Walking for Elephants: One Conservationist’s Journey

Jim Nyamu, a 37-year-old Kenyan research scientist, finished his 560-mile walk in Washington, D.C., last week to raise awareness about threats to elephants in the wild. He spoke to a gathering of about a hundred people in Lafayette Park opposite the White House. His finish was timed to coincide with the International March for Elephants, a worldwide event organized by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, with marches staged in 15 cities, from Arusha in Tanzania to Wellington in New Zealand.

Formerly with the Kenya Wildlife Service and the African Conservation Centre, Nyamu began his U.S. walk in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 4, 2013. On Friday, October 4, Nyamu wore a hat, khaki shorts, and white T-shirt signed by supporters, and he spoke out about the crisis facing wild elephants in his native Kenya. “I’m encouraged by this coming together of people from all walks of life so elephants don’t become extinct,” Nyamu said to his Washington supporters.

According to the iworry (iworry.org) elephant campaign, Africa’s elephants are being slaughtered by poachers at the rate of one every 15 minutes. Nyamu is dedicated to educating the public about the killing, stopping the ivory trade, and banning the sale of ivory.

“People think ivory and elephants are separate,” Nyamu said. “The moment you detach an elephant from ivory, that’s a dead elephant.”

Like humans, elephants are social, have sophisticated memories, and mourn their dead, Nyamu said. They are a keystone species and their survival is intertwined with ours.

Also critical, Nyamu said, is engaging local Kenyan communities to choose a path of conservation rather than poaching. He encourages poachers to become conservationists through his ongoing work with Elephant Neighbors Center (elephantneighborscenter.org). Since 80 percent of elephants live outside protected areas, he said, local support is critical.

On Friday, ex-poachers accompanied Nyamu on his walk. “They [the ex-poachers] said they are going to work with me,” Nyamu said. “So I’m trying to bring the communities together and establish community conservation programs. We can stop poaching by working with communities and educating them. They don’t feel good when they are killing elephants.”

Jim Nyamu, a 37-year-old Kenyan research scientist, completed a 560-mile walk in the U.S. to raise awareness for elephant protection. Photograph by Christy Ulrich.
Jim Nyamu, a 37-year-old Kenyan research scientist, completed a 560-mile walk in the U.S. to raise awareness for elephant protection. Photograph by Christy Ulrich.


Nyamu has made three previous walks in Africa to raise awareness about issues facing elephants. Since February 2013, he has walked more than 1,500 miles across Kenya.

“It has not been easy. I look at everyone for support,” Nyamu said. During his recent walk in the U.S., people asked him why he was walking for elephants here, instead of in Africa, where they live in the wild.

“I thought Americans are more informed, but I learned that they aren’t,” Nyamu said. “In Kenya they say it’s not their business, and it was the same in New York and New Jersey,” Nyamu said. “People can learn so many things from elephants.”

Nyamu averaged about 25 miles a day during his walk, and he walked most of it alone, though occasionally a host would join him for a couple of miles as he set off for his next destination. “Something I have learned in America, I didn’t see people. When I was walking, I was the only one walking.”

In Kenya he would usually see and speak with 500 people or so in a community each day about elephant conservation. In the U.S., if someone hosted him for a dinner or organized a group, he might get to speak with 20 people. For future walks in the U.S., he plans on coordinating with universities in the U.S. to hopefully get his message out to a bigger audience.

Nyamu said many generous people made overnight accommodations for him, some in five star hotels. “Their support was overwhelming.” Nyamu said. “But I wished I would be in the camp. I’m used to that. I wished I had more time to talk to people.”

Finding the right food to fuel his journey in the U.S. provided Nyamu with one of his biggest logistical challenges. He ate mostly fruits and would occasionally add in some beef. “My stomach was confused because of the food that I was eating here,” he said. “I tried to avoid eating as much as I could and only eat what I know.”

Next up for the conservationist? He’s headed back to Africa to start another elephant walk in Uganda, then on to Tanzania and ending in Amboseli, Kenya, a total of 1,550 miles.

Christy Ullrich Barcus, National Geographic magazine staff, covers natural history and culture topics for National Geographic News. She is the editor of Polar Bear Watch. She holds a master's degree in nonfiction writing from Johns Hopkins University and a bachelor's degree from the University of Virginia.

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