The Elephant Watch Portfolio embodies the passion and continuing life’s work of a unique Kenyan family with ancestral roots in Europe and four generations of history in East Africa. At its head is the matriarch, Oria Douglas-Hamilton, and her husband, Iain, founder of the conservation charity Save the Elephants. Oria’s father came from Naples and her mother from Paris, but in the 1920s, after having walked with porters all the way from Congo, the family put down their African roots on the shores of Lake Naivasha, building Olerai farmhouse and the family’s Art Deco residence, Sirocco.
Oria grew up here with her siblings as children of nature. Her mother, Giselle – a sculptress and pupil of Auguste Rodin – and father, Mario Rocco, built up a productive farm that lasted until 1993 when Oria turned it into a wildlife sanctuary, now home to zebra, buffalo, giraffe, leopard and colobus monkeys. The old farmhouse was extended and modernised, becoming a country lodge that is bedecked with flowering creepers. Across the sanctuary is Sirocco, emerging from between giant fig trees like an enchanted Italian palazzo. Close by, tucked away amongst yellow fever trees, is Giselle’s art studio – known as The Cabin – where she spent many years creating her unique portraits of Kenyan people as they were in the 1930s, adorned with beads, feathers and skins. Each house is beautifully furnished, the atmosphere cosy, the vista a constantly changing theatre of nature and colour.
Soon after, Oria created Elephant Watch Camp on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro river in Samburu National Reserve, one of the few places in the world where you can have unusually close encounters with elephants. Iain, now a world-renowned elephant conservationist, had already built the Save the Elephants research centre just downstream. Out walking along the riverbank, Oria discovered an idyllic spot with huge spreading Acacia and Kigelia trees, where elephants rest in the shade or feast on seed pods by the tents. Visitors often ask Oria where else they should go in Africa. From this was born her specialised travel advisory business, based on a lifetime of journeys and adventure. Bespoke Safaris is her way of passing on her secrets.
Elephant Watch Portfolio started with Oria and Iain’s decision to return the family farm in Naivasha to nature, creating the sanctuary that became Olerai. From those beginnings have sprung the eco-luxury of Elephant Watch Camp and the bespoke services of Boutique Safaris.
Oria and Iain’s 50 years of dedication to elephant research and conservation started in Manyara National Park, Tanzania, in the mid 1960’s, when Iain, freshly graduated from Oxford University, came to do his pioneering DPhil on the social behaviour of wild African elephants. Unfortunately, a sudden and unexpected increase in the price of ivory in the mid 1970s, forced the Douglas-Hamiltons to give up their research and commit the next 15 years of their lives to a frontline battle to save Africa’s elephants. In one decade, between 1979 and 1989 more than 600,000 elephants were killed for their ivory in Africa, reducing the total elephant population by half. It was Iain’s hard data on elephant numbers from his pan-African aerial census, counting both live and dead elephants, which eventually persuaded the world to ban the international trade in ivory in 1989.
After this, Iain was able to return to his behavioural research and celebrate a ceasefire on elephants that lasted twenty years. He set up Save the Elephants in 1993, building his research centre in Samburu four years later, while Oria focussed on her bespoke tourism business striving to create the ultimate in eco-travel and chic.
Their eldest daughter, Saba, is a well known TV presenter and producer of wildlife documentaries, as well as a popular public speaker who is passionately dedicated to wildlife conservation. Mara has worked both in the documentary film world as a producer, and in political risk as a company director with an expertise in emerging African economies. Both daughters have been working closely with Oria to further evolve the Elephant Watch Portfolio.