last moment she made a choice. She chose not to kill him. And no one, not even Iain Douglas-Hamilton, with all his magical gadgetry and his hard-won knowledge, will ever know why.