Paula Kahumbu – WildlifeDirect’s CEO talks about the new campaign against poaching
Why are you so outspoken about conservation and the poaching situation?
I am one of 9 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 neighbor, 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 USA. WildlifeDirect shines a light on conservation heroes across Africa and develops strategies and campaign 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 are launching a new campaign HANDS OFF OUR ELEPHANTS which aims to bring African leadership to the forefront to address the poaching epidemic head on. African elephants are facing an unprecedented threat, across the continent there is a net decline of the populations, and even places that were previously safe are now being targeted. According to the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, Africa’s elephants have declined by 53,000 fewer elephants since 2007 and at this rate of decline, they will be extinct in the wild within 10 – 15 years. CITES estimates that 25,000 elephants were poached in 2011 and this rose to 30,000 in 2012. Given the massive ivory seizures already this year, which represent a fraction of the ivory in illegal trade, we expect the toll to be even higher this year. Africa and the world cannot afford to lose them. 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 go extinct in the wild, Africa loses all the future economic potential for ecotourism which is currently worth over 120 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 1980’s. I measured 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, it was a possibility that future generations may not have the privilege of enjoying.
What can be done about the elephant poaching crisis?
Two factors that are working in tandem make for a deadly situation for African elephants. First the price of ivory is increasing due to growing affluence in the Far East especially China, Thailand, Philippines and other Asian countries. This enormous demand for ivory in the Far East is driving up prices of the ivory and this creates the 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. This is particularly true in Kenya where minor penalties combined with corruption at ports and on highways makes it easy to transport and export ivory through the 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 the highest level in at least the last 16 years.
African governments are trying to stop the poaching, but alone none can succeed. Saving elephants requires a coordinated global solution is needed. 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 1 kg each, worth about 2,000 dollars. 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, Philippines, Vietnam, Europe, USA and Australia, the situation facing elephants is critical. Is so massive that despite enormous investments in anti-poaching new laws and intensive enforcement in Africa, it is virtually impossible 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 global heritage. It can be done, we have been here before.
In 1989 Elephants almost were on the road to extinction. One country, Kenya stood apart, she burned the ivory and sent a message to the world that remains the most significant demonstration of commitment to elephant conservation. Once again, Kenya is in the limelight. The government of Kenya has elevated the seriousness with which wildlife crime is handled in Kenya through a bold new piece of law that will be passed in coming months. The penalties for poaching and trafficking wildlife products will be on par with drugs trafficking. Through Kenya’s First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta WildlifeDirect’s campaign HANDS OFF OUR ELEPHANTS is creating awareness and action in Kenya and major Kenyan organizations like Kenya Airways, and the Kenya Tourism Board are partnering on this campaign. WildlifeDirect’s Chairman, John Heminway, a National Geographic documentary director, wil be premiering his latest under cover exposee of the ivory trade in the newly released film “Battle For the Elephants” in Nairobi in July. Everyone must watch this movie to really understand the scale of this crisis.