More than 100,000 African elephants have been shot by poachers since 2011, their faces butchered for their ivory tusks. The massacre infuriates Kenyan-born Paula Kahumbu *02, who is working to ensure that the African continent continues to know the thundering tread of the world’s largest land mammal.
Kahumbu is the executive director of WildlifeDirect, a nonprofit organization that works to save elephants. In 2013, she helped launch Hands Off Our Elephants, a campaign to put a stop to the poaching and trafficking of ivory. Kenya is the leading source of ivory sold in Asia, where the demand for carvings and collectibles has driven up the price of ivory by 300 percent in the last three years. Kahumbu’s work recently was recognized with the United Kingdom’s 2014 Whitley Award, given to conservation leaders.
Kahumbu developed a love of animals growing up in Nairobi, where her neighbor was renowned conservationist Richard Leakey. Kahumbu and her eight siblings regularly presented Leakey with lizards, snakes, frogs, and birds to identify. “He would tell us the history of these incredible animals” and, she recalls, instruct the children on how to return the animals to the wild. Leakey co-founded WildlifeDirect in 2004.
After graduating from the University of Bristol in England, Kahumbu returned to Kenya to help examine more than 2,000 confiscated tusks that the Kenyan government later destroyed in a bonfire to raise awareness of trafficking. Kahumbu recalls identifying tusks that belonged to elephants as young as 5. “It was devastating,” she says. The bonfire triggered a 1989 global ban on ivory trading under an international agreement between governments.
At Princeton, Kahumbu wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on elephants; she now helps teach undergraduates from the University who spend a semester doing field research in Kenya. When she first launched Hands Off Our Elephants, some in the Kenyan government balked. “It took a lot of work to reveal the scale of the crisis facing elephants,” she says.
Today, the wife of Kenya’s president is the campaign’s patron, and there are songwriting competitions with Kenyan hip-hop stars, training sessions, and petitions to raise awareness about elephants being killed. Determined to change the mindset of foreigners, Kahumbu has spread her campaign to the Nairobi Airport, where signs explaining the penalties for ivory smuggling are plastered on buses, luggage trolleys, and boarding tickets.
“We quickly realized that there was a lot of elephant expertise in Kenya, but little information for the public,” she says. “When people understand the problem, they can participate in finding solutions.” Hands Off Our Elephants also has been instrumental in pushing through legislation with more severe punishments for illegal possession of ivory. Says Kahumbu, “The power of the Kenyan voices is going to be what shifts the hearts and minds of the political leaders of Africa.”