July 2, 2013 by Jess Miller
| Staff Photographer
Paula Kahumbu, the Nairobi-based executive director of WildlifeDirect and of the Kenya Land Conservation trust, lectures on “The Crisis Facing Elephants in Africa” Tuesday morning in the Amphitheater.
When Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi set fire to 12 tons of illegal ivory in 1989, conservationists like Paula Kahumbu thought the end of elephant slaughter was in sight. And it was — until now.
Following that demonstration, poaching numbers dropped for nearly 20 years. But recently, worldwide demand for ivory has increased, which means that African elephants are in more danger of becoming extinct than ever before.
Kahumbu, the executive director of WildlifeDirect in Nairobi, Kenya, delivered Tuesday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater, the second under the week’s theme of “The Next Greatest Generation.” WildlifeDirect works to save elephants and endangered species living in Kenya’s forests, savannas and plains.
“When we think of the next greatest generation, they are only going to be great because we make them great,” Kahumbu said. “As grownups, we inspire younger generations.”
When Kahumbu was young, she and her brother were outside playing when they spotted an animal they didn’t recognize in a fig tree.
A man drove by and rolled down his window.
“He asked us what we were doing, and we said, ‘There’s this amazing animal up in the tree!’ And the man was Richard Leakey,” Kahumbu said to applause.
Leakey gave Kahumbu and her brother a standing invitation to visit his house if they ever had any questions. (Leakey went on to found WildlifeDirect and persuade President Moi to burn the millions of dollars’ worth of ivory.)
“I spent my whole childhood catching everything that walked, crawled, flew, swam, and going to his house and asking him what it was,” she said.
After graduating from high school, Kahumbu wanted to be a park ranger. She went on to study biology and ecology, eventually earning her doctorate from Princeton University.
“I did my Ph.D. studying elephants because I thought that was going to be how I made a difference,” she said. “I was going to use science to make a difference.”
But she soon discovered that most government officials “don’t give a damn” about science.
“They don’t understand it,” she said.
Kahumbu decided to take elephant conservation efforts into her own hands. Even though elephants are one of the most-studied animals in the world, Kahumbu said that more fascinating details are uncovered with each new study. For example, scientists have learned that elephants can communicate by projecting sounds at frequencies too low for humans to hear. Their large ears can also identify sounds up to six miles away. And they can smell water from a distance of 12 miles or more.
In addition, scientists are interested in the striking similarities between humans and elephants. Elephants travel in family herds, staying together for life. They grieve over dead family members and will even return year after year to pay respects to the bones of their kin.
Poachers often kill the matriarch, the largest and the leader of the herd, leaving the rest of the family vulnerable. Six thousand years ago, there were 25 million elephants in Africa. Today, there are less than half a million.
As Kahumbu was speaking, she showed black and white images of mutilated elephants on the Amp’s projection screens. Since tusks recede into the elephant’s mouth to connect to a socket in the skull, poachers must kill the elephant and then cut into the animal’s mouth to extract all of the ivory.
Last year, poachers gunned down 30,000 elephants in Africa, Kahumbu said. This number is greater than the entire number of elephants in Kenya.
Behind the rise of the poaching industry is the economic rise of another country. In China, ivory is a luxury often used to carve religious figures and other luxury goods.
“While in Kenya, if you’re wealthy, you might buy a Mercedes-Benz,” Kahumbu said. “In China, what you’ll buy is ivory.”
Kahumbu asked the audience to raise their hands to indicate whether they either owned ivory or knew someone who did. A large number raised their hands.
“Whether we like it or not, owning ivory makes us consciously or unconsciously a part of the demand,” she said. “And it’s the demand that is leading to the slaughter of the animals.”
Those at WildlifeDirect are trying to end animal poaching in three ways: by cracking down on crime, by eliminating ivory supply and demand and by creating awareness, engagement and mobilization.
The organization has recruited Kenya’s first lady, Margaret Kenyatta, as well as a number of Kenyan celebrities and sports stars. To show their support, the celebrities are wearing black armbands that read “H.O.O.E.,” which stands for “Hands Off Our Elephants.”
WildlifeDirect has also engaged communications companies, the tourism industry and major corporations.
“We’ve partnered with all the major media houses to do editorials every week about the carnage of that week,” Kahumbu said. “We’re going to be naming and shaming the [poachers] who get released with these small fines [instead of going to jail].”
The group plans on branding restaurant restrooms, grocery stores, cigarettes, beer, airplanes and highways to capture the attention of all passers-by.
“We want people to really wake up to what is happening,” she said. “As individuals, we have personal responsibility. We are each individually responsible for saving the world’s most magnificent species.”
The original link of this article is: http://chqdaily.com/2013/07/02/kahumbu-shares-efforts-to-save-africas-elephants