Financial Times Covers Voluntourism

Going on a Trip to Count Kenya’s Elephants By Michelle Jana Chan

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.

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