From the time he was 10 years old, Iain Douglas-Hamilton dreamed that he would fly around Africa and save animals.

Unlike most adults, Douglas-Hamilton, one of the world's leading experts on elephants, has had his childhood dreams come true. At times, however, the dream has become a nightmare.

In the last decade, the 40-year-old Scot has been a helpless observer much of the time as more than 90 percent of Uganda's elephants have been killed at the hands of man.

Outside his family, Douglas-Hamilton has two loves--elephants and flying--and he has managed to combine them in his conservation work.

The flying can be a bit unnerving for the uninitiated. Douglas-Hamilton rarely takes his Cessna 185 single-engine aircraft much above treetop level as he looks for elephants and other wildlife.

"I don't do stunt flying. I have never done a barrel roll," he said. "I just fly low and land and take off of short runways. I love it."

For the neophyte passenger on Douglas-Hamilton's Tembo II (tembo means elephant in Swahili), this often means that one has to battle with a queasy stomach. After a few flights, however, it is possible to sit calmly in the co-pilot's seat and not even blink as this crazy Scottish pilot hurtles his tiny aircraft right at Murchison Falls at 120 miles per hour, pulling up just before the spray of the Nile River hits the windshield.

"Speed is height," he explains later. "If the engine fails I'd just pull up and find a place to crash land in the mountains."

Sometimes slow can be scary too. Douglas-Hamilton often swoops in low and leans out of his cockpit to observe an elephant, with the engine stall indicator beeping.

His biggest flying problem recently has been gunfire from Sudanese troops who have been poaching animals in Kideop National Park in northern Uganda. The plane was hit three times last year but there were no casualties. There have been no incidents since a year ago, when U.S. officials discussed the problem with Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeri.

In the late 1970s, Douglas-Hamilton conducted an exhaustive census of elephants in Africa. Now he is using a $125,000 plane, donated by American wildlife benefactors, to try to thwart poaching in Uganda's game parks.

The pilot-zoologist is in charge of antipoaching activities under a project to rehabilitate Uganda's three game parks that is jointly financed by the United Nations and the European Community.

Since 1965, Douglas-Hamilton has devoted most of his life to the African elephant, first living with the behemoths for four years in the late 1960s in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania.

That resulted in a book, "Among the Elephants," coauthored with his wife, Oria, that has sold about a million copies and has been translated into a dozen languages.

The book also led to a British television film, "The Family That Lives with Elephants."

Until the U.N. job started last year, the book royalties had been the Douglas-Hamiltons' main source of income as they sought to preserve the fast-diminishing elephant herds in Africa through a variety of international wildlife organizations.

The book also financed a self-designed luxurious "log cabin" with all modern conveniences on the outskirts of Nairobi where the Douglas-Hamiltons live with their two daughters, Saba, 12, and Mara, 11, a Tuareg racing dog, two horses and two "tame" warthogs that frequent the garden for their meals.

There was a brief two-year break to get a doctorate in animal behavior at Oxford. "I was really miserable" being away from Africa, he said. "I was only half living."

In Murchison Falls, Douglas-Hamilton lives in the restored Queen Mother Lodge originally built for the visit of Queen Mother Elizabeth in the 1950s.

On a recent moonlit night Douglas-Hamilton and a German tourist talked flying by a campfire on the Nile in front of the lodge. The German, 58, told of hair-raising Messerschmidt flights during his World War II Luftwaffe career.

Tales of short takeoffs and landings were the specialty of the night. "Landing like a crab," Douglas-Hamilton can put his Cessna down on an airstrip the length of a football field if conditions are ideal.

"It's incredible to think about the risks people took during the war," Douglas-Hamilton said. "Today we're so concerned about security--like it's the most important thing in the quality of life. It isn't, you know."

It is just as well to feel that way in Uganda, where there has been little security--for people or elephants--over the last decade.

During his four years at Lake Manyara Douglas-Hamilton learned to identify individual elephants, even becoming "friends" with some and giving them names. Eventually he could recognize on sight almost all those living in the park. Through personal observation of the families and clans and through radio tracking, he made the first systematic study of their behavior in the wild.

His daughter Mara has become so accustomed to elephants that she seems to regard them the way others would regard a pet dog. In a school report she nonchalantly wrote about being kicked into a bush by a semidomesticated elephant in Kenya's Tsavo National Park.

"She just got too playful and the elephant got annoyed," her father said. Mara was not injured.

Many of Douglas-Hamilton's experiences with elephants in recent years, however, have been unhappy as he has chronicled the slaughter of tens of thousands of the beasts.

On two occasions, he recalled, he had to shoot elephants. One was already injured by a poacher; the other had to be "sacrificed" to pacify peasants whose crops had been ruined by marauding elephants.

More often, however, he has come upon dead elephants stripped of their tusks and with vultures crawling over the bodies.

"Here I am for the thousandth time looking at the remains of a dead elephant in Africa," he said wearily as rangers led him to yet another body.

Asked if elephants will survive in Africa, he said it is in the hands of man.

"Elephants are just one focus for the meaning of life," he said. Then he added: "There is a profound ethical question. Should man be allowed to wipe out a species?"