Paula Kahumbu opposed rock concert where Elsa the lion cub was “born free”
NAIROBI, Kenya––Bringing immediate global attention to his own lack of anything resembling conservation credentials, Kenya Wildlife Service director general John Migui Waweru on February 18, 2020 reportedly barred Wildlife Direct executive director Paula Kahumbu from Nairobi National Park.
Waweru, 59, appointed by Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta on March 13, 2019, served 30 years in the Kenyan navy, but his official Kenya Wildlife Service biography makes no mention of participation in any activity that might have informed his activities pertaining to wildlife and habitat.
Thin credentials & thinner skin
Waweru’s thin credentials could scarcely contrast more with Kahumbu’s lifelong involvement on behalf of wildlife and habitat, including as a longtime Kenya Wildlife Service staff member and leader of Kenyan delegations to the triennial meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
A longtime protégé of Richard Leakey, a two-time director of the Kenya Wildlife Service before founding Wildlife Direct, Kahumbu, 57, succeeded Leakey at Wildlife Direct in 2007.
Waweru banned Kahumbu from Nairobi National Park only days after Kahumbu failed to secure an injunction against an apparently sparsely attended Valentine’s Day weekend rock concert from proceeding in Hell’s Gate National Park.
No lions left, but still critical habitat for rare birds
Hell’s Gate, already internationally famous for the spectacular Hell’s Gate Gorge geological formations, became further renowned more than 20 years before it was designated a Kenyan national park in 1984, as the place where then-Kenya Wildlife Service ranger George Adamson and his then-wife Joy Adamson in 1956 rescued, rehabilitated, and released a lion cub they named Elsa.
Joy Adamson wrote the 1960 best seller Born Free about the experience. The book became the basis for the 1966 film Born Free, starring Virginia McKenna. The globally active conservation organization Born Free Foundation, headed by McKenna’s son Will Travers, was begun with proceeds from the film.
There have not been lions in Hell’s Gate National Park in decades, nor any other large predators, nor elephants either, but the park is still home to zebras, buffalo, rock hyrax, and especially birds, including a breeding colony of critically endangered Ruppell’s vultures, as well as eagles, falcons, hawks, buzzards, and owls.
“Numerous calls from young Kenyans”
Responding to “a few questions raised by [Kenyan journalist] John Mbaria, who supported my actions, but wondered why I didn’t I challenge the Safaricom Jazz Festival, which was also held at Hell’s Gate,” months earlier, Kahumbu explained via Facebook that she “was not aware of the Safaricom Jazz Festival,” a much smaller event, and only became aware of the Koroga Festival,” as the Valentine’s Day weekend rock concert was called, after she “received numerous calls from young Kenyans who asked me to intervene.
“I brought it up with the vulture community,” Kahumbu recounted, “who have consistently raised the alarm about disturbance levels in Hell’s Gate. The Koroga Festival is a particularly big problem, as it is planned as an annual 48-hour loud music and lights-at-night affair for 15-20,000 people. This would prevent nesting vultures and birds of prey from hunting for 48 hours. This would cause chicks to die and adults to abandon nests. The biology was lost on the lawyers for the event and the Kenya Wildlife Service,” Kahumbu charged, “who literally said ‘They are just birds.’
“Booming music echoing off the cliffs”
“The Koroga event was scaled back to 6 p.m. – midnight for two nights,” Kahumbu continued,” but the expected crowds were just as large, “with loud booming music echoing off the cliffs, and bright lights shining into the sky. We needed experts, scientists or bird researchers to explain this to the organizers and the judge to explain how the disturbance from sound and light would affect birds,” Kahumbu said.
“The relevant experts however were being intimidated,” Kahumbu alleged. “Research permits were withheld, access to Hells Gate was made difficult, and one local scientist was called into the local Kenya Wildlife Service office to ‘explain himself.’ He left shaking. Intimidation worked at keeping them out of court.
“So please know,” Kahumbu told supporters, “that my denial of entry into one of my favorite places, the Nairobi park, was nothing compared to what they [the Kenya Wildlife Service under Waweru ]are doing to others to muzzle them. This intimidation of independent scientists is what we should all be outraged about.
3,000 attendees, not 15,000+ expected
“People have asked if there was any impact of the festival on wildlife,” Kahumbu posted. “There was deliberate effort to ensure nobody could evaluate the impact. We could not photograph nests before, during , or after the event. So there is no data. And apart from cleaning litter, and keeping the revelers behind a fence, no effort was made to limit the decibels or to stick to the times.
“No official information has been revealed on the numbers of attendees or the impact of the festival. Estimates of 3,000 attendees suggests it was not as well-attended as they had hoped.
“The cleanup during the event was exceptional,” Kahumbu allowed. “The noise levels were however deafening and far exceeded the decibel permit, and the event went beyond midnight.
Kahumbu to young Kenyans: “You own the parks”
“Many people are asking how they can help,” Kahumbu concluded. “My message to you is, ‘Go to the parks on my behalf.’ Make your visit public, report on the good, and the challenges. Show the Kenya Wildlife Service that you care. Know that you own the parks, and that you are willing to fight for them.”
Anonymously observed Aviation, Travel & Conservation News, “While Dr. Paula and co-plaintiffs lost their case over a technicality, Kenya’s conservation community was nevertheless outraged, and the organizers of the festival have been named and shamed as perpetrators of this assault on a protected and fragile ecosystem, and outed as eco-illiterates.
“Brigadier (retired) John Migui Waweru clearly took offense over the legal case and the subsequent mobbing he received on social media platforms and resorted to this illegal action,” Aviation, Travel & Conservation News commented, “putting him at par with one of his predecessors.
Waweru predecessor jailed a conservationist
“Eight years ago,” the editors recalled, “the then-director general of the Kenya Wildlife Service, one Julius Kipngetich, had Kahindi Lekailhaile, the chief executive of EcoTourism Kenya, arrested, using an obscure legal provision to have police pick him up and throw him behind bars. This and other events led to the eventual resignation of Kipngetich just months later in disgrace.”
Justice J. Mutungi of the Environment and Land Court at Nakuru, the city nearest to Hell’s Gate National Park, on February 12, 2020 rejected Kahumbu’s application for an injunction against the so-called Naivasha Love Festival, also called the Koroga Festival, claiming the court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case.
Responded Kahumbu at the time, “Success is not winning a court case. Success is thriving wildlife. It is a very sad day for Kenya and lovers of wildlife that the agency responsible for the conservation of wildlife has accepted 700,000 Kenya shillings,” worth about $7,000 U.S., “despite the fact that the event imperils critically endangered species in an already degraded park.”
Nairobi News: “To Hell with Kahumbu”
Headlined Nairobi News, Capital FM, and several affiliated media, “To Hell with Kahumbu: Koroga Festival to proceed in Hell’s Gate after court dismissed her case,” welcoming appearances at Hell’s Gate by singer Mike Rua, Diamond Platnumz, and Hart The Band, but their views did not seem to be supported by paying customers.
Of the estimated 3,000 attendees, Kahumbu supporters alleged, as many as two-thirds received free admission.
Kahumbu has often before been outspokenly critical of, in her words, “major development within protected areas,” including the Chinese-built standard gauge railway that now traverses one end of Nairobi National Park on high pillars, barely noticed by wildlife except as a mid-day source of shade.
“Kenya is in a position that the U.S.A., U.K, Europe, Australia and many others were decades or even centuries ago,” Kahumbu said during the debate over the railway. “But our pace of growth is many times faster.
“How important do you think it is to create a lifeboat for our biodiversity now, to be protected fiercely, knowing that we will lose much land and area, but that we can regain it in the future. The lifeboat will be the source population for restocking. The lifeboat could be a set of parks and reserves or conservancies that together can sustain most of Kenya’s unique biodiversity for the next 50 years while we go through this hump of growth.”
Did elephant research
Born and raised in Nairobi, educated at the Loreto Convent Msongari school in Nairobi and the University of Bristol in England, Kahumbu earned a master’s degree in wildlife management from the University of Florida, and a Ph.D. for elephant research from Princeton University in 1992.
Kahumbu first came to worldwide notice in 1989 when she helped then-Kenya Wildlife Service director Richard Leakey to organize a bonfire of confiscated elephant ivory in Nairobi National Park to help dramatize to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species the need for the global embargo on elephant ivory trade that was adopted later that year and has remained in effect ever since.
Hippo & tortoise
In June 2011 Kanumbu received a $25,000 award from National Geographic for educational work including “creating Africa’s largest wildlife blogging platform,” according to Gatonye Gathura of AllAfrica.com, and writing four books for children, in collaboration with Isabella and Craig Hatkoff, describing the initial friendship and further adventures of a baby hippopotamus and a 120-year-old male giant tortoise.
Translated into 27 languages, the books have sold more than a million copies.
Owen, the hippo, was swept out to sea by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Washed ashore and rescued by coastal fishers several days later, Owen was taken to the Haller wildlife park near Mombasa. Upon release, he ran to Mzee, the tortoise, and hid behind him.
Not yet weaned, Owen ate what Mzee ate, and as tortoises eat much the same food as hippos, Owen survived and thrived.