Kenyan conservationist and activist Paula Kahumbu, CEO of a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to the protection of elephants and other African wildlife, spoke at an all-school convocation on Monday, kicking off this year's Earth Week programming.
"Africa is the last continent on this planet that still has its full array of megafauna — giant animals like elephants, lions, rhinos, and hippos. In Africa, we still have this amazing heritage, and it is now a global heritage," said Ms. Kahumbu, who runs Wildlife Direct.
When she was a small child, Ms. Kahumbu said, she met renowned Kenyan anthropologist Richard Leakey, who lived near her home on the outskirts of Nairobi. She and her siblings visited Mr. Leakey's residence often to talk with him about animals and nature, and through these educational interactions, Ms. Kahumbu said she grew to love and respect nature, especially wildlife.
Ms. Kahumbu particularly enjoys studying elephants because they are "extraordinary" creatures and have many similarities to humans: They live in families, they communicate with each other, they have heightened senses of hearing and smell, and their brains are large — three times the size of a human brain.
But, she explained, most Kenyans do not have regular access to nature preserves or even good television programming about the unique and remarkable wildlife that live in rural areas of their fast-growing country. A large number of African citizens think of elephants as a valuable commodity for the ivory trade, and/or a dangerous threat to people and property.
As CEO of Wildlife Direct, Ms. Kahumbu's mission is to improve the relationship of the Kenyan people to wildlife. She said she wants to secure all the "majestic species and amazing places" into the future, not just for visitors, but also for the Kenyan people to understand, appreciate, and hold dear.
The popularity of ivory in China, the United States, and around the world, has created a vast market for elephant tusks which, in turn, has led to a catastrophic decline in the elephant population throughout southern Africa from the rampant killing of elephants. She showed horrifying pictures of elephants that had been slaughtered and gruesomely butchered to obtain the tusks for ivory, with disregard for the laws that prohibit the practice — laws that carry weak punishments.
To address the issue, Ms. Kahumbu spearheaded Wildlife Direct's 2013 "Hands Off Our Elephants" campaign, partnering with civil society, corporations, government agencies, and other conservation organizations to take action. By enlisting high-profile supporters like Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta, the first lady of the Republic of Kenya, to educate and mobilize public opinion; putting pressure on officials to strengthen the rule of law and end corruption; and working with communities to develop conservation strategies, the campaign has contributed to a decline in elephant poaching in Kenya by 80 percent since 2013.
Ms. Kahumbu's efforts to raise national consciousness include supporting locally-produced educational television programs focused on wildlife and fostering conservation education in rural areas where humans and wildlife live close to one another.
Preservation of these animals is not just a Kenyan or African concern, said Ms. Kahumbu. It is a global concern. She encouraged students to join Wildlife Direct's efforts to protect and preserve these great creatures of the Earth for future generations.
Ms. Kahumbu earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, a master's degree from the University of Florida in Gainesville, and a doctorate from Princeton University. She was the winner of the Whitley Fund for Nature Award in 2014 and a National Geographic Buffett Award for conservation leadership in Africa in 2010, and she is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She is recognized as a Kenyan conservation ambassador by Brand Kenya and, in 2015, she received the presidential award and title of Order of the Grand Warrior.Ms. Kahumbu's visit to Loomis Chaffee was made possible with support from the Bussel Family International Lecture Fund and the Robert P. Hubbard '47 Speakers Series.