Changing Planet

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 ( 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 ( 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.
  • Jeen Gichuhi

    great work now its a call for us to stand for the jumbos

  • Jim

    christy thank you for your interview: This is the moment for the world to come together an save this iconic species. The solution is to support community conservation that host most of the elephants in Kenya in oppose to the National Parks. Conservation in most of African changes from Landscape conservation model to community based conservation model.

  • Lori Sirianni

    Thank you to Christy Ullrich and National Geographic for this story. Jim Justus Nyamu’s historic 560-mile walk to raise awareness has deserved much more media attention and it’s good to see NG paying attention and reporting. Jim is right – we Americans are *not* informed, and that needs to change if we are to accept our own partial responsibility for the elephant poaching crisis and help to save this ancient, irreplaceable species. Please keep reporting on Jim’s work, and on this most important issue. We cannot – cannot – lose the elephants. It’s as simple as that, and world participation and action is needed to save them.

  • David Githenya (C-Gey davie Son)

    I start by congratulating u for a tremendous work you are doing on the behalf of the jumbos.
    you have generously used your energy,time and the resources to ensure the world knows the value of our elephants. This will encourage the international community policing and anti-poaching knowledge and the importance of wildlife knowledge will be availed local thus having effective community participation in fighting poaching , am sure united we will stand but divided we fall.There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.i pressure that your God given urge, passion and knowledge about our wildlife be the key to achievement for terminating poaching. you have shown and lead us to the success in in wildlife conservation.To accomplish this great things we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe. we should join hands with the global community and save the endangered wildlife resources in Kenya and the whole world. kudos Jim.

  • Diane Edwards

    I love my elephants. Where can I get the tee shirt — ivory belongs to elephants –. I’d like to be charge of those poachers. We have to get rid of them. They are horrible monsters. I have to be polite.

  • Charlotte P

    I fear it is too late for the elephants but hope I am wrong. What a crying shame. While I applaud all efforts to stop poaching of every animal, it is not enough. These poachers need the same attention that Osama Bin Laden had, with the same result. Too harsh? If we do not stop the extinction of the elephants it says a lot about our stewardship of this awesome place we live called planet earth. Either way, we need a new strategy to combat this destruction…I know…I heard about the curse of the ivory…owners have had strange and terrible things happen to them…spread the word.

  • Julie Samy

    Dear Jim,

    Thank you for the dedication and good energy you are putting in helping save the elephants. I totally agree with you that only by educating people all around the world and motivating those who live with elephants as well as former poachers will we achieve success in preserving these beautiful animals.

  • Andrew

    Congratulations Nyamu for the finish – I am sure the elephants feel you, as do the people of Africa. You are fighting for our heritage.

  • Festus Ihwagi

    Well done, well done Jim.

  • Enock Gray

    That was great guys, thanks to you all who walked the elephant marches.
    Here at SEGA I volunteer to run a club with 47 members all girls. They meet every Wednesday at 5:00 PM to discuss issues on anti ivory activities.

  • taiko

    Go, Jimmy Walker go. Your efforts to educate and sensitize communities on the need to conserve wildlife is greatly appreciated. The Kenya Community Based Tourism Network – KECOBAT are fully behind you.

  • gitahi kenyuah

    its a wonderful job and a worthy sacrife. keep it up.

  • Will Travers

    Such an honour to March with Jim in DC as part of DSWT iWorry event! For a full picture of what is happening to elephants please check out We can make the change happen! Will


    Thank you very much National Geographic and Ms Christy Barcus for the Great Article. Mr. Jim Nyamu is a True Voice for our Voiceless Elephants, Rhinos, Lions and other Brothers and Sisters in the Wild!!!! For Sure: Ivory Belongs To Elephants!

  • Valerie Traina

    Mr. Nyamu, I am so impressed with your love for and dedication to elephants! I hope you’ll also walk in Asia, where the increasing demand for ivory is driving the murder of elephants.

  • Joan

    Bravo, Jim – it is up to all of us, however, to do whatever is in our power to save this magnificent species. I only hope we are not too late.

  • pravat

    thanks to all elephant lovers.

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