Paula Kahumbu has travelled the world in search of education and fun but has never seen a better place than Kenya. “Kenya is such a rich country. The people are beautiful and industrious and the scenery takes one’s breath away, not to mention the wildlife,” she explains.
Born in Kenya in 1966, Paula could easily pass off for a 30-year-old. The sixth born in a family of nine, she studied in Kenya before proceeding to the University of Bristol, UK, for a degree in ecology and biology. She thereafter undertook a Master’s Degree in wildlife and range science from the University of Florida.
“I was always interested in wildlife and nature while growing up in Kenya because of the beauty that comes with it and the attraction they offer ensuring that the country rakes in millions from tourism,” she says.
Her greatest influence in wildlife conservation is conservationist Richard Leakey. Richard Leakey is a renowned paleoanthropologist known for extensive fossil finds related to human evolution and has been the face behind conservation in Kenya. Leakey has also been vocal in the fight against poaching, something that Paula has picked up.
“I have been threatened before for my aggressive lobbying against poaching but I have and will never give up on this fight,” she explains.
When she completed her studies, Paula came back to Kenya and has contributed immensely in conservation projects. As the general manager of Lafarge Eco Systems, the environmental arm of Bamburi Cement, she oversaw quarry rehabilitation. This involved restoration of forest cover on the limestone quarries to ensure that animals and human beings were safe from the detrimental effects that may have arisen from the mined quarries.
She has also worked for the Kenya Wildlife Services and it is whilst there that her love for elephants was kindled. This influenced her research topic for her PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology. Her thesis investigated the effects of elephants on their habitats in the Shimba Hills, Kenya.
After completing her PhD studies, she joined WildlifeDirect as the chief executive officer. Founded by Richard Leakey, WildlifeDirect was established to provide support to conservationists in Africa directly on the ground via the use of blogs, which enable anybody anywhere to play a direct and interactive role in the survival of some of the world’s most precious species. This was informed by the increased poaching in the country with loopholes that existed, allowing trading in wildlife products.
Founded in 2006, Wildlife Direct is the face behind a couple of initiatives including Hands off our Elephants. The 2013 campaign saw WildlifeDirect partnering with civil society, corporations, government agencies and other conservation organisations in a unified approach towards ending the poaching crisis in Kenya. Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta, the First Lady of the Republic of Kenya, is a patron of the campaign.
The aim of the initiative is to reduce poaching in the country through behaviour change initiated through the media and other channels. The initiative has been a success as poaching of elephants and rhinos has drastically declined since it started. Other initiatives that the organisation has been actively involved in include ‘Save Nairobi National Park’ and ‘I Love Lions’ campaigns.
Paula understands that she needs to mentor young people so as to keep the fire in wildlife conservation burning. As such, she founded the Wildlife Warrior initiative, which involves engaging young people in nature and wildlife conservation. And it doesn’t end there; together with other stakeholders, they aim to build libraries in schools, ensure infrastructural development through improved classrooms and school fencing programmes to prevent human-wildlife conflicts, which leads to death of people and animals.
Paula and her organisation are also the brains behind NTV Wild aired locally on NTV that aims to sensitise Kenyans on conservation issues. They have also come up with another TV series – Wildlife Warrior – that airs on Citizen TV in a bid to create awareness on conservation.
Her face lights up when speaking of these exciting and out-of-the-box conservation measures and it is clear that she loves her job.
“I love what we are doing with WildlifeDirect as we have managed to reach millions of Kenyans with our initiatives. We also take pride in nurturing the next generation of conservation warriors through our children,” she explains.
However, she adds that the fight for wildlife never lacks challenges. She points to funding as one of their biggest obstacles. Paula laments that though many organisations have corporate social responsibility budgets for conservation, a majority of it goes to tree planting and thus doesn’t take into account animal conservation. Another challenge plaguing wildlife conservation is that laws protecting wildlife are outdated.