Episode 16: What will it take to save the savanna elephant?

Wildlife warrior Paula Kahumbu talks about the past, present, and future of African savanna elephants.

An elephant roams through Kimana Sanctuary, a crucial corridor that links Amboseli National Park with the Chyulu Hills and Tsavo protected areas in Kenya, on May 23, 2022. As well as being the largest land mammal on earth, elephants are a keystone species and play an important role in the environment where they live. However, having roamed the wild for 15 million years, today, this iconic species faces the biggest threats to its survival due to ivory poaching, human-wildlife conflict and habitat destruction.
Photo by Nichole Sobecki

As the CEO of WildlifeDirect, Paula Kahumbu has dedicated her life to saving space for wildlife to thrive in Africa and building healthy relationships between humans and wild elephants. Paula got her start in wildlife conservation by measuring Kenya’s stockpile of elephant tusks confiscated from poachers—12 tons in all. And it turns out poachers aren’t the only threat to this endangered species.

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PAULA KAHUMBU (ELEPHANT EXPERT): The way that these elephants use this landscape is something that has been learned and passed on from generation to generation.

BRIAN GUTIERREZ (HOST): This is Paula Kahumbu, National Geographic Explorer and elephant expert on our new documentary series, Secrets of the Elephants.

KAHUMBU: Once the first elephants figured out how to navigate this incredibly treacherous terrain, they taught the others and they taught the others, and they’ve continued to use this pathway.

GUTIERREZ: Paula has followed elephants on these pathways for years now. In this second episode in our three-part series, she’ll share with us what she’s learned.

I’m Brian Gutierrez and you’re listening to 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: Paula Kahumbu will take us inside the world of elephants.

KAHUMBU: For generations. They’ll continue doing the same things as part of their culture. That’s how they transmit knowledge. It’s what makes them so successful as a species.

GUTIERREZ: But that culture, knowledge, and the species itself is in danger of extinction, and they need our help to survive.

We’ll be right back after the break.

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KAHUMBU: My name is Paula Kahumbu. I’m the CEO of Wildlife Direct and I’m an elephant expert. I try to save elephants, really.

GUTIERREZ: Do you remember the first elephant that you could recognize by name?

KAHUMBU: Oh, gosh. No. So many elephants in Kenya are known by name. Thousands of them. I can tell you which elephant I fell in love with.

GUTIERREZ: Tell me that story.

KAHUMBU: So his name was Tim.


KAHUMBU: Tim was a super tusker. And I had my board meeting, and they had told the elephant researchers, “If you see Tim, you know, please let us know. I’d love the board to meet this incredible elephant.”


KAHUMBU: I got the call in the middle of the meeting, and they said, “Tim is in the elephant camp. You’ve got to come now.” So we all dropped what we were doing, middle of a board meeting, jumped in our safari cars, went racing off in these jeeps in the dust to find Tim.

And when we got to this camp, there were these beautiful, tall palm trees. And all you could see was the palm tree kind of shaking a little bit. And then he walked out from the trees. And as he walked out, we noticed he was limping.

He had an injury on his back-left thigh. He had actually been speared. And my board, in that moment realized that Tim probably would die unless we took action. And we made a commitment there and then, we’re going to save Tim. And this started—my whole board meeting was overturned with this now new imperative, which is “we’ve got to save Tim.”

Tim was an elephant that Kenyans didn’t even know existed. Because when you have such a magnificent animal, you don’t want people to know he exists because poachers might come and kill him.

We decided we’d do the opposite. We’re going to make this elephant so famous. We’re going to save him, we’re going to rescue him, we’re going to treat him. We’re going to put a radio collar on him. We’re going to have a 24/7 security group following him. And we did all that. So I fell in love with Tim because he was the elephant who turned the hearts and minds of Kenyans. Everybody started coming to Amboseli to meet Tim. It was amazing. Really amazing.

GUTIERREZ: What happened with the spear injury?

KAHUMBU: He got treated and we were able to put a radio collar on him so it could always find him. He did a lot of surprising things. He would take his family of bulls—he did have this group of bulls and there were all his relatives. And we knew this because the elephants are named by letters of the alphabet which are related to their families. So all the Ts are one family of elephants.

GUTIERREZ: So you have Tim.

KAHUMBU: Tolstoy.


KAHUMBU: Townsend.

GUTIERREZ: Townsend. OK.

KAHUMBU: There were just all these names that they came up with all beginning with “T” and they were all together.

GUTIERREZ: And did they all have those huge tusks? Are they all super tuskers?

KAHUMBU: Amazingly, yes. They had—they weren’t just big tusks. There was one long tusk and one slightly shorter curved tusks. You could see that there was a gene.

GUTIERREZ: They all had that pattern.

KAHUMBU: They all had the same pattern. One day when we were filming them, they all went to sleep. And I was watching them as we were filming them. I told my crew, “Film them now, now, now. They’re all going to go to sleep.” And you’d think they’d lay down like a human being would, get down on your knees then—no. They just fall over, boof, on the ground.



GUTIERREZ: Like a building.

KAHUMBU: They literally—the back legs buckle and they just collapse, thosh, onto the ground and so Tim and his whole family, there were eight big bulls, and they were just going down like dominos—dosh, dosh, dosh.

And Tim was the last one to go down. All these ellies snoring in front of us for two hours. And we took photos and sent it to the elephant researchers who were very alarmed and they were like, “There’s something wrong. These elephants, they’re sick, they’ve been poisoned. Something terrible is happening.” And I was like, “No, they’re just having a nap.”


KAHUMBU: But they let us stay literally within a few feet of them as they slept right in front of us. Tim, whenever we saw him, he would do something that would make us think, wow, this story will help us to win the hearts and minds of people.

And sadly, he did pass away a few years later, but from natural causes. So I’m really grateful that he lived a happy and productive life. I think there are lots of little Tim’s out there.

GUTIERREZ: I think for people who don’t know anything about elephants, we should clarify: there are three species, right?

KAHUMBU: Absolutely. Yes. There’s the African savanna Elephant, which everyone knows about. The big giants of the African savannas, Loxodonta africana. And then you have the African forest elephant, the Loxadona cyclotus, which was only recognized as a separate species a few years ago. And then you have the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, which is a totally different type of animal. They’re all amazing. All of them are incredible.

GUTIERREZ: And all these species of elephants are endangered.

KAHUMBU: Everywhere we went to, it was heartbreaking to see how much peril they’re all in. African savanna elephants are losing space. There’s a huge amount of human-elephant conflict. African forest elephants, they are so terrorized by humans that if they see you, they will just try to kill you. We had camera traps that were not just damaged—they were literally smashed to smithereens by elephants.

GUTIERREZ: Because it smells like people?

KAHUMBU: Yeah. In one case, they literally pulled up a whole tree and dragged it for hundreds of meters. And you can see from the camera trap because the camera footage was still there. You could see how the elephant sensed it, came close to it, smelled it with his trunk, put his eyeball right up against the camera. It’s like, This is the thing, and then just whacked it with his tusk.


KAHUMBU: Several times, and then pulled out the whole tree.

GUTIERREZ: So how did you decide to study elephants?

KAHUMBU: I didn’t initially want to study elephants because I was really scared that, one, studying them was dangerous. Not because elephants are dangerous, but because they were being followed by people with guns. And the second reason was because I thought they were going to go extinct.

I had it that if I do my Ph.D. in elephants and they go extinct, what a waste of time. It’s a very weird thing to think now, but at the time that was really what was going on in my mind when I was doing my master’s degree. And so I did my master’s on monkeys, which was fun. I love monkeys, too. And then when I came back to the Kenya Wildlife Service, having finished my master’s, I was working on monkeys and I was watching all my colleagues who were studying elephants. I was so jealous. They were going all over the country, counting elephants, counting dung, measuring elephants, doing all this really cool research. And I was counting monkeys.


KAHUMBU: It was. I was missing out. I was suffering so badly from FOMO. So I started going out with my colleagues at the Kenya Wildlife Service, and I started just going out with them to help. And I realized actually, I’m a natural at it. I loved the work. I loved being in the bush. We did a lot of work on foot on the ground following elephants, and I felt like I could read the elephants. And when it came time for me to apply for my own Ph.D., there was no question that I was going to study elephants.

GUTIERREZ: Yeah, you were studying forest—not forest elephants, but savanna elephants, in the forest.

KAHUMBU: So I had to go and find my own study site. And I decided to study forest-living savanna elephants because nobody had done it. People had known that there were elephants living in forests because you’d find dung everywhere. But nobody had seen the elephants. And you more or less don’t want to see elephants in the forest, actually, because it’s risky, you can’t escape from them. And I thought I would take that on.

GUTIERREZ: And what did you learn? How did these savanna elephants—

KAHUMBU: So elephants are amazing. I think if there were no elephants, our forests in Africa would not be as diverse as they are. There’s no way. When they come into the forest, they kind of bash their way in and create these pathways. So they open up these paths that many, many other animals use, including humans and their livestock. And you’ll get herds of buffaloes coming in. Even giraffes can walk in.

And when elephants walk through these forests, what they’re doing is they’re munching on all this food and they’re pooping it out. You can imagine, I mean, an elephant can carry 150 kilograms in its belly. So it’s carrying a huge volume of stuff and it’s moving massive distances, 15, 20 kilometers and dropping it along the way. You’ll find the animals will come and find that dung and they’ll start burrowing through it.

You’ll often find a fresh elephant dung has just been scattered all over the place because these birds will come in and they’ll start scattering it about looking for seeds and anything they can eat like grubs and things in the dung.

GUTIERREZ: It’s like an airdrop.

KAHUMBU: It’s, yeah. I mean, it is really like a little delivery from Amazon. Yeah. Yeah. “Oh, food.” And all these animals will come scurrying and looking for, you know, to forage through it. As a result, the forest is very diverse in terms of species. And even an individual tree where an elephant will tusk it a little bit with this task. And in doing so it might injure the tree. Then the tree will try to repair itself and just start having all these warts and knots and nooks and crannies start forming on the trees. So a tree becomes a cavernous thing full of lots of little places for other animals to go and live in—and plants to settle in. When you remove elephants from these places, it’s almost like the whole forest becomes quite silent.

GUTIERREZ: One of the biggest threats to African elephants is the ivory trade. After the break, Paula will talk about what it takes to get ivory off the black market and the United States’ history as the number-one importer of the substance for almost 100 years.

One of your early experiences was working with the Kenya Wildlife Service’s ivory stockpile. Could you tell me about what you were doing with them?

KAHUMBU: Yeah. When I finished my bachelor’s degree, I came back to Kenya and I was invited to lead the first stock-take of the Kenyan ivory stockpile. It was an underground vault. The national museums where all the ivory was kept. It was really quite a disgusting job because this was an airless room full of just piles of ivory.

Ivory is one of those weird things that’s very hard to store because they’re all massive, big, curved things, and each one weighs tens of kilograms. They’re very heavy. So they’re just literally just sometimes just thrown in a pile. But each tusk is marked, where it came from, and the date that it was brought, and the weight of that tusk. And that was work that revealed to me just how serious the ivory crisis was—or the decimation of elephants was, because you could see that elephants, maybe 20 years earlier, were being killed for their ivory and they were full-grown elephants. And by the time I was doing that stocktake, baby elephants that were maybe two years old, three years old, were being killed.

GUTIERREZ: So Kenya had this stockpile. The ivory had been confiscated?

KAHUMBU: Almost all of it was ivory that had been associated with the slaughter of elephants.

GUTIERREZ: So what happened after you cataloged all the ivory?

KAHUMBU: We cataloged it for a very specific reason, which was to know how much there was and then to create a massive ivory bonfire. It was the first time that anyone had dreamed of such a crazy idea. That was Richard Leakey’s idea. And a lot of people said, You can’t burn ivory. It’s like a tooth, you know? It can’t burn. So he got this amazing, crazy guy called Robin. Robin created this beautiful pyre of ivory. And underneath it was firewood. And it was all gasoline and there were pumps and pipes and whatever to create an inferno that would turn that ivory into charcoal.

And they did it. It was phenomenal. Phenomenal. And all the ivory was destroyed and the vaults were empty. But it didn’t take that long—25 years later, the vaults were full again. We’ve now burned ivory in Kenya five times.

GUTIERREZ: This is probably millions of dollars of ivory. What’s the idea behind burning such a valuable substance?

KAHUMBU: If you talk to Richard Leakey—who sadly has now passed away, he was a very good friend of mine—he felt, if you want to change hearts and minds, you need to create a spectacle that is going to be so impossible to erase from your mind. He felt that people needed to stop seeing ivory as valuable, stop seeing it as prestigious and start seeing it as shameful, despicable to be associated with having ivory.

The only thing driving the slaughter of elephants in Africa was the price of ivory because it could get onto the illegal markets. So making sure that the ivory price was rock bottom was really, really important. Sustaining that messaging, whether it’s in Africa or here in the United States, which was the largest market.


KAHUMBU: Yes. There are whole towns in this country that were founded on ivory. There’s a town called Ivoryton.

GUTIERREZ: Oh, and it’s just an ivory—

KAHUMBU: In Connecticut.

GUTIERREZ: I had no idea.

KAHUMBU: It’s a town that was founded on ivory. And there’s another town called Deep Water, also in Connecticut, they’re very close to each other. Those two towns would receive ivory from Africa—together with slaves, actually. And those two things were intimately interlinked. And their fortunes were built on ivory.

So, yeah. So they built a whole industry. They had factories that would receive the ivory. They would carve the ivory into piano keys. That was one of the major uses of ivory. Billiard balls, hair combs, hair brushes. They were making toothpicks, all kinds of weird—

GUTIERREZ: Such little things.

KAHUMBU: Well, it was plastic. If you think about it, it was the original plastic. And then once we got real plastic, you didn’t need that stuff anymore. And ivory became more of a prestigious thing. Those two towns I went to visit them to see for myself. They invited me for the unveiling of an elephant sculpture in Ivoryton. And it had this elephant sculpture all covered in this big cloak.

And I went through the factory, and I looked at all the things, how it all worked and everything. And they wanted to atone for what had happened and how this whole—this very thriving town—but it was built on ivory. And they unveiled this elephant. And it was an Asian elephant.

You know, it really struck me. The people received ivory in this country, in the United States, in Europe, even in Asia. They had no idea where it was coming from, or what kind of animal it came from. They didn’t know—and even on the boxes of, you know, the toothpicks or whatever, it had an Asian elephant. They didn’t know it was coming from Africa. They didn’t know it was an African elephant.

GUTIERREZ: How bizarre.

KAHUMBU: Yeah, it’s quite sad. So those poor ellies just died for—just forgotten. You know, It’s awful.

(Sound of an elephant crashing through vegetation)

KAHUMBU (IN SECRETS OF THE ELEPHANTS DOCUMENTARY): This is Tolstoy. He’s magnificent. He’s 51 years old. He’s a hero for all the bulls in this area. His tusks are almost too long to walk. You can see he has to raise his head to walk through vegetation. It’s like a mammoth. We’re so lucky to have these supertuskers. There are only about 25 left in the world. Each tusk weighs well over 100 pounds and that’s why so many have been killed by Ivory poachers.

GUTIERREZ: So Tolstoy is Tim’s uncle. What happened to him?

KAHUMBU: Tolstoy was another supertusker, and we filmed him just weeks before he died. He was such a magnificent elephant. Mostly, he was huge. Very, very tall. He had these unusual straight tusks. They were so long that the Kenya Wildlife Service actually had darted him and cut off the tips of his tongue tusks because they thought that he couldn’t walk properly. They were catching on bushes and things. The tusks were so long. He was a very, very calm, gentle elephant. Really, really lovely. And he had a gang of other bulls who were always associated with him. And they were the symbols who were always with Tim. And Tolstoy and his gang—and Tim before—used to go on raids. And they would go to the neighboring farms at night and eat whatever they could eat, mostly tomatoes.

But he was gentle. He wasn’t a troublemaker. He wasn’t a violent elephant in any real sense of the word. But when it came to retaliation from the communities, he was the elephant that stood out. He was the one they targeted. And so a spear struck him in the back, similar to how Tim was injured when we first met him. Only, although Tolstoy was treated, it clearly was a very severe wound and it got infected and two weeks later he passed away. It’s really, really tragic. And all the other ellies must have been so heartbroken to have lost the leader.

GUTIERREZ: Part of the challenge of elephant conservation, to my understanding, is elephants need a lot of space, and humans increasingly also need a lot of space. How can we create a relationship between our two species so that we both have room to survive?

KAHUMBU: You know, where Tolstoy lives—lived, it’s really simple. It’s not rocket science. That’s what’s so frustrating about it. Elephants need space. Elephants don’t mind living with people, but you can’t grow crops in a landscape with elephants. They’re so smart. They will figure out how to come and get your crops, right?

A monkey will do it, too. Or a beetle. You might think you can maybe put pesticides on for beetles, but you’re not going to easily stop an elephant. You might chase away a monkey, but you cannot easily chase away an elephant. That’s what makes them so dangerous. So all these people who are trying to farm in this landscape, which is actually quite dry, is not a very good landscape for farming, but it’s a very good landscape for livestock. And so people with their livestock lived and have lived with elephants in that area for thousands of years without any problems. It’s only now that people are settling down. They’re drilling boreholes, they’re pumping water, trying to do cash crops, tomatoes and other crops. And it’s creating a conflict which is predictable.

The sad thing is that the real landowners often are not the ones who are on the land farming. The people who come to farm are generally young people who are trying to just make a living. They don’t actually have a history or a culture of living anywhere near elephants. They have no idea what to do. So they start banging things, making noise, flashing lights, throwing burning lumps of charcoal at the elephants and basically pissing elephants off. And of course, the elephants retaliate.

And those people have told me, I spend a lot of time talking to them, they’ve said, you know, they can’t sleep at night. They can lose their entire season of crops in a night, which is true. I know it’s true. But they also don’t have money to build fences. “So we’re going to take matters into our own hands. Elephant comes anywhere near my farm, I’ll throw a spear.” So that’s what’s happening. It’s really, really unfortunate and could have been prevented.

I feel so sad about it because when you teach elephants to retaliate and to become violent, it’s very hard to untrain them because they’re like us. They remember.

You know, look, the situation facing elephants is—it is troubling. It keeps me awake at night. Yeah. I literally sometimes will not sleep for days because I’m trying to think, how are we going to find a way to solve this problem? It’s no longer about creating a mountain of ivory and setting the match. That is not going to save them this time. We need new solutions. All those people who live in elephant landscapes need to benefit from the presence of elephants. I have this crazy idea that somebody said to me years ago and they said, “Why don’t you give us shares in the elephants?” And I just dismissed it. I just, like, “Don’t be silly. Go away. That’s a crazy idea.” Actually, maybe it’s a brilliant idea. Maybe we should have shares in elephants. If the communities have shares in those elephants and the survival of elephants translates into revenue that comes in through tourism, and they earn money and more money by more elephants. More money because elephants are healthy. More money because elephants can move through the landscape. More money because elephants are having healthy babies. Maybe that’s a solution.

Maybe we don’t have to kill elephants, injure elephants, chase elephants all the time. Maybe the communities don’t have to plant tomatoes. Maybe—maybe they can grow elephants as their cash crop. You know what I mean? What if people, local people had shares? Right now, they have no benefit. There is nothing they gain from having elephants in their landscape.


KAHUMBU: That is the transformation we have to find. I’ve been talking to people and they’re coming up with radical ideas, NFTs and cryptocurrencies and all kinds of cool things. I’m like, No, it’s got to be so practical that a local person on the ground says, “That elephant is mine. And if you touch it you’re in trouble because so long as that elephant is walking. I get my payment, right? So I’m going to go out of my way. I’m going to plant grass, not tomatoes, I’m going to plant grass. I’m going to make sure it’s healthy. I’m going to make sure the pathways are clear. I’m going to tell everybody this elephant is on its way.”

And you know, that that could be a solution for not just savanna elephants in East Africa. It would work for the desert elephants so that they can move from Etosha all the way down to the coast. It would even work in the rainforest. The people on the ground are poor. They’re so poor, you can’t fault them for trying to protect their families and their investments. So yeah, we need radical new ideas.

GUTIERREZ: This has been the second episode of our three-part series on elephants. Next week, we’ll talk with explorers Sangita Iyer and Jyothy Karat about Asian elephants and their complicated history of life in captivity.

If you like what you hear and you 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. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.

We’ve created a hub on our website where you can see all of our coverage on elephants this month, including Secrets of the Elephants, a four-part National Geographic series hosted by Paula Kahumbu, streaming on Disney+.

We’ve included a link to the hub in our shownotes. It’s right there in your podcast app.


This week’s Overheard episode is produced by me, Brian Gutierrez.

Our other senior producer is Jacob Pinter.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode.

Our photo editor is Julie Hau.

Ted Woods sound-designed this episode and Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.

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

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

Thanks for listening, and see you next time.


Want More?

Check out even more coverage on elephants this month, including Secrets of the Elephants, a four-part National Geographic series streaming April 22 on Disney+. Visit NatGeo.com/elephants to learn more.

Also explore:

To learn more about Paula Kahumbu and her work introducing the next generation of Kenyans to wildlife, listen to our previous episode, “Kenya’s Wildlife Warriors.”

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe today.