"If the elephants go, that's it," said the elegant woman rising off the sofa at the National Geographic and tossing her mane.

"That's it?" you repeat.

"That's it. I'm not speaking just of the revenue from tourists at the great game preserves and national parks," she said, a bit severely (as to a child who has no comprehension at all of the seriousness of life). "Elephants mean space, liberty, beauty, intelligence," and one felt like interrupting with "loyal, courteous, kind and semper paratus."

If you saw Oria Douglas-Hamilton at a local cocktail party (and you may, since she's going to be in town two weeks) you'd think she was just another elegant woman.

Not, God knows, that even they are so common as to be passed by without note. But you'd hardly suspect she was bounced out of an African school for protesting the food, nor that she was barred from schools because her father was an Italian who settled in Kenya and who was interned as an enemy alien during World War II.

Nor that she was "wild" and raced about the hills shooting zebras so that her mother (French) rather despaired and persuaded a Masai warrior to keep an eye on this free spirit of a lass. (The mother finally got Oria shipped off to a finishing school in France, and things were going fairly well there for a while, as far as taming the girl was concerned. She studied high fashion and could design clothes, and learned photography and might -- perhaps in her mother's dreams -- have become a fine Parisian specimen).

But she ran into Iain Douglas-Hamilton.

The fat was in the fire. No taming her now.

In 15 years of marriage they have lived close to elephants and it is clear to them both that elephants are the most significant form of life on this planet.

They have both become famous for their work studying elephants and writing about them. Iain rattled Oxford a little when he decided to earn his doctorate on a study of wild elephants. You don't get a doctorate there merely because you adore elephants and have a taste for living on a veldt. Discipline, academic rigor, drudgery -- and who believed the handsome Scots lad was that serious about his youthful enthusiasm for elephants?

He got the doctorate. He got the girl. And the two of them got a worldwide reputation in elephant circles.

To hear either of them talk, it's been paradise all the way. They don't tell you readily, for example, that one of the great elephant preserves was acquired because tse-tse flies made human habitation virtually impossible.

They make an elephant census sound enchanting, flying low over Africa counting elephants. Later it may occur to you that a tiny plane bouncing about hour after hour might be only moderately fun.

If you see a picture of their Land-Rover with the steering wheel bent and ask, they'll tell you that was when an elephant charged into the car.

There was a dear matriarch of an elephant, too, who once rammed her tusks into the radiator. It upset the Douglas-Hamiltons. To think they had given that grand old lady anxiety to the point she had basked in the car.

Neither is sentimental about elephants. Merely a bit mad. Year after year after year they have studied elephant ways. Some (by no means all) elephants have accepted them. Good old Virgo, for instance.

And of course much sorrow along the way. Both husband and wife adored old Boadicea, then one day they found her skull, the tusks stripped off.

The husband and wife have watched while the price of ivory rose from $2.50 to $35 a pound.

"People like to blame blacks," Oria said. "But they don't want ivory, they want a few shillings, they want to buy a wristwatch, a radio, a bicycle. The money from the ivory trade is in Hong Kong and Tokyo and Paris and London and New York."

"Shady characters in the Bronx?"

"More likely an elegant place on Avenue Foch. The French and Germans and English and Americans, they make the ivory trade possible."

It's one thing to traffic in legal ivory, collected from naturally dead elephants or from elephants culled to control the population of a game preserve.

But most ivory is from elephants shot down mercilessly for no reason other than the value of ivory. Often they are slaughtered by poachers in the protected game sanctuaries.

In other cases, pygmies have been paid to bring the ivory out of dense central-African forests where there are no easy roads. To sell to white traders.

So one of the great projects is to control and tighten present-day loose and shady trade in ivory.

Oria says a census shows 1.3 million elephants left in Africa. Sounds like plenty.

"They're not on the verge of extinction," she says, but you can tell by her look that she wonders if you'd accept the murder of children on the grounds humans are far from extinct. Elephants are declining in habitat after habitat.

"If the elephants went," she said, "there would still be game in Africa, but who the hell wants to look at a few bucks hiding behind a bush?"

If this sweet capital were destroyed, it occurred to me, there might still be survivors in Butte or somewhere. But some would know how great the loss had been.

Oria feels that towards the elephants. It's not that soon there will be no elephants at all, but that right now elephants are losing ground to man, and losing it for no good reason whatever.

This decline, or at least this senseless chaos, can be halted. Oria is quite firm about it. Ivory can be controlled. Steps have already begun, though full control is not yet effective. And ways can be found to upgrade patrolling of game sanctuaries. There is no real shortage of money available to manage elephant conservation superbly.

What is mainly lacking is human determination that elephants can exist with man and that man is responsible for elephant survival.

An urgent step is the appeal to the world to think about elephants. Not all day every day as the Douglas-Hamiltons do, of course, for not everybody has elephants in his bonnet.

But enough to behave responsibly as humans, and to support such things as laws against illegal ivory.

Oria has written an article for the November issue of National Geographic. She is interviewed by reporters. Actually, she prefers elephants.

Never mind. You'd rather lose out to an elephant than to some men you can think of.

Joy, work, sorrow, the African sky, the big stars, Oria Hamilton-Douglas seems suffused with it to the point she may think we here are nuts, to have lived such confined lives under such starless skies.

In one of their books, "Among the Elephants," there's the touching story of Lord Mayor, an elephant of Muchison Falls.

Because he was extremely intelligent, extremely adaptable, and uncommonly free of fear, he learned to hunt for food in trash cans and empty automobiles. Sometimes he found food in cars.

But then he learned to pick cars up and shake them. He was shot by authorities. He was too dangerous.

Sometimes you wonder if animals can ever do anything to please humans. Dinosaurs are reproached because they were too stupid, too slow to adapt. Other animals perish because they could not get over fear, and could never learn new ways.

So here comes Lord Mayor, a magnificent animal. He perished because he had every gorgeous quality the dinosaur lacked. He had one fault, though:

He was inconvenient to guys who didn't like having their cruddy little cars picked up and shaken.

There comes a point -- it's Oria's point -- you start to question whether what's being wasted is more precious than what's being saved.