Paula Kahumbu: Defending rights for elephants, globally

National Geographic Explorer Dr. Paula Kahumbu has devoted her career to protecting elephants from environmental changes and poachers.

Growing up just outside of Nairobi, Kenya, it did not take long for Dr. Paula Kahumbu to fall in love with wildlife. The renowned conservationist spent her high school years interacting with animals in her neighborhood and going on expeditions, exploring the abundance of wildlife around her. 

The beauty of nature not only gave her a sense of wonder but also a sense of duty to protect the landscape of her homeland.

Like many of us, Kahumbu says she once took the abundance of wildlife that surrounded her for granted. But as she got older, and more of the animals she grew up with ended up on the endangered species list, she realized the importance of protecting Africa’s wildlife. 

As a young conservationist, Kahumbu recalls being enamored by reading Among the Elephants by Iain Douglas-Hamilton. In the book, he describes living alongside a herd of elephants in the Tanzanian wilderness and getting to know the elephant’s individual personalities. 

“What we know about elephants today is incredible,” Kahumbu said. “They are like people.”

But it was while conducting her Ph.D. research in Kenya’s coastal forests when a chance encounter offered Kahumbu a focal point for her career: As her team prepared to measure the area’s biodiversity, a group of elephants quietly surrounded them. Instead of confronting the team, the elephants simply lay down to sleep. Kahumbu was immediately struck by the grace of the elephants and their comfort around her.

As a result, Kahumbu decided to focus her Ph.D. research on elephants. She has since dedicated her life to protecting elephants in Kenya and is now a champion for elephant rights worldwide. 

“If we’re going to do conservation in Africa, we have to be audacious,” Kahumbu said. “We’ve got to be courageous and we’ve got to think big.”

Realizing that research wasn’t enough to get the attention of policymakers, Kahumbu moved into advocacy and campaining. She is the CEO of WildlifeDirect, an organization that helps conservationists directly report and publish their findings online. She also leads the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign with Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta, the first lady of the Republic of Kenya. 

Kahumbu’s efforts to protect elephants against environmental changes and poaching have gained the support of conservationists in Kenya and around the world. She is recognized as a Kenyan conservation ambassador by Brand Kenya and in 2015, she was granted the title of Order of the Grand Warrior by the Kenyan President for outstanding service. 

As talented as Kahumbu is in the field, she is also a visionary on the page. She is the author of critically acclaimed books, including Owen and Mzee, a children’s book that was adapted into a documentary. She is also a regular contributor at National Geographic magazine and is The Guardian's 'Environment Blogger for Africa.'

After completing her secondary education at Loreto Convent Msongari School in Kenya, Kahumbu was awarded a national scholarship to study ecology and biology at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. She received a master’s degree at the University of Florida and a Ph.D. at Princeton University. 

Through education, Kahumbu is inspiring a new generation of wildlife advocates who share her passion for fighting wildlife crime. She created her own television series called Wildlife Warriors, which allows Kenyan’s to tell their wildlife stories directly to African audiences. Her goal is to inspire people to love and care about nature, especially as climate change continues to threaten African wildlife.

In June 2021, Kahumbu was awarded the Rolex National Geographic Explorer Of The Year for her commitment to preserving wildlife and habitats in Kenya and beyond. 

In January 2022, Kahumbu joined the National Geographic Society’s board of trustees as an Explorer Trustee. In this role, Paula will serve as liaison between the organization’s global community of Explorers and the Society’s leadership.

Follow Kahumbu on her latest great adventure in "Welcome to Earth," a Disney+ original series from National Geographic.

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
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For National Geographic Society: Nandi Ndoro joined the Society as part of the Summer 2021 Internship Program. She is a writer and content creator studying at the University of Pennsylvania. Ndoro believes in using storytelling to uplift marginalized voices. 

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