BBC:Saba Douglas-Hamilton

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Degree MA Social Anthropology
Graduation date June 1993
Company Freelance – but work mostly with the BBC Natural History Unit and Animal Planet
Job Title Wildlife presenter and documentary film producer
Finding the opportunity After I graduated from St. Andrews, I first started working in the field of conservation with Save the Rhino Trust, Namibia, then I became the Academic Director for the School for International Training, Tanzania, and later I was an anthropological consultant on an EU development project in Kenya. Each of these jobs came about through meeting people in the field or at conferences, then being interviewed or head hunted. When I joined Save the Elephants (my father’s research foundation) as their first CEO in 1997 setting up a new research centre in northern Kenya, the BBC Natural History Unit expressed an interest in filming our conservation and community work. We went for discussions in Bristol and I was spotted by a talent scout. My life as a wildlife presenter began. I’d not considered a career in television, but fronting wildlife programmes turned out to be a perfect mix of conservation, environmental advocacy, art, science and adventure. Since then I’ve broadened my work base to include producing and directing.
Application process To start work in conservation I followed my heart to the projects that interested me. There’s a lot to be said for face to face introductions and being in the right place at the right time. If you are persistent and enthusiastic, then show some initiative and make yourself indispensable once you’ve got the job, you’re there to stay.
Selection process Having established my conservation credentials initially became important as the BBC were looking for authenticity in their presenters. At their request I sent in a show-reel (cobbled together from whatever I could find) which led to a screen test in the form of a short half hour film about elephants in Kenya. It was sink or swim, but luckily they thought I had “screen presence” from the start which seemed to be reinforced by the screen test so it worked.

My best advice is to read up on your subject, be genuine and enthusiastic, and work your butt off if you get the job. As a presenter you need to be totally natural and appear to be talking to your best friend, as well as have genuine expertise in your field. The film industry is notoriously fickle so you have to be able to offer something different. Access to unusual stories through personal contacts and an ability to think laterally helps a great deal. Pursuing other interests alongside TV work is critical in case it all comes crashing down.

Why you were successful Career wise I have a tendency to go for things that interest me rather than prioritising on money-making, so one way or another all of my work experience has been useful. In general I’ve found that everything one does in life feeds back into one’s career later down the line. If you are passionate about something then you go for it hell for leather. I think I’ve been successful because I get totally wrapped up in the work I’m doing and put sweat, blood, heart and soul into it. I don’t count over time, or do weekends or holidays. But that’s the freelance world.

My anthropological training has been invaluable every step of the way. Being able to write well and produce a coherent, logical, well-argued and slick report, immediately puts one a cut above the rest. It’s astonishing how few people can do it! A potential employer’s first impressions can make or break you. So when things are in your control it’s good to be a perfectionist. Also, I love anthropology and have tried to keep it up as much as possible.

First few months in the job Filming wildlife requires a great deal of patience and expertise in animal behaviour. There are long periods of utter boredom followed by furious activity. It’s wonderful work but not as glamorous as it may seem. See below.
Day in the life A day of filming leopards on Big Cat Diary
  • 04:30 Wake up and quick cup of tea
  • 05:00 Departure to leopard home range, an hour’s drive through extreme mud, river crossings, and on bad roads. Occasional puncture or getting stuck all in the dark.
  • 06:00 Start searching for leopard. Crew spreads out over home range. Drive to good view points or well known spots. Stop, listen for alarm calls from antelope, birds, monkeys, or leopard calling.
  • Sunrise at 06:30. Drink cup of tea to warm up. Keep moving, stopping, watching, listening, waiting.
  • 08.45 Root around in dust covered picnic basket for breakfast. Bran flakes with hot water, and more tea. Continue looking for leopard.
  • 08:46 Leopard slinks past, breakfast flung into back of Land Rover. Call crew urgently on radio, keep leopard in sight, monitor surrounding area for other game and potential story she about to hunt, join cubs, escape from lions.
  • 09:00 Leopard disappears into bush, keep binoculars trained on single visible leopard spot in between leaves. Crew arrives. Spread out, wait.
  • 11.00: Wildebeest start to head down to water to drink. Eyes still trained on single visible spot amongst leaves. No movement. Is it a leopard or something else? Doubt starts to creep in. Move position. More spots. All ok. Check wildebeest group for yearling calves heading to water. Tourist minibus drives through herd and sends them scattering. Leopard shifts position slightly. Nothing happens. Wait.
  • 13:00 All tourist vehicles return to lodge for lunch. Wildebeest start moving to water. Leopard naps. Take out breakfast and try again. Leopard disappears. Call urgently on radio for all hands on deck! Leopard found slinking 500metres downstream towards a hippo chute. Lies down in ambush. Drive furiously for 15 minutes to get to closest river crossing and over for clear view of hippo chute from far side. Wildebeest start moving, leopard tail twitching in anticipation.
  • 13:15 Wildebeest catch scent of cat and move further downstream. Leopard follows hidden below river bank. Reposition vehicles. Sun sweltering hot. Still no time for food. Start to feel sleepy. More tea.
  • 13:45 Wildebeest start crossing, radio call from spotter that pride of lions is moving rapidly into same area. Leopard in perfect position for ambush. Intense concentration from all. Will lions mess it up? Lions set up ambush upstream.
  • 15:00 Leopard lunges at prey and misses. Chaotic wildebeest stampede. Leopard lost in fray. Dust clears, re-found, licks fur and retreats to shady fig tree. First tourist buses appear on horizon. Back film vehicles away from site and re-position to manage tourist traffic so as not to disturb leopard. Spend next 3 hours showing excited tourists leopard and explaining why one has to keep a respectful distance so that prey animals are not disturbed and leopard can hunt.
  • 18:45 Tourists leave.
  • 18:46 Sun sets. Storm clouds loom. Leopard descends from tree and pounces on surprised Egyptian goose. Disappears into thicket. Light gone. Wait another 15 mins. Starts to rain. Time to head home.
  • 20:00 Arrive back in camp after driving through deluge and taking a big detour to avoid flooding river. Covered in mud after pulling producer’s car out of trench.
  • 20:30 wait for turn to check email, eat snacks in Production tent and catch up with other cat teams. Too tired for dinner. Straight to tent for bucket shower.
  • 21:00 Sleep
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