On October 17th I step down from my position as chairman of WildlifeDirect. I have served in this role for four years ever since Dr. Richard Leakey asked me to take his place. I leave confident in the great work of Paula Kahumbu and her new board.
On October 16th, in the company of fellow producer Katie Carpenter, I introduced Paula at the annual Princeton In Africa dinner following the screening of a clip from Battle For The Elephants. These words of mine followed:
“After a career making films I have reached a solemn, counter-intuitive, conclusion—that the least significant outcome of a film of this sort is national broadcast. In terms of impact, the most important audience may be the small, directed one.
Tonight’s honoree, Dr. Paula Kahumbu knew that long before I. About four years ago, just after Battle For the Elephants was broadcast in the US, Paula arranged a private screening of it in Nairobi. Not a bad showing either. The entire diplomatic corps, every legendary conservationist and, lest I forget, Kenya’s first lady, Margaret Kenyatta, they all showed up.
Even though the power failed half way through the screening (a producer’s worst nightmare), we proceeded until the final credits. The greatest applause was for Paula Kahumbu. Thanks to that special evening under a tent she brought legends of decision makers to her side—diplomats, conservationists and most importantly Kenya’s first lady who is still to this day the patron of WildlifeDirect. In fact Madame Kenyatta is the first First Lady in all Africa to adopt a conservation project of her own. (I should note the Chinese Ambassador walked out in a fury but at the time we put that down as testament to the evening’s impact). Battle For The Elephants now belongs to Paula. She has taken it into a multitude of schools and rallied an entire new generation to the cause of elephants.
In fact, Paula has become a filmmaker in her own right, the face of wildlife throughout Kenya, as the presence behind a regular TV program, NTV Wild. To give you a sense of her luster in Kenya, just last week when she marched through Nairobi on World Elephant Day, 4000 people—many kids—followed her.
Why is this? Why is Paula so important? Simply put, Africa and the rest of the world are at war with Africa. When Paula was born there were 2 million elephants across the continent. Today hardly 350,000 savanna elephants remain. So goes it for so many species—Grevys zebra, rhino, and pangolin. The list will make you weep. All of them are vanishing in her lifetime. What Paula recognized at an early age was that a spear was being driven into the heart of her beloved continent. Elephants are not just emblems, but hope. They tell us not only about themselves but about ourselves. They are the caretakers of the wild. The face of forgotten conscience, and, with deep memories, wild humor, powers of communication that can only be described as staggering and bottomless wells of grief—they are the role models of our better selves. For Paula, elephants were Africa and should remain Africa. We need them to guide us into the future.
So Paula has battled—brilliantly—changing laws, enduring long sessions in steamy courtrooms, beating on the desks of the mighty, mobilizing the complacent, guiding the young and fighting, fighting, fighting.
Is this only about elephants? Not really: Paula is the new Africa. For a century that continent’s conservationists have been pale skinned people in bush shorts and sandals. Where they have failed, she will win. Where they dared not tread she will bravely step right in.
Best of all, others will follow– women surely but also men. They will imitate her not just in Kenya but in Tanzania, in Uganda and on and on. I avoid the cliché “force of nature.” Even though Paula is that, I much prefer “force for change.” Paula is the new Africa, a voice of authority and authenticity. She battles for creatures who cannot battle for themselves and for land woefully bereft of champions. And behind her marches the new Africa.
It is for this reason I am honored beyond belief to introduce to you Dr. Paula Kahumbu, recipient of this year’s Princeton In Africa Medal.”
See Paula’s Facebook page here.