Episode 6: Kenya’s wildlife warriors

How can we protect African wildlife? After captivating TV audiences with a nature show made by Kenyans for Kenyans, a conservationist says it’s up to Africans—not outsiders.

National Geographic Explorer Paula Kahumbu has her portrait taken amongst a herd of elephants in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. Paula holds a PhD from working with elephants and also works as a TV host and conservationist.
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James

In the heart of the Serengeti, hippos bathe and hyenas snatch food from hungry lions. Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year Paula Kahumbu brings this world to life in her documentary series Wildlife Warriors, a nature show made by Kenyans for Kenyans. Host Peter Gwin meets up with Paula in the Serengeti to learn how she became an unlikely TV star, and why it’s up to local wildlife warriors—not foreign scientists or tourists—to preserve Africa’s wild landscapes.

Listen on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music.


PETER GWIN (HOST): I just spent the morning driving in a 4x4 through rolling grass savannas in Kenya’s world famous Masai Mara. Already we’ve seen a group of cheetahs napping under a large acacia tree and a pair of young male lions lolling in the grass, eyeing a group of zebra and wildebeest nearby. And we passed a majestic pair of giraffes nibbling leaves and a family of black-backed jackals. They were playing a game—looked like tag—in the tall grass. 

The early light is golden, the air is cool, and the birds are singing and swooping over the grass as they hunt insects. It’s all pretty much a standard morning in the Serengeti ecosystem, home to some of the most iconic wildlife on Earth. And my traveling companion and I are looking for a place to sit down and have a chat.

(to Paula Kahumbu) What do you think? Are we—what would be too close to the hippos? 

PAULA KAHUMBU (ECOLOGIST): Um, I think going halfway down the bank over there is not a good idea.

GWIN (to Kahumbu): OK. Because it just freaks ‘em out, or it ...? 

I’m with Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu. We stop on a high bank overlooking the Mara River. And in the water, a couple dozen hippo heads poke above the surface.

KAHUMBU: That male is talking to these guys down here, and they are a little bit alert because we're here. So they've all gone underwater, and just their nostrils and their eyes are popping up and they’re checking us out. And he's warning them that we're here: Don't come this way. 

GWIN: Trust me, we listened to the warning. An angry hippo is four tons of bad attitude that can run, in short bursts, faster than a human. So Paula and I keep our distance. Hippos love to hang out in the water, and I always pictured them as good swimmers. But Paula says that’s not quite right.

KAHUMBU: You’d think they'd be buoyant. They’re fat enough and they've got plenty of gas in there. But no, they're not. They run along the bottom and they do this amazing bouncing run. If you watch them as they move the water, you’ll see them. They literally have to kick off the ground. 

GWIN: Yeah, wow.
KAHUMBU: You see? Look at them.

GWIN: Yeah. 

Traveling in the Serengeti and being surrounded by all its wildlife makes me think about what the future holds for this place. With human activity encroaching at its margins and climate change, some or possibly all of this wildlife could disappear, and Kenya would lose some of its most precious natural treasures. So I was surprised to hear Paula say that many of her fellow Kenyans don’t feel like it’s their own. 

KAHUMBU: Most Kenyans think wildlife is for the entertainment of tourists. It's not something for Kenyans. It's a very strange, like, psychology that we've created in this country by the way that we promote tourism. So it was very much, it's not for you, it's for these foreigners, because they bring in lots of money.

GWIN: But Paula is flipping the script. She’s on a mission to bring Kenyan wildlife to Kenyans so that one of Africa’s greatest wild landscapes will stay wild. 

I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic, and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo, and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week: inspiring a new wave of Kenyan wildlife warriors. How Paula Kahumbu is bringing the Serengeti right into Kenyan living rooms. And why the future of Africa’s wild places depends not on tourists or foreign benefactors—but on the people who live there. 

More after the break.

The greater Serengeti is a place like no other on the planet, and I got to go there earlier this year on assignment for National Geographic magazine. This place is so heart-stoppingly beautiful—so irreplaceable—that we’re devoting an entire issue of the magazine to it.

There are about 500 species of birds and more than 70 different large mammal species, including the biggest on land (the African elephant), the fastest (cheetah), and one of the rarest (the African wild dog). It’s also home to the wildebeest. More than a million of them travel every year in a 400-mile circuit from northern Tanzania to the Masai Mara. It’s the largest animal migration on the planet, and it’s a crucial piece of the ecosystem, as wildebeest fertilize the soils and provide food for predators and many other benefits.

Wherever you go in the Serengeti, though, you’re bound to encounter wildlife of one sort or another. 

(Sound of masked weaver birds)

A colony of masked weaver birds that have built an elaborate hanging city of grass nests in the treetops.

(Sound of colobus monkeys)

A raucous pair of colobus monkeys that—if you’re not careful—will jump onto your vehicle 

and peer at you through the windshield. You might even stumble upon a clan of hyenas stealing a kill from a lion. 

(Sound of hyenas)

Yeah, that really happened. I still get goosebumps thinking about that sound. All of these creatures coexist in an intricate web of life. And that brings us back to the Mara River and the hippos and my chat with Paula Kahumbu, because few people understand what’s at stake better than she does.

KAHUMBU: I am an ecologist. I studied elephants for my Ph.D., but I love all these animals.

GWIN: Paula runs a conservation nonprofit called WildlifeDirect. She’s a longtime National Geographic Explorer, and in 2021, she was honored as the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year. But in Kenya, she’s not just a scientist. She’s a TV star.

KAHUMBU (on the TV show): On this episode of Wildlife Warriors, join me as I meet Fikiri Kiponda and follow him on his quest to save these mysterious creatures, one turtle at a time. 

GWIN: Paula hosts a show called Wildlife Warriors. It’s made by a Kenyan TV crew and broadcast to millions of homes in more than 20 countries in Africa and the Caribbean. The interesting thing about Paula is that she never set out to be a TV star. She grew up in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, a huge, metropolitan city with five million people. But it also has a national park with elephants and giraffes, right next to the city. 

KAHUMBU: Nairobi National Park makes up 15 percent of the land area of the county of Nairobi and the city—it's bigger than the physical city of Nairobi. And so anybody can go to the park any day and you'll see all these amazing animals. So growing up, nature was—and wildlife—was normal. The idea of there being no giraffes or no elephants is just—it's just not even a possibility for most people. 

GWIN: On top of that, Paula had a guide who showed her the animal kingdom up close. And not just anybody: one of the most prominent scientists in Kenya and, for that matter, the world. His name is Richard Leakey.   

KAHUMBU: He was actually the head of the National Museums of Kenya and he made a lot of very important discoveries, archaeological discoveries. But it didn't—as a child, I had no idea what any of that meant.  

GWIN: So he just lived—he was the guy across the street, right? 

KAHUMBU: He was just the guy next door.

GWIN: Now the Leakey family is a scientific dynasty. Richard’s parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, started excavating fossils in East Africa almost a century ago, and together they rewrote a lot of what we know about human evolution and that it began in this part of Africa. Richard Leakey followed in his parents’ footsteps, making his own discoveries in paleoanthropology. But eventually he turned his attention to conservation. In 1990 he was appointed the first director of the Kenya Wildlife Service and embarked on a major campaign to stem elephant poaching.

So to put it lightly, Richard Leakey is a big deal. And one day, when she was about five years old, Paula was tramping through his yard. She was with her brother, who wasn’t much older.

KAHUMBU: We were coming home and we were passing just the gate. There's this beautiful, phenomenal fig tree. And up in the upper branches was a hyrax.

GWIN: OK, a hyrax is a small African mammal. Picture an oversized guinea pig. As Paula and her brother watched it up in the tree, Leakey drove up and rolled down his window.

KAHUMBU: And this guy says to me, What are you children doing? We’re like, Oh, look, there’s this amazing animal up there. He says, Are you going to kill it? I remember just thinking, What an outrage. Why would I kill an animal?

GWIN: OK, Paula’s brother was holding a slingshot. So it wasn’t such a crazy question. But Leakey kept talking.

KAHUMBU: And he told us what it was and he said if you're interested in animals, come over to my house and I'll tell you about them. And so we did. We would bring him snakes and lizards and birds and frogs and mice and whatever we could catch. But we learned a lot, and he was incredibly patient.

GWIN: Years later, when it was time to choose a career, Paula knew exactly what she wanted to do: She wanted to study animals. 

KAHUMBU: But my parents—when I said I wanted to do conservation, my mother was not at all impressed. 

GWIN: Really? 

KAHUMBU: Yeah. She was like, That isn't a job. It's not a career. You should be a secretary. So—

GWIN: Really?!

KAHUMBU: So immediately after high school, I was sent off to secretarial college so that I would become a good secretary because that was what girls did in those days. And I survived three months of it, and then I ran away with a friend of mine. We both absconded, and we went to the National Museums of Kenya and went and knocked on Richard Leakey's door like, “Help.”

GWIN: If anybody could understand, it would be Richard Leakey. Paula told him that she was thinking about becoming a wildlife ranger.   

KAHUMBU: And Richard Leakey said, You don't want to be a ranger. I was like, I do. This is all I want to do. And he said, OK, why do you want to be a ranger? And I told him, I just want to work with wildlife. And he looked at my grades, and he said, Don't you want to go to university? And I was like, I would love to go to university, but we weren't rich enough to go to university. And so he instead invited me to go and do an internship for a year at a research facility.

GWIN: That internship was just the opening Paula needed. She went on to university and later earned a Ph.D. at Princeton. But she never stopped working with Richard Leakey. He cofounded the conservation nonprofit WildlifeDirect and Paula joined the staff in 2007. Now she’s the CEO.

Paula’s most successful campaign is called Hands Off Our Elephants. It led to the Kenyan government pledging millions of dollars to fight poaching, plus training more than 500 new rangers. According to WildlifeDirect, the campaign decreased elephant poaching in Kenya by 80 percent.

But stopping poaching is only a piece of the conservation puzzle. Paula understood that making real progress meant changing how people think about animals—and for her that meant bringing wildlife straight into Kenyan homes.

KAHUMBU: And we started a TV series where we showed wildlife documentaries, but within weeks Kenyans were asking questions. So these are great documentaries: National Geographic, Disney, you know, Animal Planet, you name it. People love the videos, but they said, But how come there are no Kenyans? How come—don't we have scientists in our country to tell us about our own animals? 

GWIN: So Paula thought, Why settle for expensive foreign documentaries? We can highlight some of those scientists. That was the basic idea of her TV show, Wildlife Warriors. Kenyan experts showcasing Kenyan animals. At first, it was a spartan operation. 

KAHUMBU: So we got two chairs. We found a host from a television station. She was a very beautiful news anchor who didn't know anything about wildlife. And we would get this news anchor to interview people literally on some chairs.

GWIN: Paula would write the scripts, and the news anchor would ask the questions. They snagged a time slot on a Kenyan TV channel: 10 p.m. on Tuesday nights.

KAHUMBU: And everyone had told me, you know, first, you're not trained in this. You don't know what you're doing. You're wasting donor money. You're—there's no audience, no—Kenyans don't care about this content. Well, we had five million people watching— 

GWIN: Wow. 

KAHUMBU: —this show. Yeah, it was huge.

GWIN: If five million people wanted to see Paula’s barebones TV show, she figured a real outdoors show could be an even bigger hit. Donors gave Paula more money, and she spent a whole year workshopping a show that would spotlight Kenyan wildlife. But there was a problem. Kenya was in the middle of a presidential election, and Paula’s TV anchor kept getting pulled into political stories. So Paula realized Wildlife Warriors needed a new host.

KAHUMBU: I tried everything. I tried a number of people to be host, and I couldn't find anybody. But I'd found a company that had the crew that I could work with, and they were looking and they were saying, But why don't you just host it yourself? You know everything. Why are you looking for somebody else—to train somebody else to do what you already do naturally? And so we tried it out, and season one was such a hit.

GWIN: Wildlife Warriors highlights the charismatic animals you think of when you picture the Serengeti. You know, elephants, rhinos, zebras. But it also puts a spotlight on animals people don’t necessarily like. 

KAHUMBU: I told my crew, I want to film the things that nobody thinks we should film. Start with snakes. My crew are so scared of snakes. It was crazy. They would—often the cameras will [be] abandoned and the crew had gone and left me standing there. They were so scared of the snakes we were filming. 

GWIN: Well, I mean, to be fair, Kenya’s got some of the most poisonous snakes in the world, right? I mean like black mambas and green mambas. 

KAHUMBU: That was the point. That's why we were doing it, because we wanted people to not be so scared, to understand snakes, and to understand what to do if you get bitten by a snake.

GWIN: In Kenya, hundreds of people die from snakebites every year. So in the episode, Paula watches as a scientist spots a snake on the jungle floor. It’s a type of viper called a puff adder, and it’s extremely dangerous. The scientist corrals the snake into a wooden box. Then he holds it up so Paula can get a closer look. 

(Sound from Wildlife Warriors TV show)

KAHUMBU: Oh my god! 

SCIENTIST: Do you see the venom? 

KAHUMBU: Oh my god. This is unbelievable, Boniface. Aren’t you scared?

SCIENTIST: Not scared. I must be absolutely keen on what I’m doing because it’s a dangerous snake.

GWIN: Later, another scientist shows her how to milk a snake’s venom, which is crucial to making antivenom and saving people’s lives. This emphasizes the importance of the scientists’ work and the impact it has on daily life. 

Wildlife Warriors has also shown Kenyans creatures that many didn’t know were in their backyard. In addition to its famous inland game reserves, Kenya has more than 300 miles of tropical coastline. Paula says that many Kenyans don’t know that humpback whales live just off their coast. So she focused an episode all about humpbacks. 

KAHUMBU (on the Wildlife Warriors show): This is an animal that very few people in this country know even exists. It’s one of the biggest mammals in the world and definitely the largest creatures in our waters. I’m going out to sea to try and spot my first whale. 

GWIN: Now the finished episode about humpbacks looks really slick. There’s great camera work. The show tells a good story. But with nature shows, it’s never easy behind the scenes. Paula didn’t realize that for her crew, going out to sea would be a brutal assignment.  

KAHUMBU: My crew can't swim. But I didn't know that they also suffer from severe seasickness.

GWIN: Oh boy. 

KAHUMBU: So we went out on a day, which was a very stormy day, and I was in heaven. I love being out in the sea. They were all—it was like the ICU on that boat. They were so sick.

GWIN: Once they were out in the water, they didn’t see any humpbacks. Apparently they’d picked the wrong day. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the captain told them they couldn’t turn back for another five hours. So there was nothing to do but wait. 

KAHUMBU: And my crew were just all asleep or sick. Breakfast is all overboard. And I was watching a little dugout canoe with a fisherman, literally fishing with a line and a rod. I noticed this huge thing just coming, you know, between the fisherman and us. And it was a humpback whale. And she breached with her calf right in front of us, and so I screamed for the crew to come back up to the top to film. They were filming and throwing up, filming and throwing up. They’ve never forgiven me for this. 

GWIN (to Kahumbu): How do you have any crew left, Paula?

According to Paula, the first season drew a huge audience: half of Kenya’s people have seen the series. That works out to something like 27 million viewers. So people are paying attention. There’s clearly a Kenyan audience that wants to learn more about conservation, and that’s a big win. And it makes Paula hopeful. But there are still massive challenges. 

More after the break.

KAHUMBU: The future for conservation in Africa is perilous right now. I would say we are at a crossroads.  

GWIN: Paula sees several major threats to wildlife. Poaching remains a concern, and the effects of climate change loom over the ecosystems. But human activity that crowds into wildlife areas is especially worrying.

KAHUMBU: The main threat—they're losing their habitats. They're losing land, and they're losing land to developments like agriculture. Or wildlife corridors are being affected by housing estates, roads, railways, and all this infrastructure that is cutting up and carving up their land, where they need to move—and preventing them from moving. So the connectivity between protected areas is at risk. That affects core areas. 

GWIN: Kenya has more than 50 national parks and reserves. And there are many more privately managed conservancies. There’s a popular line of thinking—and one that I’ve heard repeated many times—that conservationists should focus on tourism in those reserves. The reasoning is that tourism gives an economic incentive to protect wildlife, especially charismatic species like elephants, lions, rhinos, and giraffes. And that’s true to a degree. Paula says that tourism is only a part of the solution, and in some places it’s just not feasible. 

KAHUMBU: I think that this idea that tourism will save wildlife is a message that has undermined conservation and protection of wildlife, because that means that if you're in an area where you can't do tourism because—perhaps there’s conflict, it’s too isolated, there could be diseases like Ebola—then that would mean you should shut down those things and do something else with that land. And unfortunately, that's what's happening in large parts of Africa.

GWIN: Paula says conservation groups do need more investment. And they could also find more creative ways to make money. Maybe more wildlife reserves could double as solar farms or find other niches. But at the end of the day, she says the solution for African wildlife can only come from Africans. 

KAHUMBU: It's going to take the people of Africa to stand up and say, “No.” That's what I see. It's going to take people standing up and saying, “It's not OK. We're not going to allow that to happen.” 

GWIN: In other words, to make sure the Serengeti remains one of the world's great natural wonders, you need a new generation of wildlife warriors.

KAHUMBU: So now is the time to create that mass public awareness and opportunity for people to have a voice, to make sense—not just talking because they heard it somewhere but because we have real life experience and knowledge—that we can actually turn the needle. And if Africa succeeds in defending these wild places and these wild animals, it will be the only continent on Earth that managed. And I think it’s possible.

GWIN: Thank you so much, Paula. 

KAHUMBU: Thank you, Peter.  

GWIN: And thanks to the hippos. 

KAHUMBU: Yeah. My bum is so sore. 

GWIN (to Kahumbu): I know it. Sitting on this bank, now … 

After our interview, Paula and I climb in the 4x4. And as we’re driving through the wide-open grasslands of the Serengeti, we come upon an elephant family. 

KAHUMBU: I've counted 18. Did anyone count? This is—it's not a huge family, but it's a nice family.

GWIN: Remember, Paula focused her Ph.D. on elephants. She’s seen them up close so many times, and she’s taken zillions of photos. But right now, in this moment, with the sun shining just right, she pulls out her phone and snaps another picture. 

KAHUMBU: Just look at how the bodies are contrasting that grass. So pretty. 

GWIN: Yeah.

KAHUMBU: And this light is really lovely. The grass is so golden. 

GWIN: Paula points out two elephants just in front of us. They’re both young males. And she starts to explain things I might miss, like how one elephant sticks his trunk in the other’s mouth, apparently to taste his buddy’s food. Or how their extremely sensitive feet could help them sense thunderstorms from miles away.    

KAHUMBU: They have a sense of smell many, many times more powerful than a dog. Look, he's coming right up to us. This is wonderful. 

(Sound of camera shutter clicking) 

GWIN: In this moment, all you can do is marvel at these elephants—at this landscape that seems to be a relic preserved from an earlier, wilder time. If Kenya’s wildlife warriors succeed, this age-old, irreplaceable ecosystem will survive into the future.

We’ve got a ton of resources to help you explore the Serengeti. We dedicated an entire issue of National Geographic magazine to this amazing place. Check out the link in our show notes. 

Subscribers can see stunning photographs by Charlie Hamilton James—who’s a previous guest on Overheard—and you can read about the Maasai spiritual leader and the remote mountain forest he protects in the Serengeti. Plus, don’t miss Welcome to Earth. It’s an original series from National Geographic. All episodes are streaming December 8, only on Disney+.

You can find links for all of that in the show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app. And if you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard and hear more adventures in places like the Serengeti. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Ilana Strauss, Brian Gutierrez, Marcy Thompson, Bianca Martin, and Jacob Pinter. Our senior editor is Eli Chen. Our senior producer is Carla Wills. Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan. Our fact checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer. Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music, and he sound-designed and engineered this episode.

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, and funds the work of Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year Paula Kahumbu. 

Special thanks to WildlifeDirect for the clips you heard from Paula’s TV show, Wildlife Warriors.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director. And I’m Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more? 

See the Serengeti like never before in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic. Along with heart-stopping wildlife photos, subscribers can go inside the planet’s largest animal migration: the perilous 400-mile circuit of the wildebeest. 

Subscribers can also meet a Maasai spiritual leader who protects a remote mountain forest, and read Paula Kahumbu’s essay on the future of African conservation. 

Don’t miss Welcome to Earth, an original series from National Geographic. All episodes streaming December 8, only on Disney+.

Also explore: 

Watch episodes of Wildlife Warriors on its YouTube channel, WildlifeWarriorsTV.

Learn more about the wildlife that makes the Serengeti irreplaceable. African elephants are ecosystem “engineers” who shape their own habitat. Hippopotamuses spend up to 16 hours a day submerged in water—that’s why their name comes from the Greek for “river horse.” 

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Learn more about the Society’s support of its Explorers.