Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton

I chose Zoology at Oxford as it was a passport to a way of life I wanted to live, a life in the African bush studying animals and securing their future. When I was young I told my mother I was going to live and work with animals in Africa.  She said “First you’re going to Oxford, and then I don’t care what you do”.  So I was lucky to get in and read Zoology.
When I finally got to Oxford I was enchanted by the old Victorian university museum which housed the Zoology Department.  I loved college life and my best friends were lawyers, classicists, historians, PPE, medics and a Sinologist, but no zoologist. It was at the department I made my zoological friends.  My courses were astonishingly broad.  We were taught by learned professors the entire animal kingdom, from the dawn of life, through varied and weird extinct creatures, into the evolution of all modern life forms, mammals, birds, strange wormlike creatures, spiders and insects and all related to each other, industriously finding what they needed to survive and propagate, or replace those that had gone extinct.
What I enjoyed most about my degree course was beginning to understood how evolution works, and having ecological and behavioral concepts revealed by brilliant lecturers and in tutorials. I wondered how successful I might be in living with animals in the wild and preventing or delaying their extinction.  One of the most useful skills I acquired was to think critically, to question conventional wisdom, and not to be afraid of asking obvious questions that might bore down to the truth.
My lucky break was to be put in contact, through a friend of an Oxford friend, with the Director of Tanzania National Parks, and to be accepted as an intern to the Serengeti in 1963. The experience of working in the vast plains with hundreds of thousands of animals fired me up to complete my finals and led me into a lifetime career.  Thanks to what I learnt at the Zoology department I went to Lake Manyara national park in Tanzania, as a Royal Society Leverhulme scholar spending my first postgraduate year in the tropics studying elephants. Luckily no one had made a systematic behavior study of elephants in the wild and I followed elephants by car and on foot learning to recognize them as individuals, and gaining a healthy respect for matriarchal leaders when they imagined I was a threat to their families and acted accordingly.
Nearly five years of studying elephant behavior and ecology was a pure delight. I acquired a soul mate and a family and returned to Oxford to write up a D.Phil and have stayed with elephants ever since.  Studies gave way to endeavors to secure them a future.  Along with that goal came the need to care about those people who share the elephants range.  I have flown all across Africa in the elephants’ tracks.  It has been very sad at times with elephants decimated by ivory poachers, but it has always been fascinating and I have had to learn to talk with everyone from tribesmen, to soldiers at road blocks, to politicians and to the aspiring educated people living in African cities.
The advice I have for prospective students aspiring to read for biology at Oxford is to venture everything for the opportunity, to caste your fate to the winds and have a go.  Nothing ventured nothing gained, and to gain the Oxford experience and to get to know the marvelous Oxford biology community is a rare fortune that will live with you all your life.  I’m still an associate member of the department and my Oxford link has always been at the core of my work.
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