Talking Point – Dr Paula Kahumba

Hands off our elephants! Lisa Rolls Hagelberg interviews conservationist and CEO of WildlifeDirect Dr Paula Kahumbu.

Why are you so outspoken about conservation and the poaching situation?
I am one of nine kids and we were raised on a farm on the outskirts of Nairobi. Wildlife was an everyday part of my childhood. We had monkeys in the garden, buffalo, lions and leopards, tons of birds and reptiles. When we were sent out to play, we would explore the woods, swamps and streams, and we caught everything we could find. But none of us knew what these animals were, so we would take them to our neighbour Richard Leakey, and he would tell us the most amazing things about every mouse, bird or lizard. I decided then that I wanted to be a wildlife ranger. I am saddened that most children in Kenya and around the world can no longer enjoy nature the way that I did as a child and my work aims to reverse this situation.

What are you doing?
I run WildlifeDirect (, a Kenyan-based charity that is also registered in the USA. WildlifeDirect shines a light on conservation heroes across Africa and develops strategies and campaigns on emerging conservation crises. Today, elephants are facing extinction – they are being slaughtered at unsustainable rates all across Africa. I work with many sectors of government, with scientists and with local communities to raise awareness and to address the problems. I assist the government on policy and legislation, and I lobby for changes in laws that will improve wildlife conservation in Kenya, as well as across Africa.

We have launched a new campaign, Hands Off Our Elephants, which aims to bring African leadership to the forefront in addressing the poaching epidemic head on.

According to the IUCN, African Elephant Specialist Group, African elephants have declined by 53,000 since 2007, and at this rate of decline they will be extinct in the wild within 10 to 15 years. CITES/MIKE (Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants) data indicates that 17,000 elephants were killed in survey sites alone, which extrapolates to at least 25,000 poached in 2011. This rose to 30,000 in 2012. Given the massive ivory seizures already this year, we expect the toll to be even higher in 2013.

Africa and the world simply cannot afford to lose these magnificent creatures for products that are used only as trinkets and collectibles. Elephants and other wildlife represent more than our heritage – they represent one of the few natural resources that African economies can depend on. If elephants become extinct in the wild Africa stands to lose the future economic potential for ecotourism that is currently worth over KSh120 billion in Kenya alone.

How did you get into conservation?
After high school I helped Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton of ‘Save the Elephants’ to conduct an inventory of Kenya’s ivory stockpile. That experience left me devastated at the crisis facing elephants in the 1980s. I measured the tusks of baby elephants that had been shot for their ivory. I knew that I had to do something, and ever since then I’ve been involved in conservation. For my PhD research at Princeton University I studied elephants in Kenya.

What can be done about the poaching crisis?
Several factors are working in tandem to create a deadly situation for African elephants. The price of ivory is increasing due to growing affluence in the Far East – especially China, Thailand and the Philippines. This enormous demand for ivory is driving up prices and this creates an incentive for poachers and dealers in Africa. They benefit from the ongoing conflicts in Africa, which make weapons easy to access, and most of all, they take advantage of high levels of corruption. Minor penalties, combined with corruption at ports and on highways, makes it easy to transport and export ivory through borders, shipping ports and airports.

Ivory has become such a valuable commodity that militias are using profits from the trade to fuel instability in places like Somalia, Sudan and Central Africa. The illicit trade in ivory has reached its highest level for at least 16 years.

African governments are trying to stop the poaching, but none can succeed alone. Saving elephants requires a coordinated global solution. Studies by National Geographic, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Save the Elephants and the Environmental Investigation Agency reveal that about 85% of middle class Chinese would like to own ivory. Imagine if only 1% of them could obtain 1kg each, worth about US$2000. That would amount to about 700,000 tons of ivory, or 700,000 elephants, which is more than the entire population of elephants in Africa! And that’s just China, which represents only 50% of the global demand!

If you combine the demand for ivory in key markets of China with that of Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Europe, USA and Australia, the situation facing elephants is critical – so massive that despite enormous investments in anti-poaching, new laws and intensive enforcement in Africa, it is virtually impossible to slow down the poachers and ivory trafficking cartels.

Will elephants be saved from extinction?
To save elephants from the current crisis the world must unite, demand must be extinguished, poaching and trafficking cartels crushed, and elephants protected as the national treasures of African and Asian range states, and as our global heritage. It can be done, and we have been here before.

In 1989 elephants were almost on the road to extinction. One country, Kenya, stood apart by taking a stand and burning its ivory. This sent a message to the world that remains the most significant demonstration of commitment to elephant conservation today.

Once again Kenya is in the limelight. The government of Kenya has elevated the seriousness with which wildlife crime is handled in the country through a bold new piece of legislation that will be passed in coming months. The penalties for poaching and trafficking wildlife products will be on a par with drug trafficking.

Through Kenya’s First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, WildlifeDirect’s campaign Hands Off Our Elephants is creating awareness and action in Kenya with support from major organisations such as Kenya Airways and the Kenya Tourism Board.

WildlifeDirect’s Chairman John Hemingway, a National Geographic documentary director, premiered his latest undercover exposée of the ivory trade in the film Battle For the Elephants in Nairobi in July. Everyone should watch this movie to really understand the scale of this crisis. We can’t give up. The power of individual voices together makes a strong force for change.