Speaking for elephents

Despite millions being poured into worldwide conservation efforts, elephants remain under siege, with some 100,000 elephants lost to poaching in the last three years alone. Amarula recently teamed up with Dr Kahumbu in a campaign highlighting the plight of Africa’s gentle giants. In conversation with Dr Paula Kahumbu, PATRICIA GLYN learns what it takes in terms of personal commitment.



The day I meet her, Dr Paula Kahumbu looks like a woman fuelled by passion and little else. She’s clearly tired and I fancy I can see her mentally mustering the enthusiasm needed to get through yet another interview about her beloved, fast-disappearing elephants.

Once we get onto that subject, however, she’s tired no more. Her eyes become focused, her gestures emphatic and her crazy curls seem to bob in enthusiastic concurrence with her rapid-fire statements. In full flight, Paula has the kind of captivating aura that is the preserve of those living the dream.

It’s a very different dream from the one her mother originally had for her: working as a secretary in downtown Nairobi. Before long, Paula was sufficiently bored by secretarial college to bunk classes. She went in search of mental stimulation and found it in lectures offered by the local museum. Her next step involved using the kind of chutzpah for which she’s now well known. She sought out renowned Kenyan paleoanthropologist, conservationist and pretty daunting guy, Dr richard Leakey, burst into his office and informed him that she wanted to become a game ranger.



We have Dr Leakey to thank that Paula didn’t spend the rest of her life taking tourists on game drives and doing anti-poaching patrols. He recognised an inquisitive mind when it sat opposite him and suggested she try her hand at research before making her career choice. Although she hated her first position – working on primates in a medical laboratory – she indeed found that science, specifically the animal sciences, pushed all her buttons.

An undergraduate degree in biology and geography in England eventually followed, and on one of her summer breaks the young student was given the gruesome task of compiling an inventory of Kenya’s ivory stockpile – the famous, or infamous, stash that was later set alight and drew world attention to the demise of Kenya’s elephants. The data that emerged from Paula and her team’s analysis of the tusks was horrifying.

“We knew how old they were and when they died, so we could draw a curve and what we found is that elephants were being killed [younger and younger]. Basically they were baby elephants being killed by 1989. There were no more adults left to kill,” she recalls.

“So I had no intention of studying elephants because they were finished as far as I was concerned. There were headlines every day about elephant slaughter and anyway it was too dangerous. You can’t work on an animal that is so traumatised. I thought I wouldn’t be able to get any natural history or information.”

Primates, then, were the subject of Paula’s study for her master’s degree although, again when home on a vac, she joined a group of committed young Kenyan scientists with whom she worked on general elephant research for the Kenyan Wildlife Services. They – and their research – changed her mind about working with elephants and she went on to get her phd in ecology and evolutionary science from Princeton University. Her project focused on the curious behaviour of savannah elephants on the Kenyan coast that move into pockets of rainforest during the heat of the day. They eat so judiciously that, far from destroying the trees – as happens so often elsewhere – they prune them as gardeners would and move on before the trees suffer any damage, only returning for the next flush of new leaves.



How she must miss those peaceful, slow-paced days, following elephants through their days’ activities. Paula’s life now is largely spent fighting the war against ivory poaching. It’s urgent and draining work, and demands relentless drive to keep the issue in the forefront of the world’s media and imagination. She and her fellow conservationists face an equally exhausting battle for funding and for the buy-in of African politicians, businesses and citizens, who have what they regard as more pressing problems to address. For too long, in her view, Africa has looked abroad for support in the conservation of its natural resources.

“When there’s a problem facing our elephants, we tend to invite Prince William and others to get involved. We think that the WWF or some big international NGO will come to our rescue. And that will never be enough,” she tells me.

Ultimately, Paula believes, we Africans must protect our elephants because they’re ours. It’s as simple as that.



“We’re going to defend them because these animals matter to us. There have been efforts to commercialise them in order to protect them. I don’t think that’s the answer. We don’t say that our cathedrals have to make money in order to survive and not be turned into parking lots.”

But how to impart that sense of ownership and relationship, particularly among people who have never seen a tortoise, let alone an elephant? That’s key to Paula’s work and it means teaching, teaching and more teaching; much of it on the ground in Kenya’s national parks.

“We can’t just tell people about these animals, we have to create a real relationship with them. In Kenya we do TV series, bringing wildlife into the homes of citizens and saying, ‘Come to the national parks, come and see what we have.’ And change is happening. We have 23% more local people coming to the national parks. Before that the attitude was parks are for tourists and for white folks. That’s what they do and our culture is different: we go and drink beer and eat meat. But children are now insisting that their parents take them to the parks.”



All well and good, but what’s happening with regard to poaching in Kenya, I ask. There’s good news here, too, according to Paula, although she acknowledges that the war is far from over. Possessing or selling ivory is now considered a serious crime and it’s becoming a source of great kudos for Kenyan law enforcers to arrest, charge and imprison those involved. A couple of kingpin illegal traders are behind bars (with long sentences) and the tide is definitely turning in favour of the elephants. Poaching has dropped by more than 80% in the past four years and the country now loses only about 70 or 80 elephants per year. Given that elsewhere in Africa (except in South Africa), the continent loses roughly 90 elephants per day, that’s a huge achievement.

And the publicity garnered abroad for the campaign has been notable. As CEO of conservation NGO wildlifedirect, Paula joined many wildlife and conservation organisations in bringing pressure to bear on the Chinese to stop buying ivory.

“We spoke to thousands and thousands of people, and I think the Chinese people eventually started to put pressure on their own government to do something. China has a different way of doing things,” explains Paula. “What fascinates me is that they care deeply about what their president says. People in China are generally quite law abiding and it’s very shameful to be associated with any kind of crime. If the president says, ‘Don’t do it’, the people listen. So in December 2016, he announced that they would ban the ivory trade and the ban comes into effect this December, a year later. The price of ivory has already halved.”

Getting celebrities involved in the campaign has been part of its success, but Paula is particularly proud of the fact that the former first lady of Kenya, Margaret Kenyatta, has put her name and face to the campaign ‘Hands Off Our Elephants’.



“I mean, all first ladies around the world are worried about children and education, maternal health, all those things. But she said, ‘I want to do that and elephants.’ That is extraordinary, and of course it meant that her husband, the president, got involved.”


President Kenyatta made wildlife poaching such a serious crime that it now falls under the National Council on the Administration of Justice, which includes the police, the army, the air force and the prisons. So the wildlife authorities are part of national security now. “That is fascinating,” Paula tells me. “What it has translated into is much better enforcement on the ground, better intelligence, better convictions in court.”


What has been lacking, she believes, is large-scale involvement in conservation by African companies. “It’s extremely difficult for African organisations to get donor support, which I find really troubling. So often important work is funded instead by international organisations and by people who have little knowledge of, or acceptance in, Africa.”


Imagine, then, how delighted she was to be approached by South Africa’s famous liqueur producer, Amarula, to partner with it on a campaign designed to highlight the speed at which Africa’s elephants are being poached (roughly one every 15 minutes). Not only have the elephants ‘disappeared’ from the liqueur’s label – at least for a couple of months – but in an attention-grabbing installation in Union Square, New York City, Amarula mounted a life-sized elephant made of ice that slowly melted as the day progressed. Paula rates it as a major publicity coup and was humbled by the effect it had on passers-by. “We walked around and explained what was going on and a lot of people were shocked, sad, I would say amazed. They were very grateful.”


That people like Paula are using their energy and drive to do this awareness-raising work, we should all be grateful. For, as the Senegalese conservationist and forester Baba Dioum famously said, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” V