Paula Kahumbu, executive director of the Kenya Land Conservation Trust and WildlifeDirect, and chairman of the Friends of Nairobi National Park, was coached and mentored by paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey, who remains one of her closest allies and supporters. Born and raised in Nairobi, Kahumbu entered into conservation at the height of the elephant poaching in the late 1980s. Her introduction to conservation was to measure Kenya’s entire stockpile of ivory. That work literally went up in smoke in the spectacular ivory bonfire of 1989 — a powerful international statement that the country would not tolerate the effects of the international trade in ivory on Kenya’s elephant herds. A decade later, Kahumbu joined the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and became one of the most vocal advocates against the increasing calls for renewed international trade in ivory. She is best known for her passionate and forceful speeches at two CITES conferences where she headed the Kenyan delegation.
Kahumbu started the Colobus Trust and introduced colobus bridges or “colobridges” across the busy Diani highway — an innovation that has become a tourist attraction and has been expanded and been exported to other countries where primates and other arboreal animals need to cross roads. She ran the Colobus Trust while conducting her Ph.D. research on elephants in the Shimba Hills at the Kenya coast, all while singlehandedly raising her curious and adventurous 2-year-old son, Joshua. The Trust still saves monkeys, and Josh is all grown up and working for the U.S. Navy.
After attaining her doctorate from Princeton University, Kahumbu returned to KWS briefly before joining Bamburi Cement. There she launched the environmental subsidiary Lafarge Eco Systems and published a world-best-selling children’s book about a baby hippopotamus that was adopted by a giant tortoise after he was orphaned by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The true story was so compelling that over 1 million copies of “Owen and Mzee” (Scholastic Press) have been sold and the book is now in 27 languages including Japanese, Spanish, French, German, Czech, Chinese and Kiswahili (translated and locally published by Jomo Kenyatta Foundation Press). The Kenya Postal Corporation produced a commemorative stamp in a series about unusual animal relationships.
Kahumbu is well known in Kenya for her infectious passion for conservation and animals. She believes in the development of Kenya, but not at the cost of the environment. She is currently spearheading a campaign to ensure that the infrastructural developments of Nairobi do not compromise the wildlife of Nairobi National Park, which would destroy one of Nairobi’s most important assets. Her conviction is that the park is integral to the value of the city, and she has persuaded many organizations, including KWS, International Livestock Research Institute, African Wildlife Foundation, the Wildlife Foundation, African Conservation Centre, The Friends of Nairobi National Park, The Kenya Land Conservation Trust, WildlifeDirect, private land owners and many others, to conduct an ecosystem-wide wildlife census that will help guide the decisions taken by the Ministry of Transport regarding the controversial Greater Southern Bypass. Kahumbu is the Executive Director of the Kenya Land Conservation Trust http://www.klct.or.ke/ and is also the chairman of the Friends of Nairobi National Park http://fonnap.wordpress.com
Through WildlifeDirects blogs from across the African continent Kahumbu was able to discern a troubling trend in wildlife losses including big cats and vultures – and that poisoning had become an increasingly common way for communities to get rid of pests including lions, jackals, crocodiles and even elephants. She showed that the pesticide of choice was Furadan whose active ingredient Carbofuran is deadly to cats and birds. In 2008 she launched a campaign to challenge the Kenyan Government to remove the product from the list of approved chemicals. Manufactured in USA, Furadan is in fact not permitted for use there after the Environmental Protection Agency ruled in 2009 that it was too dangerous users, consumers and the environment. However, the manufacturer continues to export the product to Africa, Asia and South America where environmental laws are weaker and where the control of pest control products is not as stringent as USA or the European Union. In Kenya the product Furadan and other pesticides, are used as a silent way of dealing with human wildlife conflict and Kahumbu says that these poison s may be the greatest threat to biodiversity in the country. Kenya’s lions have been reduced to fewer than 2,000, and vultures are down by 50 – 80% over the last 10 years due to poisoning as they scavenge on carcasses of livestock laced with the deadly product, as well as the flesh of the victims of the product. Kahumbu believes that this is just the tip of the iceberg. She and her team have been documenting the hunting of fish and wading birds for human consumption using pesticides in Kenya’s rice irrigation schemes of Bunyala and Mwea. “What we are witnessing in the poisoning of lions and vultures across Kenya is shocking, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. I am deeply disappointing that the government of Kenya has not taken stringent measures to enforce the law and protect human lives and our unique wildlife heritage” she adds. You can read more about this work on http://stopwildlifepoisoning.wildlifedirect.org
Education: (PhD) Princeton University, United States of America (USA); MSc Florida University, Gainesville, USA; BSc Bristol University UK, Primary and Highschool Loreto Convent Msongari, Nairobi
Career Highlights: Executive Director the Kenya Land Conservation Trust (2010),
Executive Director WildlifeDirect Incorporated (2007-present);
Deputy Director and CITES Coordinator, Kenya Wildlife Service (2002-2004);
General Manager, Lafarge Ecosystems (2002-2007).
Founder, Colobus Trust Diani Kenya
Leader of The Kenyan Delegation, Convention in Trade for Endangered Species (CITES) to Chile (2002); Member, Board of Governors, Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) Africa (2002),
Chair of Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP) 2010/11
Honors and Awards:
National Geographic/Buffet Award for conservation leadership in Africa 2011
National Geographic Emerging Explorer 2011
Christopher Award for Best Selling Children’s Book; Awarded Eve International Woman of the Year Award (2005); Charlotte Fellowship, USA (1996).
Dr Kahumbu is co-author of the best selling children’s book Owen and Mzee Series, and Looking for Miza (Scholastic Press).