Paula Kahumbu Is Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year

The Kenyan conservationist uses blogs, TV, and books to teach about wildlife.

Paula Kahumbu

Cheryl Zook / National Geographic

Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu spent her childhood outdoors in nature, in awe of all the creatures she found in the forest on the outskirts of Nairobi where she lived. Her passion for wildlife only intensified as she grew up.

Kahumbu has since devoted her career to protecting threatened wildlife and habitats. She has been particularly passionate about saving elephants from poachers and environmental threats. Kahumbu was recently named Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year for 2021.

Kahumbu is the CEO of WildlifeDirect, an online platform that allows conservationists to use blogs, videos, and photos to easily spread information about their work. She launched the Hands

Off Our Elephants campaign with Kenya’s First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, to combat elephant poaching and ivory trafficking.

Kahumbu has spread the story of conservation through television shows like “Wildlife Warriors,” where she talks to Kenyans who are working to save wild animals. She’s written children’s books including the best-selling true tale of “Owen and Mzee,” about an orphaned baby hippo and a giant tortoise that became best friends.

Kahumbu talked to Treehugger about where her love for wildlife first started, why she uses all sorts of media to draw attention to conservation, and what’s left to accomplish.

Treehugger: Where did your love of nature and wildlife start? What are some of your earliest memories of the natural world? 

Paula Kahumbu: I grew up on the outskirts of Nairobi in a forested area. I was the 6th born in my family and every day we would be outdoors looking at birds, lizards, snakes, mice, and other animals. I was a very quiet child but my older sisters were bold and outgoing, they would catch the animal and I was in complete awe of them. I think this is what made me comfortable with nature. 

One day my older brother Dominic and I were walking around when we noticed a big furry animal at the top of a tree. Just then [renowned anthropologist and conservationist] Richard Leakey drove by, he was our neighbor. We excitedly pointed to the animal and he told us that it was a tree hyrax, a strange tailless animal that is related to elephants. He told us so much about hyraxes and invited us to visit him to learn about other animals. I was only 5 years old but my curiosity grew from that time on. 

When did you decide to make conservation your career? What were some of your early studies and fieldwork? 

When I was 15 I participated in a unique scientific expedition to northern Kenya. It was a 1,000 km hike across the desert of northern Kenya and climbing the mountains which are forest islands in a sea of sand. The other participants were British university students who were collecting museum specimens and my job was to collect earwigs, scorpions, and other invertebrates. We climbed mountains, got chased by lions, and slept under the stars. I loved the experience and knew that I wanted to become a field scientist. 

You’ve become a driving force in elephant poaching awareness and reforms. What launched your passion, what has been accomplished, and what still needs to be done?

It’s hard to spend time with elephants and not fall in love with them. But that is not where it started. As an undergraduate, I volunteered on an exercise to conduct a stock take of Kenya’s ivory stockpile. It was back breaking work that involved a team of volunteers. The results were heartbreaking. We analyzed the data and found that poachers were killing ever smaller elephants each year—until babies as young as 5 were being shot for a simple kg of ivory. I swore I would not study an animal that was on the brink of extinction.

But Kenya turned things around, by burning the ivory in 1989 to send a signal to the world that elephants were worth more than their ivory. The statement led to a collapse in ivory markets and an international ban on trade. Poaching was reversed and our elephant numbers began to recover. It was amazing that a few individuals in my small country could have such a huge impact on the global trade in ivory. That was why I studied them for my Ph.D. But despite that win, more threats emerged and so I made it my life’s work to save elephants. 

Today the biggest threat to elephants is not poaching, but the loss of habitat. We need to secure more land and to keep the corridors for dispersal open. Much land is being lost due to ignorance, for example, people are farming in elephant landscapes—it’s a recipe for disaster. We must educate our people. Put good policies and regulations in place. Monitor and enforce the law, and punish those who violate them. We must also make it possible for local people to benefit from elephants through ecotourism or other conservation compatible livelihoods. 

Through Wildlife Direct, you use blogs, videos, photos, and other information to spread information about conservation. How is this the key to connect people with endangered species and the issues with nature?

Elephants are one of the most studied animals on earth. We take that research and make it accessible to ordinary people and decision makers. This is important for decision making. But in addition, we make a point of sharing uplifting stories that touch hearts and move people to action. 

We believe that inside all of us is an innate sense of awe and wonder about animals and that elephants in particular have a  knowledge of people. We did, after all, evolve together on the African continent. We may never fully understand how nature works but we can experience and feel something special when we are in the presence of elephants. It’s quite magical. This is what we must not lose.  

Paula Kahumbu interviews a local elder in Kenya
Kahumbu interviews a local elder in Kenya.

Cheryl Zook / National Geographic

You’ve also used other platforms to spread the word including documentaries, TV shows, and children’s books. How do these all play a role in conservation?

The way people around the world consume information is so varied, it includes stories for children, to newspaper articles, science, and documentaries, animated feature films, books, cartoons, and podcasts.  We cannot do everything but we focus on those channels that reach people in Africa in a way that touches and moves them. Television is particularly powerful and we have seen children commandeer the remote control of their parents during the Wildlife Warrior screenings—even if there is soccer on the other channel. 

The more content we can put out there the better, it will normalize wildlife content, and even makes it cool and aspirational to be associated with wildlife and conservation. This is something that is quite extraordinary and should be expected, yet most kids have never seen wildlife content—or wildlife—because there is virtually no wildlife content on free-to-air channels in Africa. 

We believe in the power of stories, after all, it’s been proven in the north, east and the west where Nat Geo content is widely accessible, and we want to see wildlife content on every channel. This means we must reposition ourselves as catalysts of a transformation in which Africans are producing the wildlife film content on the continent. We want to see African voices, crews, and broadcasters embracing wildlife filmmaking as an economic opportunity that will finance and require that we safeguard our wildlife. 

You’ve won many honors for your conservation work including the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year. What progress are you most proud of?

I am most proud of forging a path that other Africans are now entering. Ten African women have just completed their underwater film training. And three Africans are engaged in an apprenticeship with a blue chip company. These are baby steps but I am so excited at the transformation that is taking place. It can’t happen fast enough. 

What environmental challenges are you still tackling? 

Africa’s wildlife is in grave danger because the pace of development is so fast and we are unable to protect the environment to avoid the mistakes that other continents made. I see wastes being dumped in Africa, dirty coal power plants are being decommissioned in the East and reconstructed in Africa. I see the expansion of inequality and poverty as a major threat to nature since most Africans depend on nature for fuel, food, and shelter. 

We have to use our storytelling talent to reach the hearts and minds of our leaders who I believe have the power to reverse the damage. But it will require that the public demand the change, demand to be engaged, are aware, and care about wildlife and healthy environments. It’s happening in small steps, I see brakes beginning to be applied on destructive development and this should usher in a new era of truly sustainable development.