Changing Planet

“Things R Elephant”: Heated Debate in Kenya Gets to the Heart of What It Will Take to Save the Species

By Paula Kahumbu

In Kenya, when you hear that “Things are Elephant,” it means there’s a major problem. That’s why we chose this as the title for the first ever debate of its kind, organized by WildlifeDirect, on the future of elephants.

On the afternoon of April 25, in a school hall in Nairobi, two highly charged teams—who had traded emotional Tweets the days before—went head to head. The only thing they agreed on was the need to save elephants.

The need to save our elephants has never been greater: Only today, in Thailand, three tons of illegal ivory from Kenya was seized at a port in eastern Thailand. The ivory was shipped from Mombasa, but it’s not clear if it originated in Kenya or elsewhere in Africa.

Elephants are a big deal for my country, Kenya, which is renowned for it’s spectacular wildlife. Despite it’s conservation history, Kenya is listed among the world’s eight most complicit countries as a source of ivory, and it’s a major contributor to the illegal transiting of ivory out of Africa.

Something is very wrong.

As the CEO of WildlifeDirect, I lead a national campaign—Hands Off Our Elephants—to transform results in Kenya, and we’re best known for our advocacy for better law enforcement, especially in the court rooms.

Our campaign, whose patron is First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, has had major impact. For example, on March 3, President Uhuru Kenyatta set 15 tons of ivory alight and promised to destroy the rest before the end of 2015.

We patted ourselves on the back for lobbying for what was the boldest move by any African president to date.

But less than 24 hours later, a full-page article appeared in a major local newspaper by respected columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo titled, “Don’t Burn Ivory, Sell it to Pay for Conservation.”

Furious, I hounded Charles on Twitter and met with him to “re-educate” him about why burning ivory was the right thing to do. He would have none of it and argued that the president was a fool.

So I challenged him to a duel—a public debate. We promoted the event with a poster depicting two super heroes fighting. The title of the debate: “Things R Elephant: The Great Debate on the Future of Elephants.”

Though Kenya is surely home to more elephant experts than any other country in the world, my colleagues were not at all happy and begged me not to go ahead with the debate.

They asked: What if the conservationists lose in the public eye in spite of fielding the stronger team? Remember: Even the best teams lose to weaker teams!

And: An all-out debate inviting all sorts of pro traders and free thinkers might not have the desired outcome. We risk opening up the proverbial can of worms and having the public go in a completely different direction.

These comments only egged me on. Trained by Richard Leakey, I’m known for my determination and stubbornness. (Just today, for the third time, Leakey has been appointed chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service.)

My team, arguing for the ivory trade ban and the burning of stockpiled ivory, included ecologist Winnie Kiiru and activist Irungu Houghton.

The opposition, arguing for openly selling elephants and their ivory, was made up of Onyango-Obbo, economist Kwame Owino, and writer Carla Wanjiku.

Let the Sparring Begin!

For two hours, we sparred on three topics: Are Elephants special? How can we save them? How can we stop the demand?

United States Ambassador Robert F. Godec framed the last theme by describing the global crisis and the role the U.S. is playing. He asked us to give three concrete examples of actions we’d take if we were in power.

So I’m chewing over my thoughts, listening to Charles, who comes up with the most ludicrous suggestions. He says: Ban the parks, ban the Kenya Wildlife Service, and stop burning ivory.”

I smile. He’s made it easy. I call for a national strategy to end trafficking of wildlife products, reform in the wildlife authority, and a global ban of ivory into perpetuity.

Charles insists that it’s my fault that elephants are in trouble because everything we’re doing as conservationists isn’t working, and therefore we should try radical solutions.

He says, “Just sell the ivory and use the funds to support better conservation.”

The audience is cheering!

I say, “Charles, your argument is completely illegitimate. We can’t sell the ivory even if we want to, unless you’re asking the Kenya government to sell it illegally into the black market.

“But,” I continue, “even if we could sell it, it would be like selling cocaine seizures to pay for rehabilitation of drug addicts.” With this argument, I win the audience back to my side. Charles falls silent.

Charles’s team’s viewpoint won the debate in CITES 2002 when southern African nations and China persuaded the world that the sale of ivory would help elephants. An auction took place in 2008 and triggered the worst slaughter elephants have ever been victim to.

The Genius of a Debate

Debating may be a risky approach, but it’s a genius way of creating public awareness, buy-in, and participation. The event drew 350 people. Another 2.2 million were reached on Twitter, and 366 people followed us on the youtube livestream .

We generated hundreds of questions and comments, and through the process, I learned three important lessons.

First, the public in general is simply not well enough informed about why elephants are special or why they are in trouble.

Few Africans have ever been to their national parks and experienced the magic of wild elephants. This includes our lawmakers.

Scientists publish important findings in inaccessible journals and use unintelligible jargon; as a result, science isn’t informing important decisions in Africa.

Journalists however, with their limited knowledge and their devil’s advocate approach, can provoke dangerous thinking because of their power to influence leaders through their massive audiences.

If we really care about saving elephants, then we need to get smart about educating and supporting journalists to be more effective in addressing complex issues like wildlife trafficking.

Second, as scientists we shy away from confrontations. Yes, it was scary to debate these important issues live with smart opponents, and yes, we could have lost the debate. But we gained enormous knowledge about what citizens think and care about.

Conservationists must find the courage to face their fears and do what needs to be done regardless.

Finally, I discovered to my horror that ignorance is killing elephants. There’s huge need to reach, educate, and enlist the support of millions of people across Africa who vote for their leaders and drive political decisions.

One member of the audience, a man from Masai Mara, told us that Nat Geo Kids magazine is a staple for his children, who are being raised in the U.S. He concluded that children in Kenya who see wildlife only as a threat are willing to kill animals because they simply have no alternative education.

“There is no Paula in Maasai Mara,” he lamented. He said that putting a magazine in the hands of every one of the million school kids who live near parks would transform their understanding and give them new appreciation.

I immediately began to think about how we can reach a million Kenyan school kids.

When Will We Draw a Red Line for Elephants?

For me, the juiciest part of the entire debate was an outburst by a 28-year-old, Chief Nyamweya, who exploded on stage with an unexpected emotional tirade.

I watched in horror as my normally calm friend, fighting back tears, shouted: “When are we going to draw a red line for elephants?”

He threw the microphone on the table and stormed off the stage.

We sat in shocked silence for a few moments. Then I realized that what he was suggesting—a new heightened urgency status for elephants—was supremely powerful.

In recent years, several southern African countries have bowed under pressure from the demand for ivory in China and Japan to sell their ivory. It’s asserted that “sustainable use” of elephants is the right approach for poor African countries struggling to finance the growing costs of fighting elephant poaching. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia have all sold ivory to China.

Imagine if the tables were turned? China would never accept the argument of sustainable use for pandas. Indeed nobody would.

Nyamweya was asking a simple and obvious question: Why don’t elephants have the global status of pandas?

The idea has stuck. We now plan to follow up with another #Tweet4Elephants event—perhaps a 12-hour opportunity for anyone around the world to participate in creating a #Redline4Elephants.

If you’d like to support us, please contact me at

Paula Kahumbu is the CEO of WildlifeDirect, a Nairobi-based conservation charity founded by Richard Leakey. She received her doctorate from Princeton University where she did research on elephants. In 2011 she was selected as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and she won the National Geographic/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation. In 2012 she launched the Hands Off Our Elephants Campaign, which is widely recognized for its successes in advocacy and in engaging Kenyans to support the protection of elephants. Last year she won the Whitley Award and the Order of the Grand Warrior, a presidential honor.

  • Anonymous Kenya

    This was a ridiculous debate. A bunch of well dressed NGO panelists & activists debating over an issue they have no background or relation to. No local poor communities or those who actually live with wildlife sat on that panel. Why? #buretu this neocolonial mindset of telling the natives who have lived with wildlife for centuries helps disenfranchise the same communities from the whole narrative. Solution lies in #corruptionKE & resolving HWC.

  • Esme Blair

    You are absolutely right, speak to any local, they have never visited a National Park in their home country, nor do they or have they ever been taught through the schools what importance and what a national heritage their wildlife is. All they know, through poverty, if it can fight back, kill it or torture it. Then along comes Asia, ready to facilitate and exploit the corruption that exists in every govt across Africa. So there are two things part from rampant, this can be done, but CORRUPTION ? wildlife trafficking is political with huge players involved. ..therein lies the war.

  • Alan N. Reeder

    Thank you for your impassioned support for the Elephants. I am with you; I stand beside you. I will become a Warrior also! And I agree with Chief Nyamweya that the “red line” has already been crossed and no time is left to act unless it is now.
    Thank you for your Leadership and may the Divine guide your way to the end when we can rejoice again!
    Alan N. Reeder

  • Martin Perlmutter

    The best way to reach the children is through television and social media. Magazines are costly, they take trees and it will take months to create and distribute them. Let the electrons do the heavy lifting!

  • Sura Mbaya

    That cocaine selling a counter-argument by Ms. Kahumbu was a red herring argument if I ever saw one.

    The reason that prohibition spawned organized crime and the likes of Al Capone is simply that banning this stuff only raises the risk premium, hence the price and the returns. High returns = bigger badder players = organized crime.

    If you chart the number of users of marijuana and cocaine on a chart over the last 20-30 years vs. the number of cigarette smokers, you will observe an obvious fact. That although cigarettes generate tax revenue, are highly regulated and sold in shops all over, the number of smokers as a % of the population is in a decline. Not so for cocaine users although the “war on drugs” has consumed $800B and countless lives.

    Regulate the trade of ivory, allow for commercial farming of the stuff and watch it fall out of fashion as abundance trumps rarity. This will take over 20 years (of course the NGOS don’t want that because they have to justify their fundraising) but it will work. FYI, that “Hands off” campaign was a dismal failure if the 552 tusks recovered recently are anything to go by.

  • Carl Safina

    Ivory could be simply a beautiful material for carving if it was all collected from elephants who’d died of natural causes.

    Because it is almost all from elephants that have been killed by humans, having governments profit from illegally killed ivory gives them incentives to let poaching run rampant, then give light sentences to poachers so they can go kill more.

    Until no person would ever want to kill an elephant for ivory, the only way to protect elephants is to make ivory illegal. Period.

  • Debra Lessard

    As far as I am concerned we never had enough elephants to supply ivory. Why ? These animals are so much smarter then we are. Sensitive. I saw a violinist playing for a pair of elephants in sanctuary. The rocked side to side to the music. Music the universal language

  • Belinda Stewart-Cox

    Two arresting observations:
    1. Ignorance is killing elephants
    2. Elephants do not have the status of pandas. How come? They’re just as engaging and appear to be more intelligent.
    As Paula pointed out, something is badly wrong.

  • Paola Lamborghini

    Good work Paula, I am glad we share the same name. We need more warrior like you!

  • Ashley McAvey

    Paula is my hero. Share this article with everyone you know!

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