Like a lot of English boys, Iain Douglas-Hamilton dreamed of Africa and the great jungles full of elephants.

Of course elephants prefer savannah country - grassland - with forest at the edge, but no matter, Iain dreamed of Africa.

He did what was expected of him, went to a celebrated school and then to Oriel College, Oxford, where he studied zoology. Unlike most boys, he never got over Africa at all, and wound up there as a young zoologist, as fascinated with elephants as ever.

From 1969 on he has been in Africa and now, for God sometimes works in obvious ways, he makes his living with the elephants, counting them, analyzing their precipitous decline in numbers and generally carrying the torch for anything with ears a yard across.

Of course it was a shock to go from England to Africa.

"A most delicious shock," he said yesterday after giving a report on the broad elephant picture to the World Wildlife Fund at 1319 18th St. NW. which has supported his elephant census along with the New York Zoological Society.

Another delicious shock was finding Oria in Kenya. She is now his wife and they have two children and live "in a hut" on farmland in Kenya long owned by her family.Nowhere, he says, can you be so free as there - the vast spaces, the great animals, the distant mountains, and his kids "dashing all over the countryside without shoes."

Paradise, of course. But there is no Gordonstoun or Oriel in rural Kenya and Douglas-Hamilton sees the day coming when they have to move to Nairobi (25 minutes by air) for schools.

As for the elephants, he will still keep up with them by plane, as he has been doing. Nobody yet knows how many elephants there are in Africa, "but a million at the very minimum," he says, and some estimates are double that.

"I'm not alarmed that the elephant will become extinct, or dwindle to a number from which it cannot rebuild itself. IN one place in Africa the herd dropped till there were only 14 in 1925. There are still 14.

"But yes, the more we have looked into elephant population figures the more shocked we have become. I was appalled. In Uganda, there are maybe a tenth as many elephants as there were four years ago. That is what I mean by a precipitous decline.

"Human encroachment on elephant grounds is the main long-term threat, but that is not the great threat now. (When population reaches 20 per square mile, there tend to be conflicts with the resident elephant population).

"Instead, it is the price of ivory. (Ivory was stable at $3 per kilo, but now fluctuates between $30 and $50). It may not be very productive to say there should be a total ban on ivory, though."

Some who heard him wanted to know why elephants were not put on the Endangered Species list immediately, but Douglas-Hamilton said there was not enough information ot permit that yet, and besides, with more than a million elephants, it did not seem to relistic to call them endangered.

Dr. Richard S. Miller of Yale said Americans might reflect that we exterminated the bison and passenger pigeon and so forth, while African nations have set aside huge parks for elephants. Perhaps we should temper our virtuous lectures.

Both Miller and Douglas-Hamilton want elephant to live not only in the protected parks, but in wide areas where they can live right along with mankind. Selective killing, to keep phants from overbrowsing (and utilmately starving) seems the most feasible plan.

African states could use the revenue (Kenya makes about $2 million a year in ivory sales from legally killed elephants). Not all wildlife students approve of "harvesting" elephants.

But in one park there were 10 elephants in 1908, and 8,000 in 1968. In another park, there were 10,000 elephants in the 1950s, but 20,000 by 1965. The great 10,000-pound beasts take refuge in the parks the increase in elephants had led to overbrowsing and death by starvation. In one park elephant meat from starved animals rotted in the park, while humans (caught in a famine) had no meat to eat in land outside the park. Controlled population, Douglas-Hamilton is certain, is the best way to insure survival for elephants as part of the natural landscape.

Poaching continues and the illegal ivory smuggling continues, he said. In Uganda poachers were shot from helicopters, he said, by agents of the government.

But education - mankind can manage with elephants right alongside - is the answer along with controlled shooting, he thinks.

His wife, asked what a picture represented, said the marvelous beast with ears spread, trotting across the grass, was a brood elephant they called Boadicea. She showed another picture, with her husband framed in a vast bony structure like a somewhat starved Henry Moore sculpture, which proved to be Boadicea's skull.Evidently she had been killed by poachers for her ivory.

The Douglas-Hamiltons hated that. For an elephant, it may not make much difference whether it's killed to control population or killed to sell ivory. But to those who work long hours to keep eldphants in the ecology, it makes a difference. CAPTION:

Picture; Douglas-Hamilton and the skull of the slain elephant Boadicea. Photo by Mirella Ricciardi; Picture 2, Iain Douglas-Hamilton by Craig Herndon, - The Washington Post