Using the Power of the Web To Protect Africa’s Wildlife

Paula Kahumbu runs a conservation organization with a distinctly 21st-century mission: Posting field blogs from conservationists to attract global support for wildlife protection. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Kahumbu talks about her group’s triumphs and struggles as it battles to preserve Africa’s magnificent animals.

Kenyan ecologist Paula Kahumbu is executive director of WildlifeDirect, the largest wildlife blogging site in Africa. The organization’s mission is to bring the activities of grassroots wildlife conservationists to the attention of the global public, in hopes of raising funds for conservation programs. Or, as Kahumbu says, “to give a voice to those people who are in the field in very remote and often dangerous places — the people who never get any attention or fame for their work.”

Paula Kahumbu
Paula Kahumbu

WildlifeDirect was launched in 2006 by Kenyan conservationists, including Richard Leakey, who believed “underfunding was the greatest challenge to wildlife conservation in developing countries.” The Internet, they felt, could be part of the solution. Today, WildlifeDirect is the virtual home to roughly 75 bloggers, who write about their personal efforts to protect animals across the African continent and beyond. Among the blogs are ones focused on protecting elephants in Botswana, chimpanzees in Sierra Leone, and wild dogs in Zimbabwe. Individuals who are inspired by the blogs can donate directly to the conservationists, without any administrative fees. Donations have been used for everything from purchasing equipment to paying for the training of park rangers.

Kahumbu not only oversees the blogs, but pieces together incoming information to identify emerging threats to Africa’s wildlife. As an ecologist who once studied elephants, Kahumbu didn’t anticipate doing this kind of work, but she says, “this is where I’ve found myself to be most effective in this campaign to save Africa’s wildlife.” In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Kahumbu — recently named one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers for 2011 — talked about her organization and the precarious state of Africa’s wildlife today.

Yale Environment e360: WildlifeDirect is the brainchild of, among others, [Kenyan conservationist] Richard Leakey, right?

Paula Kahumbu: Yes. Richard Leakey recognized that a lot of visitors come to Africa and feel compelled to help and support conservation, but there had been no mechanism to enable them to do so. The needs for conservation across the continent are enormous, but there’s hardly any conservation funding available on this continent. So the idea was: How do you enable those people who love Africa and would love to see Africa’s spectacular wildlife diversity survive in perpetuity — how do you help those people help the actual conservationists working on the ground? We were the first organization to really use blogs as a way of communicating from the field directly with donors and supporters.

e360: The blogs are really the heart of the organization, and they focus on a huge range of wildlife. Who exactly are these bloggers? And how do you find them?

“Many of our bloggers were completely unknown until they started blogging on WildlifeDirect.”

Kahumbu: We don’t have a set profile for a blogger. What we did was look for people who are in the field, who did good conservation work, and who wanted to communicate what they were doing. These are hands-on conservationists. Some of them are community-based people working in the field… All of those people who are doing conservation work on species, even if they aren’t as majestic or charismatic as the lions or the mountain gorillas, there is a really good chance that somebody will see their work [on our site]. Many of our bloggers were completely unknown until they started blogging on WildlifeDirect.

e360: Do you think that the blogging makes some of these conservationists feel less isolated and possibly even inspired to continue their work?

Kahumbu: Absolutely, there’s no question. The blogs have had a much greater benefit than we initially anticipated. In fact, some of these bloggers have also received support from online volunteers who have helped to post the blogs. Because some of the WildlifeDirect bloggers are in very remote places, they don’t have good Internet access, and can’t easily navigate the blogging platform. So we actually have people — many located in the United States — who help individual bloggers get their stories out. And then the volunteers promote them, using other sites, like Twitter and Facebook… So the benefit isn’t just cash. There’s been a huge amount of in-kind support, and there have been donations of cameras, telephones, and computers to some of the bloggers.

e360: In WildlifeDirect, the “direct” refers to the fact that individuals across the globe can donate directly to a blogger with no overhead costs. Can you give an example of how this has worked?

Kahumbu: Well, these bloggers are really working in very, very dangerous and isolated situations where they are experiencing crises every now and again. And when you have a crisis, you need to reach out and get funding very quickly.

That’s what happened in the Virunga National Park in the Congo. In 2007, they lost seven mountain gorillas in one day as the result of a poaching incident. And [the bloggers] were able to quickly turn that into an appeal that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in a matter of months. That money enabled us to keep rangers on the ground, to support their training, and to put vehicles on the road — basically, to turn that situation around. Today, the Virunga National Park is a very safe place. The mountain gorilla numbers are increasing, there is no more poaching of mountain gorillas, and there are actually visitors now coming there to see them.

e360: You were raised in Kenya…

Kahumbu: That’s right. I was born in Nairobi and grew up in the outskirts of Nairobi.

e360: You studied at Princeton and you are an ecologist…

Kahumbu: Yes. All of my education was geared towards working in the field with animals. I never imagined I would be working much more on a technical side of things, and playing much more of a supporting role instead of being in the field and counting animals, taking measurements, and writing scientific articles. But this is where I’ve found myself to be most effective in the campaign to save Africa’s wildlife.

e360: Was there a real sense as a child that conservation was something not just you, but many others in your generation would take up?

Kahumbu: I knew from a very young age that this was something I wanted to do. I did everything I could to get opportunities to go into the field. It was not a very common thing. Most people in my generation who were going to university wanted to become doctors or dentists or lawyers. And in fact, the field of conservation ecology, at the time I started, had not really taken root; there were no departments at universities in Kenya that carried those courses.

But increasingly now, we do have lots and lots of young Kenyans who are committed to conservation for various reasons. They have a passion for it — it’s a very rewarding career, and you get to see such extraordinary things.

e360: At WildlifeDirect, you are constantly hearing about what is happening to wildlife all over the continent. What are some of the trends, positive and alarming, you are seeing?

Kahumbu: Being able to see everything that is happening in wildlife conservation, particularly in Africa, is quite upsetting to see. Number one, the amount of funding available to small organizations is quite desperate. And I’ve seen a lot of conservation organizations reducing their manpower and just struggling to survive. The amount of funding available now, especially after the financial crisis, has become much, much worse, which is a very worrying trend. Young African conservationists who cannot make a living in conservation are going to work in the corporate world, which is an unfortunate loss.

“We have people, many located in the United States, who help bloggers get their stories out.”

We are also seeing some severe threats to the natural world. For example, one of the things we noticed two years ago was that animals were being poisoned all over Africa. And all of the poisonings had one thing in common: a chemical intended to be used as a pesticide in agriculture [carbofuran, marketed as Furadan]. It was actually being used against wildlife: to kill predators, kill baboons, kill crocodiles. And we saw secondary effects of this: Lions were dying because they were being targeted. And then there were hundreds of vultures dying as a result of the lions dying.

It was just devastating, since the lions in Kenya, their numbers are plummeting to below 2,000. But because this was something that was not just happening in Kenya, it gave us a platform to set up an appeal and say, “Look we’ve got information from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, that shows the same trend. And we feel this is something that has to stop.” Because we were able to make that statement based on information gathered from the blogs, we were able to get the manufacturer to slow down and remove this chemical from the market.

But the scary thing we found in all this is that wildlife cannot compete against agricultural development and other kinds of investments. We are losing our natural assets because of this. So we are trying to influence policy — we are talking to the politicians, and trying to make sure they are aware that it’s not just the animals we are losing, but the natural capital this country depends on… The good news is that many of our [African] countries are changing in terms of democracy. They are much more open. Governments are much more willing to listen. It is quite positive. It’s just a very, very slow process.

e360: Are there countries in Africa that make wildlife protection a real priority?

Kahumbu: Seychelles makes wildlife conservation a huge priority. The entire island state of the Seychelles depends on their natural resources to attract tourism, which is their number one source of income. The government and some local NGOs have been able to remove invasive species and protect certain islands very fiercely. That is a great asset.

e360: You didn’t mention Kenya, South Africa or Tanzania, which are also real tourist destinations for those who want to go on safaris.

Wildlife Direct David Ngala
Kenyan blogger David Ngala of the Friends of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest holds a donated GPS device. Read his blog.

Kahumbu: Yes, it’s a challenge. I would say that in Kenya, for example, we know for a fact that most of our wildlife is not inside our protected areas. Most of our wildlife is migratory, it moves between protected areas. And what I’m disappointed about is that our government is not doing anything to protect those migration corridors. Instead, the government is investing in industry that goes directly in the path of the migration of wildlife.

You see the same thing in South Africa and in Tanzania. You see the Tanzanian government now putting a highway across the Serengeti. That would kill the Serengeti. But the industry that is driving the project to put in this highway is extremely powerful. I mean, which place in Africa is more important than the Serengeti? Why would you put a highway right across Africa’s most prominent conservation area? It’s just mind-boggling! These are the challenges we, as conservationists, are facing.

e360: Are there countries on such a bad track that you worry holistically about the wildlife there?

Kahumbu: You know, I wouldn’t say it is black and white. We have some countries that do a good job in some areas and do a horrific job in other areas. Look at Ethiopia: they are putting in a hydroelectric dam. They began construction before they even did an environmental impact assessment. Now that dam will affect a World Heritage Site [the Lower Omo Valley]. Why did they go ahead with the dam? Because they said they don’t see how the environment can come before development and energy. Yet there are also other really great projects in Ethiopia where they are conserving their wildlife. My point is that across the continent, in almost every case, you won’t find countries putting conservation and the national parks on a pedestal and saying, “You have to defend these no matter what.”

I would say that China is probably the greatest threat to Africa’s natural resources right now. They are taking timber; they are taking oil… The rate at which they can harvest those resources is terrifying.

e360: What should African governments be doing to control the effects of this kind of natural resource development?

Kahumbu: I think probably the most important thing that African governments have to do is have environmental policies that protect the natural resources at all costs. And defend those policies. For example, Kenya has some amazing environmental legislation. But it’s so corrupt, it’s so easy to penetrate the system to get what you want, that it is a useless piece of paper at the end of the day.

e360: How would you assess the importance of the international community — including the U.S. or UK — in helping protect wildlife in Africa?

“African governments should have policies that protect natural resources at all costs. And defend those policies.”

Kahumbu: You can’t put a number on it, but it’s obviously extremely important. African countries are not able, in general, to make conservation areas pay for their survival. And at the end of the day, we are saying these are global resources. Mountain gorillas do not belong only to the people of Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda. They belong to the people of the world. But the people of those three countries are the only ones paying for their survival. And we need to find a way to ensure that other countries can help pay for Africa’s great conservation areas.

In Kenya, we have 60 national conservation protected areas, but only five of them actually make money. And that money has to pay for the rest of them. That means you have very poor enforcement. I was in the field this weekend, and we had to rescue an elephant that had a bullet wound. And we found two more elephants that had been poached. In that particular area, I think there were three government rangers covering an area of 1.6 million acres! There is no way they could protect that area.

e360: Are you working on a project currently?

Kahumbu: Yes, I’m actually working on several projects. I run another organization called The Kenya Land Conservation Trust, which is all about securing wildlife corridors to enable wildlife to move between the protected areas in order to sustain the genetic connectivity between the different protected areas. I’m working especially on big cats, because they are so vulnerable and they are very important indicators of what is happening. I also do work with a lot of landowners and local communities.

While I use WildlifeDirect as an amazing social network, I also work with people. I try to engage citizens, especially those around the city of Nairobi, to get them to fall in love with our national park. It is the only park in the world where you have lions, buffalos, rhinos and giraffes within 15 minutes of the city’s center.

e360: You live on the outskirts of Nairobi National Park, correct?

Kahumbu: I live right on the edge of Nairobi National Park, which is an unbelievable place because there’s no barrier between the national park and the outside. For example, last night we had two lions fighting within a couple hundred meters of my house. The noise was deafening as the two lions were attacking each other. You couldn’t see them, but you could hear them. It’s a terrifying sound, but it’s wonderful to be in a city and still be surrounded by these incredible wild animals.