Paula Kahumbu is the most active and vocal campaigner for East Africa’s wildlife since her mentor Richard Leakey. Graham Boynton spent some time getting to know her – and was duly impressed.
If ever Africa needed fearless, outspoken conservationists it is now. At a time when both rhino and elephant populations are being poached on a major scale and when wildlife reserves across the continent are under threat from population growth and habitat destruction, the moment has come for those who can to take up the cudgels for a disappearing world.
Enter Dr Paula Kahumbu, CEO of Wildlife Direct, which is undoubtably Kenya’s most outspoken and effective wildlife NGO today. Over the past year the organisation has not only accused Kenyan officials of protecting the international poaching networks – a brave act in itself – but has also pressured the country’s judiciary into introducing stringent new laws relating to wildlife trafficking offences, increasing penalties for possession of ivory or rhino horn from Ksh40,000 (£275) to Ksh20 million (£137,000), now the most severe of their kind on the continent.
Under Dr Kahumbu, Wildlife Direct has also convinced the Kenyan government to ban Furadan, an agricultural insecticide responsible for poisoning hundreds of lions, hyenas, vultures and other animals. She has also pressured the Kenyan courts to halt government plans to go ahead with a Chinese-built, four-lane highway through Nairobi National Park, the country’s oldest wildlife reserve.
And today if you look at the social media you will see Wildlife Direct and its charismatic leader holding awareness campaigns and school seminars, networking with diplomats and endlessly pushing for an end to the ivory trade. Her energy and enthusiasm for the protection of the wilderness is boundless.
Paula Kahumbu is the child of a black Kenyan father and a white Western mother. She excelled academically, gaining a bachelor’s degree at Bristol University and her doctorate, in elephant behaviour, at Princeton. She is an articulate and powerful orator, a lecturer at Princeton, and the author of the children’s book Owen and Mzee, the story of an unlikely friendship between a hippo and a tortoise that is based on fact.
Her mentor, and still today her friend and advisor, is the paleoanthropologist/conservationist Richard Leakey, who founded Wildlife Direct in 2006. While Leakey encourages his protégée’s outspoken activism he is also concerned for her safety. He says there are people in Kenya who would rather she was “a little less active”. He feels she should have a bodyguard. And although she concedes that rubbing up against authorities who have had their own way for decades is dangerous she says she wouldn’t think of taking on a bodyguard.
What she does say is that Africa and Africans have no choice but to take action immediately to halt the decline. “We are losing our heritage. Not just in Kenya, but across Africa. And we have to act now.”
Kenya’s conservation culture runs deep. Two Kenyan conservancies – Lewa and Ol Pejeta – have been included on the IUCN Green List of Protected Areas; the only two in Africa. This recognises well-managed areas that conserve nature and provide a wealth of essential ecosystem services with benefits to local communities.
First published in Travel Africa edition 70, Spring 2015