By Richard Lofthouse

We snatch half an hour and a coffee in Notting Hill’s Au Bon Pain. Iain Douglas Hamilton is debonair, and animated, and when I arrive he is already talking to an Oxford-based trustee of Save the Elephants and a documentary film-maker. The celebrated founder of Save the Elephants is halfway between his Kenyan base and a fundraising itinerary in the States that would kill many men half his age – so there is no time to lose in getting to the point.

I am ignorant of elephants but have seen them in the wild in Kenya. That was only in 2013. How many of the elephants I photographed then are still alive now? Somewhere between the glossy tourist brochures and reality, says Iain, ‘there is a terrible massacre of elephants going on right in our midst, now, and since 2009.’

In 2011 alone, approximately 40,000 African elephants were illegally poached to fuel an enormous and illicit ivory trade to China. Including natural mortality, this amounted to a decrease of the global elephant population in a single year of two to three per cent.

On that basis, and given an estimated 400,000–500,000 African elephants and perhaps 20,000 in Asia (including a few in China), elephants could largely disappear in the wild in our lifetime.

What to do? Iain, pictured here with our latest issue of Oxford Today, has not lost hope for one major reason. Whereas Japan drove the ‘first elephant holocaust’ in the 1970s and ’80s, attitudes there have completely changed. Ivory is no competition for the latest iPhone among young Japanese consumers. The same awareness-raising has to happen in China very quickly, says Iain, to tackle the root of demand.

He adds that the legislative, political and economic side of the problem is all fair game too. He recently hosted Hong Kong legislator Elizabeth Quat in Kenya. A convert to the cause – and no one who has been introduced to an baby elephant orphaned by the poaching of its mother is not a convert – is trying to close down Hong Kong as a port of entry for ivory to mainland China and ban all sale of ivory within this special region of China.

Also, says Iain, ‘It is pointless stigmatizing the Chinese. When they come to watch elephants in Africa, as increasingly they do, they have exactly the same reaction as European tourists. They become instant converts to conservation and find the very idea of poaching abhorrent.’

The current holocaust results from the exploitation by Chinese authorities of a small loophole in a global ivory trade ban dating back to 1989. In 2009, there were small stocks of ‘legitimate’ ivory sold to Japan, and then to China in a second sale. But as soon as this trade was permitted, it was impossible to distinguish between legitimate ivory and poached, illegal ivory. Very rapidly, the burgeoning wealth of China came to bear directly on elephants, which since then have been poached in terrifying numbers.

There is a distinguished and dignified Oxford component to the history of elephant studies, a field which Iain is credited with creating back in the 1960s. The chairman of Save the Elephants is none other than Professor Fritz Vollrath, whose research into the material properties of silk at the Department of Zoology are featured in the current print edition of Oxford Today.

We are hoping to return to this at greater length in a future issue. For here, over our fast espressi, Iain’s central point is the importance of science – whether it is studying known individual elephants over time (the start of it all fifty years ago) or developing a Cold War radiation measuring technique to quickly prove whether a piece of ivory is pre-ban or illegal. If you visit the website of Save the Elephants there is a wealth of collaborative research and cutting-edge scientific papers by Douglas Hamilton and colleagues.

All the more amazing that when I see Iain again on his return leg, $2million has been raised for the cause, via celebrity dinners and impassioned speech making. If they could have seen it, the elephants would have trumpeted their support.

 Photograph of Iain Douglas Hamilton by Richard Lofthouse. African elephant by  Arno Meintjes via Flickr, under Creative Commons licence.