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.

Our newsletter that womansplains the week
5min read

Patriarchy Stress Disorder is A Real Thing and this Psychologist Is Helping Women Overcome It

For decades, women have been unknowingly suffering from PSD and intergenerational trauma, but now Dr. Valerie Rein wants women to reclaim their power through mind, body and healing tools.

As women, no matter how many accomplishments we have or how successful we look on the outside, we all occasionally hear that nagging internal voice telling us to do more. We criticize ourselves more than anyone else and then throw ourselves into the never-ending cycle of self-care, all in effort to save ourselves from crashing into this invisible internal wall. According to psychologist, entrepreneur and author, Dr. Valerie Rein, these feelings are not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you— but chances are you definitely suffering from Patriarchy Stress Disorder.

Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) is defined as the collective inherited trauma of oppression that forms an invisible inner barrier to women's happiness and fulfillment. The term was coined by Rein who discovered a missing link between trauma and the effects that patriarchal power structures have had on certain groups of people all throughout history up until the present day. Her life experience, in addition to research, have led Rein to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which men and women are experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress that have been genetically passed down from previously oppressed generations.

What makes the discovery of this disorder significant is that it provides women with an answer to the stresses and trauma we feel but cannot explain or overcome. After being admitted to the ER with stroke-like symptoms one afternoon, when Rein noticed the left side of her body and face going numb, she was baffled to learn from her doctors that the results of her tests revealed that her stroke-like symptoms were caused by stress. Rein was then left to figure out what exactly she did for her clients in order for them to be able to step into the fullness of themselves that she was unable to do for herself. "What started seeping through the tears was the realization that I checked all the boxes that society told me I needed to feel happy and fulfilled, but I didn't feel happy or fulfilled and I didn't feel unhappy either. I didn't feel much of anything at all, not even stress," she stated.

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valerie Rein

This raised the question for Rein as to what sort of hidden traumas women are suppressing without having any awareness of its presence. In her evaluation of her healing methodology, Rein realized that she was using mind, body and trauma healing tools with her clients because, while they had never experienced a traumatic event, they were showing the tell-tale symptoms of trauma which are described as a disconnect from parts of ourselves, body and emotions. In addition to her personal evaluation, research at the time had revealed that traumatic experiences are, in fact, passed down genetically throughout generations. This was Rein's lightbulb moment. The answer to a very real problem that she, and all women, have been experiencing is intergenerational trauma as a result of oppression formed under the patriarchy.

Although Rein's discovery would undoubtably change the way women experience and understand stress, it was crucial that she first broaden the definition of trauma not with the intention of catering to PSD, but to better identify the ways in which trauma presents itself in the current generation. When studying psychology from the books and diagnostic manuals written exclusively by white men, trauma was narrowly defined as a life-threatening experience. By that definition, not many people fit the bill despite showing trauma-like symptoms such as disconnections from parts of their body, emotions and self-expression. However, as the field of psychology has expanded, more voices have been joining the conversations and expanding the definition of trauma based on their lived experience. "I have broadened the definition to say that any experience that makes us feel unsafe psychically or emotionally can be traumatic," stated Rein. By redefining trauma, people across the gender spectrum are able to find validation in their experiences and begin their journey to healing these traumas not just for ourselves, but for future generations.

While PSD is not experienced by one particular gender, as women who have been one of the most historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we have inherited survival instructions that express themselves differently for different women. For some women, this means their nervous systems freeze when faced with something that has been historically dangerous for women such as stepping into their power, speaking out, being visible or making a lot of money. Then there are women who go into fight or flight mode. Although they are able to stand in the spotlight, they pay a high price for it when their nervous system begins to work in a constant state of hyper vigilance in order to keep them safe. These women often find themselves having trouble with anxiety, intimacy, sleeping or relaxing without a glass of wine or a pill. Because of this, adrenaline fatigue has become an epidemic among high achieving women that is resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety.

"For the first time, it makes sense that we are not broken or making this up, and we have gained this understanding by looking through the lens of a shared trauma. All of these things have been either forbidden or impossible for women. A woman's power has always been a punishable offense throughout history," stated Rein.

Although the idea of having a disorder may be scary to some and even potentially contribute to a victim mentality, Rein wants people to be empowered by PSD and to see it as a diagnosis meant to validate your experience by giving it a name, making it real and giving you a means to heal yourself. "There are still experiences in our lives that are triggering PSD and the more layers we heal, the more power we claim, the more resilience we have and more ability we have in staying plugged into our power and happiness. These triggers affect us less and less the more we heal," emphasized Rein. While the task of breaking intergenerational transmission of trauma seems intimidating, the author has flipped the negative approach to the healing journey from a game of survival to the game of how good can it get.

In her new book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment, Rein details an easy system for healing that includes the necessary tools she has sourced over 20 years on her healing exploration with the pioneers of mind, body and trauma resolution. Her 5-step system serves to help "Jailbreakers" escape the inner prison of PSD and other hidden trauma through the process of Waking Up in Prison, Meeting the Prison Guards, Turning the Prison Guards into Body Guards, Digging the Tunnel to Freedom and Savoring Freedom. Readers can also find free tools on Rein's website to help aid in their healing journey and exploration.

"I think of the book coming out as the birth of a movement. Healing is not women against men– it's women, men and people across the gender spectrum, coming together in a shared understanding that we all have trauma and we can all heal."