Dr Paula Kahumbu is a wildlife conservationist and Chief Executive Officer of WildlifeDirect. She is best known as a campaigner for elephants and wildlife, spearheading the Hands Off Our Elephants Campaign, which was launched in 2014 with Kenyan First Lady Margaret Kenyatta.
I wake up early; about 4.30 am to read, write, think and do research. I’m usually in meetings or at the office from 8.30 am. I spend most of my time in the field, though. I usually spend the early part of the day meeting people and later in the day, I work on writing or planning.
WildlifeDirect’s vision rests on changing hearts, minds and laws to ensure Africa’s critical species endure forever. As CEO, I am responsible for the organisation’s strategy, fundraising and, overall, represent the organisation. I am also the producer and host of the wildlife documentary TV series Wildlife Warriors. I also teach undergraduate and graduate-level courses at Princeton University.
The main day to day work challenge I face is having enough hours in the day. There just aren’t enough! I create lists and try to prioritise. I love solving problems, especially when it involves working with other people. I also enjoy teaching and being in the wild.
When it comes to my leadership style, I am more creative and I look for staff who share my interest in high standards and who challenge the way I do things. I delegate a lot of work and try to match the work with the staffs’ interests and work styles.
To build strong teams, I use a method my sister taught me. It is called “open space”. We start from a common intention, and then everyone gets a chance to suggest what needs to be done and participate in planning.
The expanding threats to nature, wildlife and protected areas in Kenya keep me coming to work each day. We have companies dredging sand in our marine areas; pipelines, power lines, roads and railways ploughing through our parks; dams planned for our forests; and poachers setting snares to capture small antelopes. The loss of wilderness and forests is already affecting the quality of our water, air, food production and our health. We need to address these challenges urgently.
I am proud of what we have achieved. The Hands off Our Elephants campaign led to changes in law, policies and regulations. We saved Kenya’s elephants. The TV series NTV Wild Talk and Wildlife Warriors have broken traditional narratives about wildlife. I believe we have begun to transform Kenya’s consciousness about nature. More people are visiting parks, protesting deforestation, and planting trees than ever before. Hundreds of people write to me for advice on how to address environmental issues, and thousands of young people write asking for jobs, even as volunteers. Even children are volunteering in wildlife now. It’s wonderful that we have impacted so many people.
I am now working on the second season of Wildlife Warriors. I am hoping to film in other African countries and have the series broadcast across Africa.To save Kenya’s extraordinary wildlife heritage, we must transform our thinking and actions. Wildlife could be a major economic drive for our country. It will not happen if we continue to treat our parks as an asset only for tourists. As a Kenyan, I have to pay to see my own wildlife. We pay the same fees as BBC to film our own wildlife. We don’t have an enabling environment for local wildlife film-makers. We are talking to the Kenya Film Commission, and we’ve written to numerous government agencies about this.
The best career advice I’ve ever received is the light is green until it is red. My boss at Bamburi used to tell me this when I had big ideas but was hesitating as I waited for approvals. Having a green light is hugely liberating. We sometimes hesitate when we don’t need to. We sometimes hesitate because we are worried about how we look. I remind myself every day that the work I’m doing is bigger than me and so how I or someone else feels about it does not matter. I try very hard to make sure that none of my decisions are personal.
In the evening I usually read, watch a movie or call my son before I go to sleep. The last great thing I read was Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. I laughed and cried at the same time. As a person of mixed race, I really related to his personal story.
I don’t think I ever really switch off – my life is my work and I am frequently in the field, abroad, teaching, networking or writing from anywhere in the world. Having said that, outside work I travel extensively and love exploring new places in Kenya and abroad. I travel all over the world, and there’s magic everywhere. Kenya is my favourite place to travel because of the diversity of places and our welcoming people. I recently went to China and Japan – the Huangshan or Yellow Mountain was outstanding.
Courtesy: Sunday Magazine/Standard