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Paula Kahumbu brims with energy and passion for preserving threatened wildlife and habitats. She’s also discovered another frequently endangered species: conservationists themselves.
She explains that “conservationists do crucial work on a shoestring, cut off from the rest of the world. They’re in remote, isolated places, some even risking their lives, with no chance of getting on the international radar screen. Meanwhile, millions of people who care about the catastrophic loss of wildlife and habitats aren’t sure how to help.”
Legendary conservationist Richard Leakey saw the Internet as a way to connect individuals concerned about the planets threatened flora and fauna with those working on the frontlines to save it. Today his brainchild, WildlifeDirect, gives about 120 conservation projects an online platform to share day-by-day challenges and victories via blogs, diaries, videos, photos, and podcasts. As executive director of the effort (wildlifedirect.org) Kahumbu has the vehicle she was looking for to bring conservation stories out of the shadows and into the minds of people who want to help.
Thanks to her efforts, people concerned about wildlife and wild places can view problems in real time and track the impact of their own contributions. They can spend lunch breaks watching an endangered eagle whose eyesight they helped to restore, see conservationists saving orphan orangutans in Indonesia, or follow Maasai warriors protecting lions in Africa.
“Most people can’t make enormous donations to help support these projects,” Kahumbu acknowledges. “But if millions of people each contribute just ten or twenty dollars, it adds up to really significant support.” The site attracts thousands of visitors daily, with online donations going directly to projects across Africa, Asia, and South America. “Conservationists do difficult, dangerous fieldwork—not savvy fundraising,” Kahumbu points out. “WildlifeDirect gives voice to their most basic needs, from fuel for a motorbike to uniforms for park rangers, things that are essential, but not expensive. It’s a particularly powerful way to quickly leverage support when a crisis occurs.”
One dramatic example of spotlighting a crisis occurred when mountain gorillas were found slaughtered in Congo’s war-torn wilderness. “Discovering carcasses that had been shot at point blank range was extremely traumatic for park rangers who had monitored the gorillas for years and knew their individual personalities, names, and families,” Kahumbu recalls. “The stories and photos that rangers posted were so emotional and compelling it immediately seized international awareness and media attention. One curious thing about Africa is that often people with the least formal education are the best storytellers. Their powerful, on-the-ground accounts prompted an outpouring of support and restored financial stability to the park. Today, it’s re-opened to tourism, which is amazing since only a few years ago it was a battlefield where not only people, but also gorillas, lions, elephants, and hippopotamuses were being annihilated.”
Years later, when post-election violence rocked the renowned Maasai Mara preserve, WildlifeDirect exposed the crisis and used its own credibility to garner government funding that allowed the park to survive the perilous period.
The site can also bring a unique big-picture perspective to otherwise fragmented efforts. When a disturbing trend of predators dying from poison surfaced on blogs, WildlifeDirect connected the dots to reveal the same chemical pesticide was used to kill all of the animals. The team called a meeting with bloggers and government officials, alerted the online audience, galvanized organizations across Africa, and attracted international media coverage. Public pressure on officials and producers ultimately forced the manufacturer to withdraw the pesticide from Kenya.
Sometimes the story of a single animal motivates global response. When Rosy, a key breeding crowned eagle in Africa, grew blind and stopped mating, the site published his plight. Enough money was raised to perform cataract surgery, successfully replace his lenses, and enable breeding to resume.
The site also transforms human lives. Kenya’s “Lion Guardians” battle the unprecedented collapse of lion populations by convincing Maasai warriors, who once hunted lions, to monitor them and educate communities on ways to save livestock without killing big cats. One of the first young men to join began posting stories, photos, and videos on WildlifeDirect. He saved 50 lions in one year by raising just $18,000 through the site. His poignant descriptions became an international sensation and caught the eye of Oxford University. He was offered a scholarship, completed a degree, and has returned to lead anti-poaching investigations in the field. “He’s the first person in his region to achieve this level of education,” says Kahumbu. “He’s become a real conservation hero thanks to opportunities inspired by his blog.”
Growing up in Kenya, Kahumbu remembers asking her neighbor Richard Leakey to tell her about animals she caught and brought to his door. “I always hoped to find one he couldn’t identify, but of course that never happened.” Years later she brings Leakey’s vision, and the work of hundreds of other conservationists, to anyone with an Internet connection. “We’ve just started a blog from a man who has quietly labored in the wilderness for 16 years. William Kimosop persuaded schoolchildren to monitor Kenya’s endangered kudu antelope, then worked with communities to secure key migration and breeding areas. He’s single-handedly responsible for tens of thousands of acres being set aside to preserve kudu, crucial trails connecting habitats, and an ancient trade route essential to local livelihoods. He achieved all that on his own in the middle of nowhere; imagine what he’ll do with worldwide support.”