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The 2021 recipient of the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year, Dr Paula Kahumbu grew up in Kenya surrounded by animals. “We lived in an area that was rich with wild animals from mice, lizards, birds and insects. I was a small child in a large family of older siblings. They were so courageous and would catch so many animals, and study them, or rehabilitate injured animals. I grew up loving wildlife and as a young teen I went on a 1,000-km hiking expedition in Northern Kenya to collect specimens of invertebrates for the National Museums. That was the moment that I knew I wanted to be a scientist and I wanted to study and protect nature,” says Dr Kahumbu in an interview.
The Kenyan wildlife conservationist’s efforts are world renowned—her work around elephant rights worldwide led her to create the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign with Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta, the first lady of the Republic of Kenya. It has been instrumental in curbing elephant poaching and protecting the beasts against environmental threats.
It is diverse efforts like these, in exploring, conserving and protecting precious resources on our blue planet through innovative, relevant and accessible means, that have earned her the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year.
It started when Dr Kahumbu was studying elephants for her PhD in the forests of southern Kenya. “They were shy and hard to see. One day while measuring trees I noticed a tree trunk move, it was an elephant’s leg. The whole family had moved into the area that I was working in and had gone to sleep standing up right there in front of us,” she says.
“The most astonishing experience was with an amazing handsome giant called Tim. I met Tim when he was injured and I organised for him to be treated, and later collared. I cannot describe how amazing it is to witness an animal so enormous and strong, be so gentle and trusting. Tim was Africa’s largest tusker. He would come to my car if I called his name. One year I went with the Nat Geo film crew—Tim was with his relatives, hanging out in the shade of acacia trees. All of a sudden they went to sleep one at a time, rocking back and forth, then dropping to the ground, snoring loudly as we watched. It was an incredible level of trust he gave us. Most large elephants sleep standing up because it’s risky to be lying on your side as it takes a while to stand up again in case of any threats.”
Dr Kahumbu’s anecdote illustrates just how seamlessly intuitive her work and passions are, affecting both the environment she is in, as well as influencing those she meets into joining her. In 2015 she was given the title of Order of the Grand Warrior by the Kenyan President for outstanding service.
Besides her admirable work on the field, it also Dr Kahumbu’s infectious spirit that has brought so much change. She recognises that receiving prestigious awards don’t just boost her work and that of her agencies’, but also invite more people to join them.