Financial Times - A different kind of value added
March 7, 2009

There are grey elephants and brown elephants and black elephants - but nothing compares to the red elephants of Tsavo. Elephants may be created equal but, after a vigorous wallow in mud, the Tsavo breed of south-east Kenya are ablaze in the colours of terracotta, vermilion and claret. It is as if they are anointed by the burning equatorial sun and the rich, brick-red African soil.

I first saw them when I was seven. There were herds so vast that my dad turned off the engine of our rental car for half an hour until they had all crossed the road. Drought in the 1970s and the "ivory wars" of the 1980s decimated the population. At the last census, there were 12,000 elephants in Tsavo, one of Africa's biggest national parks. Even after two decades of recovery, that number is one-third of what it was 40 years ago.

On this trip, I was coming back to count elephants as a volunteer on an Earthwatch conservation project. Travel industry pundits are calling this type of holiday "voluntourism" or, worse, affluent activism. A trip like this costs roughly the same as a beach holiday in Lamu in the Kenyan archipelago, with about the same time commitment, meaning you don't have to quit your job or take a sabbatical.

Our group met in Nairobi at the Fairview Hotel. It turned out we were all women, which is not uncommon, according to Earthwatch. There were six of us, aged between 22 and 60 years, from Australia, the US, Japan and the UK. One was a student, one unemployed, another had a sparkling law career. It turned out we were all single - either widowed, divorced, broken-hearted or looking for love. Two had never seen an elephant in the wild; one was on her third "Elephants of Tsavo" expedition.

From the Fairview, we travelled half a day south-east on the A109, the country's major trade route joining the capital to Mombasa. This city is the gateway port for half a dozen countries in east Africa so the road rumbles with trucks hauling shipping containers, relentlessly overtaking on this two-lane highway. There is regular roadside wreckage. At one accident, locals scrambled around an overturned fuel tanker with buckets and cups trying to scoop up oil. We swerved to miss a small boy, holding aloft his plastic bag of yellow liquid like a trophy.

Astonishingly, this highway (and the Uganda railway line) splits the Tsavo National Parks into east and west wings. There is no fence between the highway and the park and it is not uncommon to see zebra dodging their way across.

We were staying at a safari lodge in the market town of Voi, 100 kilometres inland from Mombasa. Here we met the head of the Earthwatch project, Dr Barbara McKnight. An American researcher who has been living on and off in Tsavo for 20 years, she said she hoped to see out her life here. Then the research began in earnest.

Our days started early, when the air was still milky cool. An odd bull elephant loped across the landscape as I brushed my teeth. At the start of the trip, I simply gazed at him. By the end, I was grabbing binoculars, trying to estimate his age, even identify him. He might be Mighty Livingstone with the torn ear. Or Darwin, with a missing tusk.

After breakfast, we split into two safari vehicles. Our goal, in just under two weeks, was to survey all of Tsavo East, an area roughly the size of Northern Ireland, recording the location and behaviour of elephants, as well as the distribution of their waterholes. The work turned out to be long hours of low-grade concentration punctuated by moments of panic.

"Elephant!" That was how we alerted each other to a sighting at the beginning of the trip. As our skills and knowledge improved, we became more specific: "Solitary bull, right side of the vehicle, about 200 metres away, walking north."

Ben or Chege, who worked as both field assistants and drivers, would then slow down, positioning the vehicle with good vantage. Armed with a GPS and range finder, we quickly noted coordinates and distance to the vehicle.

Then we studied the elephant before it disappeared into the bush, recording its size, its behaviour and its purpose. It was by no means challenging compared to our day jobs, but it became compulsive work.

On the busiest day, we counted more than 600 elephants and 1,500 waterholes. My eye sockets were sore from the binoculars. We had been out in the field for 13 hours and we returned by dark, long after the sun had set behind the hazy Rukinga Hills.

Other days were slow. On one, we spotted just two families and two bulls in 10 hours. On another, we didn't record a single elephant after 10 o'clock in the morning. In the beating heat of the afternoon, the animals stop moving and take shelter from the sun beneath the gnarled branches of acacias. They become much harder to spot.

All, that is, except on our last day, when a small family had chosen the shade of a tree near the road. We turned off the engine. I could hear the beating air as they flapped their ears slowly, opening and closing like butterfly wings. Slightly wary, they jostled together more tightly, coaxing the baby towards the centre of the group. The matriarch turned to face us, glowering.

It was quiet occasions like this for which we were most grateful. Our voices dropped to a whisper. I might catch someone's eye and exchange a knowing smile. Even in a group as disparate as ours, we shared the hope that our research might allow for similar snatched moments in the future.

At the end of our 12-day trip, Dr McKnight gathered us together for a debrief. Our research had covered 98 per cent of Tsavo East National Park and we had counted nearly 2,000 elephants, including 60 calves under a year old. It was a promising sign.

Those good numbers come at a good time for Kenya. Last year, Earthwatch cancelled half of its expeditions here because of election violence that left hundreds of people dead and 250,000 displaced.

An alliance has developed between tourism and conservation in recent years, with the latter benefiting from the generosity of tourists and their deeper awareness. But projects can be left exposed in politically unstable times or amid a global downturn. And when tourist arrivals tumble, conservation projects suffer, too.

It is important to remember that the value of this kind of trip does not come in seven nights for the price of five. As some of us ponder how better to make the most of our diminishing money it is this style of holiday that may stand up, not just as a reason to pack our bags, but as a raison d'être.

Michelle Jana Chan flew to Nairobi with British Airways ( For more information on Earthwatch, see