Consider Volunteer Travel and Help the Environment at the Same Time
By Rose Palmer
Twenty-twenty was certainly a difficult year for travel lovers. However, a traveler’s loss was the environment’s gain.
Numerous stories throughout the year featured locations where the wildlife thrived once the encroaching presence of Homo sapiens was gone.
So, it may seem counterintuitive that traveling again can at the same time continue to help conservation efforts globally.
The economies of many destinations all around the planet have suffered tremendously due to the lack of tourism industry in the last 12 months.
But there is another segment of tourism that has also suffered and as a result has had a negative effect on conservation projects all around the world: volunteer travel.
Volunteer Travel in 2021
There are a number of travel organizations that organize tours where the goal is to volunteer time for programs that benefit the environment, along with seeing the sights at the destination.
The funds raised from these trips go toward these conservation projects and support the local communities as well.
Without these volunteer tours, projects that have been going on for years have had to make do with minimal funding since the pandemic began.
A volunteer travel experience in Kenya
In early 2019 I was fortunate to get a first-hand experience on such a volunteer travel experience and the benefits it produced.
I took part in Biosphere Expedition’s inaugural program at the Enonkishu Conservancy in Kenya’s Masai Mara region.
The Masai Mara and the adjacent Serengeti in Tanzania are well known for the huge wildebeest migrations that occur each year.
But while the Serengeti National Park covers over 5600 square miles, the Masai Mara Reserve across the border is only a fraction of that size.
To increase the amount of undeveloped land available to the wildlife, large private conservancies have been established around the Masai Mara Reserve.
These conservancies are beneficial to the local Masai property owners who are the legal custodians of the conservancy lands.
They have agreed to keep the land undeveloped and in exchange, they receive a share of the tourism income.
Volunteering in the Enonkishu Conservancy in the Masai Mara
The Enonkishu conservancy where I was volunteering is a relative newcomer to this conservation model.
Only 10 years ago, the landscape here was overgrazed by cattle and in danger of succumbing to agricultural expansion.
And where nearby conservancies had an abundance of Kenya’s iconic native wildlife, on these lands it was scarce.
Enonkishu’s motto is that they are the “Last Line of Defence” – because they truly are the fence between the established wild Mara conservancies on one side and productive corn fields on the other side.
Oh, but what a difference 10 years can make.
In this last year, we have seen environments improve or recover after only a few months without the presence of human interference.
Imagine the impact that 10 years can have on improving an environment when managed for the benefit of that environment.
At Enonkishu, a concerted and guided effort that effectively balanced cattle grazing, wildlife needs, and tourism has produced a vast habitat conducive to the local wildlife.
Where once there was only dirt, now there are vast fields of grasses and shrubs and trees. And where there is greenery, the grazing animals follow.
In this case, it is herds of zebras, gazelle, giraffes, water buffalo and elephants. And where there are grass eaters, the predators follow as do the tourists.
Volunteer data collection is critical to a conservation project’s success
Effective conservation is based on scientific principles and the cornerstone of any science project is data.
You don’t know what you don’t measure and without data you cannot improve. That is where I and my fellow volunteers came in.
A joint program between Biospheres Expeditions and the Enonkishu Conservancy provides the resources to collect the necessary wildlife monitoring data.
At the same time, the volunteers have the opportunity to see Kenya’s native animals in ways that would not have been possible on a typical safari tour.
The 12-day schedule that we followed was diverse enough that we did not get bored with the same routine, yet structured enough that it collected rigorous scientific data.
The backbone of the project was driving excursions throughout the conservancy which focused on counting the animals and noting the variety and quantity that we encountered across our path.
Then, as a group, we took shifts as we participated in a 72 hour continuous monitoring program at a watering hole.
Sitting in a blind in the impenetrable midnight darkness in the middle of Kenya’s wilderness and listening to the chorus of wildlife sounds around me is an experience I will never have anywhere else and is one that I will never forget.
The unique travel experiences on a volunteer trip
Another unforgettable experience was a walking trek to collect more data. Now I was on the same level as the wildlife.
I was hiking through scenery that looked much like a manicured park, yet I would take a break to count the zebras or stop as the ranger with us pointed out and identified a specific species of dung or animal footprints in the mud.
Then there were the nighttime drives to identify the nocturnal species.
When our truck stopped and turned off its lights, we had 180-degree views in all directions of the night sky above us without any light pollution.
I had never seen so many stars in the sky and will probably never have such views again.
And finally, we planned and executed a conservation education day for the students from the nearby school.
This was not the contrived cultural encounter you often get on a tour, but rather, authentic and personal interaction with the local young people who were excited about the rare opportunity to see their country’s native fauna.
Volunteer travelers come from diverse backgrounds
Our group of volunteers came from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and countries.
We had Americans and Brits and Australians and age ranges from ’30s to 70’s.
We were all there because we wanted to see Africa’s native legacy.
But at the same time, we were also passionate about giving back and making a difference, as cliché as that sounds.
We valued Africa’s wildlife diversity and wanted to do our small bit to make sure that it continued and thrived.
This past year, Biosphere Expeditions, and other volunteer travel programs like it, have not had the benefit of the boots on the ground or the financial support for their projects that come from these volunteer tours.
As you start thinking about your future travel plans again, consider giving your time and your money to a volunteer travel option. I am sure it will provide you with some unforgettable and unique experiences.
Mine certainly did.
You can read more of my detailed day to day description of my Biospheres volunteer trip to Kenya at A Citizen Scientist in Kenya – My Wildlife Conservation Volunteer Travel Experience
Rose Palmer is a retired Ph.D. chemist who is passionate about travel, photography, and quilting. She focuses her traveling lens on history, art, architecture and soft adventures and shares her award-winning inspirational stories and photos on her website Quiltripping.com.