Editor’s Note: Paula Kahumbu is a Kenyan wildlife conservationist and CEO of WildLife Direct. She is also guest editor of CNN’s Call to Earth series. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
I am an African living in Nairobi, Kenya, who makes films about my continent’s wildlife. But as a species, wildlife filmmakers from Africa are rarer than mountain gorillas. This needs to change.
We can literally count Africa’s prominent Black wildlife film makers on one hand – Kenya’s Faith Musembi, Manu Akatsa, and Jahawi Bertolli, and the Congo Republic’s Vianet Djeguet. To understand why there are so few, we need to remember our recent history.
When the colonial powers invaded Africa, they seized control of the continent’s wildlife along with its other natural resources. Colonial settlers saw African wildlife as “big game” and the continent’s first protected natural areas were game reserves, “pristine” natural areas created by expelling local communities for the benefit of white hunters.
After almost all African countries achieved independence in the latter half of the 20th century, descendants of colonialists remained in charge, in alliance with Western-based international conservation organizations. Game reserves were renamed national parks and, gradually, big game hunting gave way to wildlife tourism, where animals were “shot” with cameras instead of guns. But African wildlife was still there for White people’s enjoyment. Benefits from wildlife, and access to protected areas for local people were very limited. The idea that these locals could have an interest in preserving wildlife for its own sake was rarely considered. This may have unwittingly caused the prevailing perception that Africans aren’t interested in wildlife.
Africans like me who tried to get involved in wildlife conservation were made to feel out of place. Fellow Africans told me it was backward for a modern educated African to go to the bush and asked if I thought I was White – since of course, wildlife conservation was a romantic career choice for a foreigner. My applications to join White-led field research projects were rejected. When I was first interviewed by a British film crew, my interview was cut at the editing stage and replaced by one with a blue-eyed British conservationist. It was my PhD project, but they said his English was better. (Anyone who knows me will attest that I speak perfect English!)
Africa was the setting for some of the most iconic – and profitable – films about wildlife, which played a huge role in the growth of the wildlife conservation movement in the West. But these films, with their White-faced presenters, were made by Western-owned production companies for Western audiences. Most Africans never even got to see them. It was little wonder that there is the idea that Africans aren’t interested in wildlife because we created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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It took me years to convince leading wildlife film production companies to waive their prohibitively expensive licensing fees so these films could be shown on free-to-air TV in Kenya. They were hugely popular. But in their feedback, viewers asked: Why are all the protagonists in these films White? Where are our people?
That’s when I decided it was not enough to make Western-made wildlife films available to African audiences; what Africa needed was to see themselves and their view points in the films. We urgently needed wildlife films made by Africans, about Africans and for Africans.
As producer of the documentary TV series “Wildlife Warriors” I set out to find African conservation heroes who could feature in the episodes. I soon discovered that African conservationists were not as rare as people thought. The continent abounds with innovative conservation projects led by Africans, but they are not getting the recognition they deserve. When the first programs were aired, I was flooded with requests from other African-led projects to be featured in future episodes. I am frequently stopped by people just wanting to thank me for telling these stories. It turns out that Africans are interested in wildlife after all. And, thanks to Covid-19, film companies – which had to keep productions going on the ground despite lockdowns – started hiring local crews. This is when they “discovered” that we had some talented African filmmakers across the continent.
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Today things are changing fast. Companies like National Geographic and the BBC are leading the way with new approaches to global storytelling that deliver diversity and equity. There’s a flurry of trainings going on and our film crews are now beginning to look more like us. It’s early days, but this feels like an exciting new dawn.
Africa contains some of the world’s wildest places and is home to iconic species like elephants and gorillas that have become symbols for the global wildlife conservation movement. But it often feels like we are fighting a losing battle. I think this is partly because we have been sending out the wrong messages about our wildlife and wild places.
As recent political upheavals across the world have shown, change is driven by convincing narratives. My mission, and that of other African wildlife filmmakers, is to draw on the power of local storytelling to mobilize our people to save our continent’s spectacular wildlife – and assume their rightful place at the top table in global biodiversity conservation efforts.