Fighting The Good Fight: Wildlifedirect's CEO Shares What It Means To Be A Part Of The Anti-Poaching Movement In Kenya


As a young girl, Dr. Paula Kahumbu grew up on the outskirts of Nairobi, with swamps, streams and forests as her backyard, and one of the most prevalent names in wildlife conservation as her neighbor. “I was very fortunate that one of my neighbors was Richard Leakey,” says Dr. Kahumbu of the Kenyan conservationist, then serving as the director of the National Museum of Kenya. “At a very early age he found me looking at a hyrax at the top of a tree and he was fascinated that I was interested in this animal. He invited me to stop by his house anytime I had questions about animals, so I took advantage of that.”

Having spent much of her childhood learning about animals from Leakey, when it came time for Kahumbu to attend college, she knew her expected path as a secretary was not for her after just six months of studying. So, Kahumbu ran away to her former neighbor and confided in Leakey with her interest in becoming a ranger. “This was the most important turning point in my life--having someone who listened to what I wanted to do gave me permission to explore my interests.”

Leakey’s mentorship included assigning a young Kahumbu fieldwork and lab work to assist him in his role as director of the National Museum of Kenya. One of her first assignments included a stock take from the original ivory burn in 1989 as Kenya became the first country to destroy its ivory stockpile. “I had to take every single tusk and measure, weigh it, gather data on it and analyze it,” explains Dr. Kahumbu. “One of the things I found on this two-week long audit was that poachers were killing baby elephants for tusks with less than one kilogram of ivory.”

Dr. Kahumbu notes that prior to the 1980s, poachers were only targeting adult elephants as they had the largest and heaviest tusks; worth the most money. When she realized the desperation of poachers to kill baby elephants for such an insignificant amount of ivory, Dr. Kahumbu recognized the problem as one she didn’t think could be fixed before elephants became extinct. “I thought there was no point in studying them,” she admits.

Yet, as she continued to watch the effect that African ivory burns had on the international ivory market, Dr. Kahumbu realized that destroying the product was destroying the market; therefore, there was still time to save the species. So, she shifted her studies to elephant research and began dedicating her time to saving them. “I felt my research had to save elephants. I thought why study them if I can’t help them.”

This led Dr. Kahumbu to the government, where she worked on creating and amending policies surrounding the ivory trade. This included introducing education efforts amongst local communities, cracking down on punishment for poachers and discouraging international buyers. In the midst of petitioning for change in the political systems, Richard Leakey recruited Kahumbu to WildlifeDirect to continue her fight by garnering global support for the organization in a public sphere.

“Becoming a voice for these animals is not what I thought I was going to be doing when I started studying these animals,” says Dr. Kahumbu on her position as CEO at WildlifeDirect for the past ten years.

Today, the organization is recognized as one of the prominent disruptors of the ivory trade and the anti-poaching movement. Through policy change, international education, public campaigns and notable partnerships, WildlifeDirect continues to set an international example of what can happen when a community comes together to save a species.

SWAAY sat down with Dr. Paula Kahumbu to learn more about her past ten years at WildlifeDirect, as well as what we can do, or buy, to help and better understand the anti-poaching movement from a global perspective.

Too often one will read the headlines about poached and killed elephants, yet apart from a brief sadness, will feel too removed and helpless to act on their emotion. What is a way you try to change this mindset through WildlifeDirect?
We must first remind all people how special elephants are. At WildlifeDirect, we started a massive public campaign called Hands Off Our Elephants to invite Kenyans [to see] that these are our elephants and that we will defend them.

We inspire Kenyans by telling the stories of individual elephants like Tim, a 49-year-old bull who has magnificent tusks that reach down to the ground. To a poacher, this is money. To a Chinese or Japanese person, this could mean a trinket [demand for ivory exists primarily in Asian countries and the Asian diaspora]. To Africans, he is an icon. A proud reminder of greatness. He is probably the biggest elephant left on earth, and he knows that he is strong and scary, yet, I can drive close up to him, and if I call his name, he turns his head to me and even approaches my car.

People tell us not to tell the world about Tim--that awareness will attract poachers. But Tim needs protection, and we believe that the more people who know about him, the more protection he will get. So, our slogan #KeepTimAlive aims to make sure that people know he exists, encourages people to come look for him in Amboseli, and support the parks which finance anti-poaching efforts.

What have you found as the most effective system for gaining support around the anti-poaching movement, both in Kenya and overseas?

Our campaign is multi-faceted--we have completely reformed the laws in Kenya and how they are applied. We train magistrates and prosecutors to implement the laws, and we have a program called Eyes in the Courtroom that monitors all wildlife trials to create a database on how well the reforms are working.

But it's not just the legal fraternity that matters--so long as some people think that it's OK to kill elephants and use ivory, we will have a problem. We need all people to love elephants-- starting with African people. We started screening award-winning wildlife documentaries from National Geographic, BBC, Discovery, and Disneynature on Kenyan television two years ago. Until then, these programs--some of them 30 years old and which were filmed in Kenya--had never been seen here. When we combined it with our own discussion program that takes our audiences into the wild to meet Kenyan scientists, conservationists, rangers, community members and even government officials, the audiences went wild. They started visiting the parks because our show gave them a new perspective in which we are the proud protectors of our heritage.

We have had such enthusiastic response that we now take hundreds of children into the parks each year to do science. This has been perhaps the most amazing direct impact that I can say--children as young as five have been involved in collecting data, counting elephants, and writing stories about wildlife.

We are changing an age-old message that wildlife in Kenya is valuable for tourism which generates foreign currency and supports our economy, to a message that our wildlife is ours.

What has been one of the most effective ways to deal with the pushback from the supporters of poaching?

I’ve had public debates and I really enjoy it because it helps me understand what other people are thinking. Not everyone in my field thinks it's a clever way to deal with it and some of my own colleagues will boycott them because they think I’m legitimizing people who want to sell ivory. But we need to have these conversations. We need to hear what the arguments are on both sides, and what we are up against.

Dr. Paula Kahumbu

How can we as overseas activists join the anti-poaching movement?

Anyone, anywhere in the world can support conservation efforts by choosing a charity that they trust, and help raise funds-- like the Elephant Highway. They sell T-shirts and other items and make donations to WildlifeDirect every year. We encourage our supporters to raise funds, visit our field projects, donate books, films, cameras, tents, camping gear and other items—it all helps and makes an impact. You can also create your own group to support efforts to ban ivory trade in your own country, and help any charity of your choice that makes a meaningful difference on the ground.

One of your more prominent activations is in partnership with Amarula Cream Liqueur. What has been the effect you’ve seen from this?
Amarula sends the message that it is possible to be successful, to change the course of history for elephants through very strategic and specific interventions. Taking the issue on as a global issue makes them a very brave company. They are based in a country [South Africa], as one of four that were part of the ivory trade and sold all of their ivory. So, the whole brand identity has become a commitment to saving elephants.

Since we’ve been working with them, we’ve had a few activations: Name Them Save Them, and most recently Don’t Let Them Disappear, where in the U.S., for every bottle of Amarula sold, $1 was donated to our organization.

What I think is interesting is they chose an African to represent their brand and campaigns. I’m a scientist and I’m in Africa--they want to show that while the issue is global, the solutions for Africa are coming from Africans and that’s what they want to support.

In addition to Elephant Highway and Amarula, are there any other partners that we should be familiar with that help give back to your organization, or that help raise awareness around the movement?

WildlifeDirect is associated with National Geographic, Caffe Corsini in Italy, and Safaricom in Kenya. We work with book publishers Storymoja, and some of our biggest supporters are the Whitley Foundation in the UK, Save the Elephants and the Elephant Crisis Fund in the USA.

What is something you want the world to know about this endangered species?

Anyone who owns, or is considering buying or selling ivory, should know that ivory can only be obtained by killing an elephant--and once you know a little bit about elephants, you will agree that killing elephants for their teeth is simply unacceptable.

Elephants are not a thing, a commodity; they are likely humans. They are social, have cultures, language, they laugh, cry, play tricks on each other, they grieve their dead, and they help each other when sick or injured. Trading in elephants or their parts is the equivalent of trading humans. It’s that simple.

In Kenya, elephants are considered to be so much like humans that they are actually our ancestors, and some believe that they embody human spirits and we should aspire to be like them. They are amongst the best studied wild animals in the world, yet we are still only just scratching the surface to unlock their fascinating secrets.


Why Whiskey Should No Longer Be Categorized As “A Man’s Drink”

I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"

I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.

In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.

Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.

For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.

Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.

The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.

It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.

While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.

What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.

While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.