Conservation is something that is deep in our psyche. We are connected to nature in a way that very few cultures around the world are anymore. This TV series really emphasizes what we’ve been able to do is to bring children out of classrooms and into the wild. And that’s really how I’m able to have a huge impact, at least in my country.

I had the pleasure to interview Paula Kahumbu, Conservationist for ‘Secrets of the Elephants’ from National Geographic Films. The series is a four-part docuseries produced by James Cameron and narrated by Natalie Portman.

Paula Kahumbu is the CEO of Wildlife Direct and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer with a doctorate from Princeton University. Paula is the producer and host of a popular wildlife television series, Wildlife Warriors and is the winner of the Whitley Award and the National Geographic Buffett Award for conservation leadership in Africa. She has received international recognition for her critical role in creating awareness and mobilizing legal reforms to halt elephant poaching in Kenya.

Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better, Paula. Can you tell us a bit of your backstory and what brought you to this specific career path?

I was really pursuing a career in science, but moved into conservation because I felt that science wasn’t going to be enough, that we were going to lose our wild animals. I started doing advocacy and policy work with the government in Kenya for quite a while, and then moved to storytelling as a very powerful way of conveying interest and inspiring people about nature and elephants being this species I did my PhD on. Storytelling is a great way of winning hearts and minds. And I use storytelling not only to educate people and inspire them, but to drive policy change in our country.

A few years ago I launched a campaign called Hands Off Our Elephants to basically stop the poaching of elephants in Kenya. We reduced poaching in Kenya by 80%, which was the only country in Africa that really saw that kind of impact, and that was by winning over the support of local people around me.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your work as a wildlife conservationist, and how have you worked to overcome them?

Governments of Africa are busy developing at a very rapid pace, and they see conservation as a barrier or maybe as anti-development. And I think it’s the wrong answer. I don’t think conservation is against development. We’ve worked very hard to communicate that conservation and development can and should work together. The way that we have done this is really to create our own television series. I produced my own TV series called Wildlife Warriors. Wildlife Warriors shines a light on conservation role models at the frontline — African people doing amazing things, whether they are spiritual leaders, engineers, conservationists, scientists, or tour guides.

Conservation is something that is deep in our psyche. We are connected to nature in a way that very few cultures around the world are anymore. This TV series really emphasizes what we’ve been able to do is to bring children out of classrooms and into the wild. And that’s really how I’m able to have a huge impact, at least in my country.

In filming National Geographic’s “Secrets of the Elephants,” what were some of the most fascinating and surprising things you learned about these creatures in their natural habitats across different terrains?

I know elephants well because I studied them for my PhD. I’ve always felt that these animals are so intelligent, their brains are so large that we will never fully comprehend them. While we were filming them in different parts of Africa and Asia it occurred to me that each group of elephants, Africa, were doing things differently. They’ve created their own cultures. They’ve figured out whether it’s desert elephants, savannah elephants in Zimbabwe, or savannah elephants in the east to solve problems. They’ve perfected it and they have transmitted that knowledge from generation to generation. So for example, in Zimbabwe, the elephants have to navigate these treacherous cliffs in order to get from the highlands where they’re feeding down to the water and it’s so dangerous that if an elephant slips, the whole family will go tumbling down to their deaths. But they use their trunks to punch the ground in front of their feet to figure out if the ground is hard enough. And you see these elephants doing it, punching the ground in front of them with their trunk. And their tail, meanwhile at the back, is sticking out horizontally, making sure that the elephant behind them is a good distance away so that they don’t bump into each other and knock themselves off balance. I don’t see that with the elephants in East Africa. You don’t see that in the desert. I thought that was really amazing.

What were some of the most profound moments you experienced while researching and sourcing materials for the series, and how did they inform your perspective on elephant conservation?

One of them was getting to really understand the latest knowledge about bull elephants. So bull elephants are often treated as dangerous rogues — animals to avoid, as they’ll harm you. If you think about the hunters who come to Africa, they target bull elephants. They think the bulls are the most attractive for trophies. If you want to solve problems of human elephant conflict, you should go for the bull. What we found in Kenya was that bull elephants live in bachelor groups. And those bachelor groups are usually led by one particularly large bull. And so they almost reflect like a family group where you have this big male patriarch.

We were with a group of elephants led by a bull called Tolstoy. Tolstoy was the oldest, the tallest, and he had the longest tusks, but he wasn’t the most aggressive. He wasn’t the most violent. He was actually the gentler leader of elephants. You need patience, you need empathy. You need to be kind. And that was very surprising. It’s something that revealed that elephants are doing things differently from humans. That respect for elders or respect for the leaders was based on how kind those leaders were. Tolstoy would never be the first one to eat. He would wait for everyone else to eat before he ate. He was a demonstration of a quintessential gentleman.

Are there any common misconceptions about elephants that you would like to address or dispel?

People think that elephants in Africa are just one species. They are not. They are two species. The forest elephants are different from savannah elephants. They are separated genetically by more than 3 million years.

They actually are biologically quite different. People think of elephants as animals that live on the savannahs only, but actually elephants play a very important role in forests in opening up pathways, planting seeds, distributing nutrients, and creating new habitats for other species.

How can our readers stay connected with you and follow your work, as well as watch the “Secrets of the Elephants” docuseries?

Secrets of the Elephants premieres on NatGeo TV on April 21, 2023, and the next day on Disney+. Readers can also connect with me and my work through Wildlife Direct.

Thank you for your time and for sharing your expertise with us, Paula.


  • Savio P. Clemente

    TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor

    Savio P. Clemente, TEDx speaker and Stage 3 cancer survivor, infuses transformative insights into every article. His journey battling cancer fuels a mission to empower survivors and industry leaders towards living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. As a Board-Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), Savio guides readers to embrace self-discovery and rewrite narratives by loving their inner stranger, as outlined in his acclaimed TEDx talk: "7 Minutes to Wellness: How to Love Your Inner Stranger." Through his best-selling book and impactful work as a media journalist — covering inspirational stories of resilience and exploring wellness trends — Savio has collaborated with notable celebrities and TV personalities, bringing his insights to diverse audiences and touching countless lives. His philosophy, "to know thyself is to heal thyself," resonates in every piece.