Paula Kahumbu harnesses the power of storytelling to inspire a new generation of conservationists

The Kenyan conservation champion will take African stories to the global stage in a new series premiere

National Geographic Society

Right now, National Geographic Explorer Dr. Paula Kahumbu is looking forward to an upcoming moment. She is the primary storyteller of “Secrets of the Elephants,” a four-part documentary series executive produced by filmmaking visionary and National Geographic Explorer at Large James Cameron, and narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman, set to premiere on National Geographic on April 21, and Disney+ and Hulu on April 22.

By following different elephant families around the world, the series will reveal their secret world, from their extraordinary lifestyles, to characteristics they share with humans, such as complex thinking, emotions, language, and culture.

“To do a series called ‘secrets’ of these animals, which are already so well known, is quite audacious,” Kahumbu says.

But she is not one to shy away from a challenge. 

For years, she’s been hosting her own television series, “Wildlife Warriors,” and spearheads an outdoor education program to inspire young Kenyas to champion wildlife preservation, Wildlife Warriors Kids. She’s also the CEO of WildlifeDirect and the brainchild of the Hands Off our Elephants campaign, with Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta, the former First Lady of the Republic of Kenya. People have repeatedly asked her how she manages it all, she says. Her response has little to do with limited time–she is motivated by impact.

“I feel like this was a great opportunity to be present on a global stage,” Kahumbu says of hosting the new documentary series and launching its companion book in April, on top of her running projects. She hopes to “remind the world how important elephants are, and to bring elephants back into our lives as these incredible awe-inspiring animals that make us interested in nature again.” 

Kahumbu didn’t set out to be a television star, her heart for wildlife and exploration early on set her on a path to work in conservation amongst some of the greatest names in science and exploration.

An Early Career Amongst Wildlife Giants

She didn’t realize it at the time–but when Kahumbu was young, she was taken under the wing of a world-renowned scientific icon. Richard Leakey, the paleoanthropologist from the family of trailblazing conservationists, was Kahumbu’s neighbor and mentor. His commitment to shepherding a young Kahumbu toward her dreams was, as she puts it, “extremely special.”

“He literally put me in his car and drove me to the Institute of Primate Research, and told them to give me an internship,” she recalls. Later, when she spent six months working with American conservationist Margaret Kinnaird studying unique and endangered monkeys in the Tana River Primate National Reserve, Leakey would call weekly to check-in. 

He was invested in encouraging independent thinking. He often asked Kahumbu what she was interested in, and implored her to move toward it. Somehow, while pressed for time and buried in work that would leave an indelible mark on the world, Leakey was a listening ear and an ardent supporter for Kahumbu, and as time would reveal, for a number of budding scientists too.

“Turns out, he was mentoring many, many, many Kenyans. And he remembered everything, and everyone,” Kahumbu recalls. The line for a chat with Leakey, sometimes a window of just 20 minutes, began forming outside his office door at 6 a.m. “In 20 minutes with him all you might do is vomit out all your troubles and then, at the end of it, you solved your own problem.”

For most of her life, Kahumbu and Leakey worked together, from projects at Kenya’s National Museums to the Kenya Wildlife Service, and later, WildlifeDirect, which Leakey founded and Kahumbu now heads.

It was in Kenya’s coastal forests, that her love for elephants, their immensity and grace, began. She was soon fighting tooth and nail for elephants’ protection against environmental and human threats. However, other wildlife was in need, too. One of WildlifeDirect’s campaigns for lions resulted in the killer pesticide (Furadan) being pulled from Kenyan shelves. The organization’s exposure of wildlife crimes triggered enough global lobbying that a new Wildlife Conservation and Management Act was created. Her hand in government work, which she calls “tough,” “heartbreaking,” and “soul-destroying” garnered international support and recognition. Falling into storytelling, she says, was a chance occurrence. 

The Unexpected Turn

In 2004, somewhere along the Kenyan coastline, Kahumbu rescued an orphaned hippopotamus in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami. She cared for it at one of a few animal sanctuaries she was managing, and the baby hippo became friends with its neighbor–a 130-year-old tortoise. Kahumbu shared a photograph of the odd pair resting together with the world; the overwhelming response set her on a new path. 

“I realized, it’s not the science that moves people to care, it’s the stories,” she says.

Her instinct served her well. Owen and Mzee, the children’s book Kahumbu eventually authored about the true and unusual bond between hippo (Mzee) and tortoise (Owen) sold over one million copies worldwide, in at least 24 languages; it was the response she hoped for in her years of work researching and advocating on behalf of animals. She had allies in children, who she sees as enthusiastic and capable of a state of wonder adults sometimes miss. Even when she marched the streets to demand justice for elephants, rhinos, and lions, young people were the first to jump in line with support. It was a natural transition, then, for Kahumbu to bring wildlife education to schools.

In 2018, she kicked off Wildlife Warriors Kids, an initiative across Kenya that helps teachers integrate wildlife film showings and work plans into their curriculum to help connect young Kenyans with science and their heritage. So, when Kahumbu was later spontaneously offered 30 acres of land, she knew exactly what to do with it: “The moment we started talking about the possibility of doing an outdoor education center, they fell in love with the idea. And that’s how it started.”

The Wildlife Warriors Field Lab, the latest extension of the Wildlife Warriors Kids program, is a living laboratory for kids where they are free to explore, conduct research, and observe nature. The idea is not to lecture children, but instead, to encourage them to discover nature for themselves. It’s what Leakey did for her, and it’s helping a generation of young Africans shine. 

Protection through Appreciation

For all of Kahumbu’s success, she insists she was a shy child, the youngest of her sisters and one of nine children. It wasn’t until her teenage years that she began doing things independently; mainly exploring nature, and eventually realizing the privilege it was to grow up amongst the trees and in the company of wild animals. To be near enough to nature to appreciate it, Kahumbu reflects, makes all the difference. 

“Appreciation is what makes us want to protect it [nature] because if we don’t appreciate it, then we won’t notice that it’s gone.”

Through her mainly Kenya-based career, the irony is not lost on her that native Kenyans do not have a word for “conservation.” It’s a testament to the natural way caring for the environment and its living things are part of everyday life, Kahumbu says. Pastoral tribes take cues from animal behavior that could signal threats, environmental changes, or availability of resources. The modern practice of protecting nature by isolating it from humans, she explains, is hard to understand. Even the term “protected area,” is perplexing to these communities. “Protected from what? From us people?” is something Kahumbu has been asked repeatedly. “They don’t consider themselves to be a threat to nature,” she says. Instead, conserving nature is simply a part of conserving livelihoods. 

“The right way to learn about nature is not to be closed off by a big wall. You need to feel the cold air at night, you need to see the stars, you need to smell the grass, and the flowers, how they change their scents during different times of the day,” she illustrates.

The understanding and living of this interdependence between human, animal, and land is the reason Kahumbu wants to see Kenyan tribes telling their own stories. As cultures, languages, traditions, and practices disappear with land, capturing and preserving what’s left is more essential than ever. “How do we document it, and document it now?” are questions on her mind.

At the moment, she’s sorting the logistics of placing cameras in more Kenyans’ hands. In the meantime, children, again, are giving her hope. The Wildlife Warrior kids, as young as five years old, participate in long nature walks, data collection, and even brainstorms around how to save nature. An idea that comes up again and again: creating a YouTube channel. “We need to film what we are doing and what we are learning so we can share it with other kids,” they tell Kahumbu. On the list of teaching modules now is a photography and filmmaking boot camp.

The story ideas, enthusiasm, and filmmaking skill of young Kenyans are abundant, Kahumbu says, and she sees herself as a vehicle to help “unleash” their talent. 

Continuing on a trail of successful efforts, Kahumbu hopes that “Secrets of the Elephants” will be one of many future moments in which she helps propel African stories onto the global stage.

“The work we're doing in Kenya can feel isolated, like we’re in this tiny corner of the world struggling on our own,” she says. “The importance of this series is that it’s taking everything we’re doing on a microscale and just making it global. I hope that it reignites interest in nature and reminds us that it's one world. We're all in it together.”

“Secrets of the Elephants” premieres on National Geographic on April 21, and all episodes start streaming on Disney+ and Hulu on April 22.

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
Learn More

For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.

Read This Next

Paula Kahumbu: Defending rights for elephants, globally
Marc Bierkens maps the world’s freshwater to spotlight global supply and demand
João Campos-Silva’s research is strengthening community-based efforts to save huge aquatic Amazon species