Volunteering in Kenya — Choosing the Right Programme

Sharan Bahra, Earthwise Aware‘s Vice-President, was recently in Kenya, where she helped a conservation organization focused on protecting both giraffes and lions. Here is her first post of a series, where she shares about the difficulties of finding ethical conservation venues, and how she led her research to find the right experience.

Sharan’s next article will focus on the reality in the field, and the responsibilities that the volunteers or citizen scientists ought to understand beforehand and enact onsite. Pass along!

The ethics of conservation volunteering and travel need a lot more thoughts…’ –Sharan Bahra

So, it’s taken a little while to start organising my notes and photos from my volunteering back in June this year but I’m there. Before I go into the details of the work actually undertaken, I’ll start with the process of choosing the venue. 

More than any previous time, I found it difficult to find the right ethical venture that engages in a meaningful way with the conservation effort. The dearth of companies that offer volunteering but actually provide volunteer tourism seems to have increased over the past years. This, unfortunately, also includes a few conservation volunteering ‘placement’ organizations.

It was certainly frustrating to wade through companies that offer hands-on interaction with animals or research-only projects where the research in actuality is shallow. It took months of desktop deep dives and conversations with candidate organizations to find the right one for me.

Bushwhacking Through the Good and the Bad Volunteerism Offerings

What I was looking for was an expedition with a mixture of activities including assisting research as well as manual work supporting land management. So, I went back to basics and reminded myself of the best practices and questions that we recommend at EwA (see The Complete Guide to Choosing Wildlife & Nature Venues and the Nature Traveler & Volunteer Essentials).

What I wasn’t looking for was a holiday where people are lured in by ‘volunteering’ where it exclusively brings in money for the company and makes the visitor feel good about the supposed work that goes on. In truth, these are ones that make me feel angry as they exploit wildlife, and in some cases in a horrendous and unethical way. An example of such experience is, for instance, the venues promoting big cat cub petting or walking with lions, which largely feed the canned lion industry. Or think about the misnamed ‘rehab’ centres where the human interaction ultimately means there can’t be any hope for the animals to be released or to survive back in the wild as the result of habituation. 

Once I narrowed down the options, I explicitly interacted with the organizations and asked questions. What is the nature of the research? Are there researcher/experts on-site? Is there a conservation education programme for volunteers and the local community? What do the volunteer fee and donations support? Does the work undertaken by volunteers displace locals, or is it rather supporting the local communities? and, how so explicitly? How many volunteers can be accommodated at any one time? And is there enough work to do if at full capacity? etc.

Asking For Choosing Ethically

The programme that I chose is the Giraffe & Lion Conservation in Kenya. The organization focuses on supporting the work of local conservationists to protect wildlife in the Soysambu Conservancy, by assisting in the research of endangered giraffes. A few tasks for the volunteer, there as outlined on their website, include:

□ Research the Rothschild giraffe and other endangered animals in the savannah
□ Set up camera traps and study animal behaviour
□ Conduct community outreaches
□ Remove invasive species
□ Maintain waterholes to ensure vital water access to wildlife

My choice was partly driven by the fact that it is in Kenya – a country that I love. But predominantly it was because of the focus of the project on the Rothschild Giraffe. This is a species which I learned about while I was on a safari holiday a few years ago, and I decided that it would be great to continue my education on the progress in protecting these species.

Here are a few key pointers to choosing the right programme:
□ Where do you want to go and what do you want to be doing?
□ What information is being provided about the conservation benefits of the volunteering?
□ Does all the reading and questions back up what is on their website and the initial information shared with the volunteer?
□ What is the long term strategy of the programme/company?
□ Is there enough actual substantial work? (this one is more determined and evaluated once on site)

Of course, one great way to go about your search, to find what suits you while being ethical, and to learn what to expect so that you’re best prepared for your adventure is to follow check EwA’s Guides on the topic

My next post, I’ll talk about the reality of a nature volunteer experience (in the field), and share about the responsibility of the company and the volunteers so as to maximize conservation impact.

Further Reading

Volunteer Tourism: What’s Wrong With It and How It Can Be Changed. Freidus, A. In The Conversation U.S. (2017)

The Travelling Giraffe –Protecting a Species. Bahra, S. (EwA 2016)

Green Volunteer database > One source to find projects. A few good ones can be found there but beware that ethics of a company may change over time, as well as that new good opportunities haven’t been yet added in this repository.

EwA Guides and Etiquettes

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The Basics

📙 | Basics of Nature & Wildlife Watching
📙 | Basics of Nature & Wildlife Volunteering
📙 | Guide to Choosing Nature & Wildlife Venues


📘 | The EwA Leader Etiquette
📘 | The EwA Volunteer Etiquette

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The Essentials

📗 | Traveler & Volunteer Essentials

Tips & Recommendations

Cub Petting: Cute and Harmful…
Volunteering with or for Big Wild Cats?
Spotting Conservation Volunteering Fakes


Sept, 6th 2019 | by  Sharan Bahra 

The photos in this article are the property of the author. The banner comprises of a background that is the author’s property, and of 2 surimposed free clip art of giraffe shadows .

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◊ First published Sept 6th, 2019 | Our tips are regularly revised and improved.

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