Meet 2021’s Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year, Paula Kahumbu
In Kenya, Richard Leakey is an important figure. Since the 1960s, the anthropologist and conservationist has played a critical role in shaping the archaeology and wildlife conservation landscape in the country. But to Paula Kahumbu, the 76-year-old is more than just a voice of authority. He, according to her, “remains one of my closest friends, advisers and [is] a mentor. There are few people whom I trust as much as him”.
The wildlife conservationist and chief executive officer of wildlife conservation non-profit, WildlifeDirect, shared with Tatler Singapore in an exclusive email interview, “He always advises me to step back and look at a much wider canvas. He also urges me to build on my achievements, be strategic, and to never lose sight of the end goal.” Earlier this year, the 55-year-old Kenyan was named as Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year for 2021.
Handed out to her at the National Geographic Explorers Festival, which is also supported by Rolex, in June, the annual award is for an individual who casts the spotlight on the pressing issues faced by the planet via storytelling. And through the person’s actions, achievements and spirit, he or she inspires the world to work towards a more sustainable future—the exact same goal that Kahumbu pursues through wildlife conservation, with a particular focus on Africa.
“Protecting Africa’s unique wild landscapes could be the most important opportunity for stemming global climate change,” she says. “We need to recognise that wildlife conservation is not anti-development. It’s not a waste of land; it’s a valuable, vital strategic mechanism for the survival of humanity. Anyone with children can see that this is blindingly obvious if we want future generations to thrive.”
Conservation, however, is not through the efforts of one person or just one organisation. Kahumbu feels that the people of Africa must feature prominently in the conversation, with their views sought and key messaging directed at them at every level of society.
We need to recognise that wildlife conservation is not anti-development. It’s not a waste of land; it’s a valuable, vital strategic mechanism for the survival of humanity. Anyone with children can see that this is blindingly obvious if we want future generations to thrive— Paula Kahumbu
“Without public interest, the drive [towards conservation] is missing. Like all important transformations, this will take understanding, heart and boldness from society. The people themselves must give our leaders ideas and direction.”
Singling out Kenya, she notes that the country is “home to some of the world’s most spectacular migratory wildlife” but also has “a rapidly expanding human population that is becoming wealthier and more ambitious and aspirational”.
Therein lies a potential issue of rapid modernisation that does not sit well with the principles of wildlife conservation. For instance, land management. With more developments, land is being used for different new purposes, many of which pose threats to wildlife migration. While Kahumbu is sensible enough not to propose halting or slowing down the country’s economic development, she believes that there is no need to sacrifice wildlife conservation for it either. She suggests, “We need to zone the country’s developments to secure adequate land, corridors, buffer zones and dispersal areas for wildlife and development to co-exist.”
Besides encouraging the country’s leaders to adopt a pro-conservation mindset, the Nairobi native thinks that sharing “uplifting stories that touch hearts” will move people to action. She does it through the videos, photos and podcasts on WildlifeDirect, raising awareness among people. Besides co-authoring children’s books, she has also produced wildlife documentaries, including Wildlife Warriors, a wildlife television series made by Africans for Africans.
Storytelling also contributed to the success of Hands Off Our Elephants, a campaign mooted in 2013 and spearheaded by Kahumbu with the aim to end the poaching crisis in Kenya. Through her efforts, it has generated much public and political awareness and support for wildlife in the country, and elephant and rhino poaching has declined drastically by more than 80 per cent.
Calling her Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year award “very unexpected”, Kahumbu is grateful. “I am still feeling a bit giddy about it because of what the award says about me and the amazing relationship with Rolex and National Geographic. It puts me on a par with many of my role models and heroes I have looked up to for so long. I never imagined that I would be at their level,” she says.
Rolex’s support for the festival and award is part of its enhanced partnership with the National Geographic Society under its Perpetual Planet initiative, which encourages explorers and scientists to use science and technology to solve sustainability and environmental conservation problems. The initiative also includes a partnership with marine scientist Sylvia Earle’s NGO Mission Blue to safeguard the oceans through a network of marine protected areas; and the Rolex Awards for Enterprise—a biennial programme to support individuals and their projects to conserve cultural heritage and protect the environment.