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The Elephant Warrior

by Kristan Schiller
Ecologist Paula Kahumbu leads the fight to save elephants from extinction.

Africa’s “gentle giants.”

Often called “gentle giants,” elephants once roamed the earth en masse, following primordial migratory routes ingrained in their remarkable memories. Today approximately 96 elephants are gunned down each day by poachers in Africa for their ivory tusks. Ivory is leaving Africa at an unprecedented rate, part of an increase in poaching that could lead to the extinction of this noble creature within 10 years, if it is not halted immediately.

Enter Dr. Paula Kahumbu. Born in Nairobi, Kahumbu became a park ranger after graduating from high school. Her introduction to ivory occurred in the 1980s, when she was tasked with measuring Kenya’s entire stockpile. This culminated in the famous ivory bonfire of 1989, when the Kenyan government, under then-President Moi, ignited 12 tons of elephant tusks in Nairobi National Park as a message to the international community that Kenya would not tolerate the international trade in ivory. (The U.S. had a similar burn-off in Denver on November 13, ordered by President Obama.)

Kahumbu went on to study biology and ecology, eventually earning her doctorate from Princeton University. As executive director of Wildlife Direct (wildlifedirect.org), Kahumbu has spearheaded the launch of Hands Off Our Elephants with the first lady of Kenya, Margaret Kenyatta. It is a new campaign aimed at bringing awareness to the elephant-poaching epidemic.

When Kahumbu visited New York to speak at the first International March for Elephants—which went on, simultaneously, in London, New York, Bangkok, Arusha and Cape Town, among other cities—she took time out to talk to Organic Spa Magazine about the campaign to save the elephants from extinction.

How did you get involved in this issue?

Dr. Paula Kahumbu: You grow up in Kenya and you are surrounded by wildlife. I’m an ecologist and I’ve known Richard Leakey [the famous Kenyan paleontologist] since I was a child. I have been involved in activities around African wildlife for a very long time.

Why is this issue so important right now, so much so that The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) has taken on the cause?

PK: African presidents are now working together with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton to say they will ban the domestic trade in Africa. It’s a huge step and a very big deal. Seven African nations joined the Clintons in a commitment to end the slaughter of elephants by banning domestic trade in ivory, stopping the killing of elephants, the trafficking of ivory, and the demand for ivory. The countries are Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, South Sudan, Malawi and Uganda.

CGI is calling on other countries of the world to ban domestic trade, including China, Thailand, Malaysia and the U.S. CGI is saying that over the next four years they will raise $80 million, in connection with a number of other wildlife organizations and NGOs.

What is the outlook for the African elephant? Can we save them?

PK: It’s going to depend almost entirely on what happens with the demand in China. Eighty percent of illegal ivory goes to China. The price of ivory in China has increased from $120 per kilo in 2009 to $2,000 per kilo today. So, it is lucrative and the demand is getting greater. In China, you cannot differentiate old ivory (legal) and new ivory (illegal). Illegal ivory is getting mixed with legal ivory and no one knows which is which. Elephant numbers are declining far too rapidly. The only thing that will really make a difference is if the Chinese government bans the domestic trade in ivory. We are trying to make that happen. If the demand in China doesn’t stop, then the elephant will become extinct.

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