Elephants and Sustainable Agriculture in Kenya

Expedition Briefing


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The Research

The African elephant (Loxodanta africana), the largest land mammal on earth, is a majestic flagship species for conservation in Africa, and has a vital role as an “ecosystem engineer,” which means that it creates and maintains critical habitats for other species. It is a wide-ranging species, and individuals cover vast tracts of land in search of food, water and mating partners. This inevitably puts elephants on a collision path with humans in competition for limited space and natural resources. Indeed, in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, elephants sometimes eat or damage farmers’ crops and property, resulting in human-elephant conflict or “HEC” (Hoare, 1999; Naughton et al., 1999; Osborn and Parker, 2003; Mackenzie and Ahabyona 2012). This situation is actively playing out in the Tsavo Conservation Area, southeast Kenya, which is why it was selected as the setting for testing the ideas presented in this Earthwatch project. The Tsavo Conservation Area is a vital wildlife corridor between Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks.

By the year 2050, humans will need to increase agricultural production by 70 percent to meet the demands of a growing population (Godfray et al. 2010; Alexandratos and Bruinsma 2012). Climate change—manifested through extreme and often unpredictable weather events—poses threats to agriculture production in many parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa. Achieving this increase in production in the midst of today’s rapidly changing climate is unlikely without transforming agricultural practices. In some parts of the world, scientists have begun to implement Climate-Smart Agriculture (or CSA), which involves reducing pesticide and herbicide use, planting new crops or crop varieties that are more resilient to a changing climate, agroforestry, and improving soil, land, and water management systems. These methods not only help to protect farmers’ livelihoods, they also promote biodiversity and have important associated conservation benefits.

In this project, we employ an interdisciplinary approach to help find a way in which wildlife conservation and rural farmer livelihoods can both thrive in this dryland ecosystem in the face of growing human needs and a changing climate. In addition to promoting sustainable agriculture, this project will test the effect of various “repellents” on elephants, in an effort to keep them away from farmers’ crop fields. Scientists have found that simple repellents such as chili-peppers and beehives (which have the added benefit of producing a useable product such as honey) may help to deter elephants from entering crop fields (Parker and Osborn 2006; King et al. 2009). In the first year of our project, chili fences were not effective alone although they were effective when paired with our Kasaine (metal-strip) fence named after one of the field leaders, Simon Kasaine, who designed the fence. We are now testing chili-less flag and rope fences along with variations of the Kasaine fence to optimize deterrence. The goal remains to reduce crop raiding and ensure that humans and elephants can peacefully coexist in this delicate ecosystem.

Research Aims

This is a multidisciplinary project that sets to explore pragmatic means by which the harmonious coexistence of elephants and people can be achieved in the face of growing populations and a changing climate. The primary aim of the research is to design and test several techniques for reducing HEC, mainly through use of deterrents and different agricultural techniques. The deterrents’ work is ongoing and involves experiments to test effectiveness of different deterrents and deterrent-combinations keeping the crops cultivated constant. This will be followed by trialing various Climate-Smart Agriculture methods, which are designed to simultaneously enhance biodiversity conservation and farm productivity. Climate-Smart Agriculture will involve a combination of traditional and cutting-edge practices, including reduction in pesticide or herbicide use, integrated pest management approaches, agroforestry, new crops, crop varieties and cropping systems, and soil, land, and water management systems. These practices are deemed vital for enhancing resilience of farms to climate change shocks, as well as increasing biodiversity across the landscapes thereby delivering on multiple functions.

A major outcome of the project is therefore to establish productive and sustainable farming systems that will have tangible biodiversity benefits, mainly through habitat creation and a reduction in conflicts. Ultimately, the project hopes to enhance the conservation of elephants and other wide-ranging species (especially large carnivores) by reducing the pressure to convert the dryland forest on this critical wildlife corridor into farmland. Additionally, the project is a mitigation and adaptation measure for these rural farmers who depend on rain fed agriculture against climate change, thereby building resilience into their livelihoods. Given the prevalence of these dual problems—climate change and human-elephant conflicts—in Kenya and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the results from this study will also be shared with local, national and international stakeholders, so they can help inform broader agriculture and human-wildlife conflict policies and actions.

How You Will Help

As an Earthwatch volunteer, you will be mainly involved in three broad activities: wildlife surveys (within ranches), habitat monitoring (mostly within ranches), and farm-based monitoring.

For wildlife surveys, you will be largely undertaking road transects (e.g. counting large mammals and birds), conducting behavioral observations of elephants, and building an elephant identification database based on mug shots of as many elephants/elephant groups encountered as possible; thus, you will remain within ranches and on the vehicle most of the time.

For habitat monitoring, you will be primarily measuring the impact of elephants on natural vegetation. For tree monitoring, vehicles will bring your team close to the area with tagged trees and you work in a group in that area, always near the vehicle, before driving to the next area. A Wildlife Works ranger and experienced field staff will always accompany you.

For the farm-based monitoring, again, the vehicle will bring you to the farm or the closest point possible. In this case, there is a fair amount of walking at and around the fields in order to inspect crops, set up and/or maintain deterrent fences, and check the camera traps. Some teams will be involved in taking soil samples for analyses of organic matter content, to help check whether Climate-Smart Agriculture does indeed help with carbon sequestration in the long-term. Other CSA practices such as creating zai pits might also be performed. For this, you will be accompanied by local field staff as well as Kenyan members of the volunteer teams for ease of communication and to avert misunderstandings.

Keeping in mind that field conditions and research needs can change from team to team, some of the key activities that may take place on volunteer teams include:

  1. Biodiversity surveys
    • Road transects counting large mammals and birds
    • Building the elephant identification database, and taking behavioral observations of specific elephant groups
  2. Habitat surveys
    • Checking on trees within ranches for damage by elephants
    • Vegetation monitoring along transects radiating from waterholes
  3. Farm-based surveys
    • Taking various farm/crop-related measurements, including belt transects for animal signs and inspecting for crop / fence damage
    • Collecting and processing photographic records from camera traps
    • Soil sampling and other CSA related activities, including soil and water management techniques

Life in the Field


We envision volunteers being involved in data collection in the field for about 6-8 hours per day inclusive of travel times, with another 1-2 hours possible for other activities in the camp including training, training evaluation, preparation for field activities, deterrent preparation, data inspection, and data entry/cleaning. It is worth emphasizing that transit time to study locations will involve drives through the ranch with many opportunities for wildlife sightings. Additionally, there will be time for enjoying wildlife as part of the overall experience, time conversing with staff and local people, and the unavoidable time waiting for elephants!

  • 7:00–8:00 a.m. Breakfast & Briefing
  • 8:00 a.m.–12:30 p.m. Fieldwork (including travel back to camp)
  • 1:00 p.m.–2:00 p.m. Lunch
  • 2:00–3:00 p.m. Downtime
  • 3:00–4:30 p.m. Data entry, Briefings, Lectures, Films etc.
  • 4:30–6:30 p.m. Fieldwork (including travel back to camp)
  • 7:00–10:00 p.m Dinner & Downtime

Accommodations and Food

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.


Accommodation will be provided at Kivuli Camp. Kivuli Camp is located at the heart of the Rukinga Wildlife Sanctuary, which is part of 13 other community-owned ranches under the Kasigau REDD+ carbon project. Volunteers will stay in dormitory-style rooms which are separate for men and women in single beds with up to four people per room. The thatched huts contain four wildwood bunk beds with bedding and mosquito netting provided; bedding is changed for you periodically. More private accommodation is available in single rooms at an additional cost. The single rooms are located in “family bandas” that have two separate bedrooms – one bedroom with a double bed; the other bedroom with twin beds and one shared bathroom between them. The singles are limited and are subject to advance booking, payment for them can be made at Kivuli Camp upon arrival ($30 per person, per night—at the time of publication of this briefing). If you would like to take up and pay for a single room within the family bandas or if you are travelling as a group (a pair or triple etc.) and you would like to pay the extra cost to share accommodation within the family bandas please notify Earthwatch as soon as possible in order to confirm the upgrade to your accommodations.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.


There are communal flushing toilets and showers when using the Dormitory Bandas (separate for ladies and gents); and except for exceptionally overcast days, hot water is available. We advocate water conservation so keep showers short and turn the water off while soaping and scrubbing.


There is no regular electricity at Kivuli Camp. Power is through a combination of generator and solar. It is recommended that you leave electrical equipment that requires a lot of energy (like hair dryers) at home to help conserve energy, or only use them when the generator is on. The generator is typically on briefly in the morning for about two hours and for about four hours in the evening. Electrical sockets (outlets) in Kenya usually supply electricity at between 220 and 240 volts AC. The standard frequency is 50 Hz. The power sockets that are used are of “Type G” or British BS-1363 type. If the plug to your appliance doesn’t match the shape of these sockets, you will need a travel plug adapter in order to plug in. Travel plug adapters simply change the shape of the plug to your appliance to match whatever type of socket you need to plug into. They are NOT converters. If the standard voltage in your country is in the range of 100V-127V (as in the US, Canada and most South American countries), you may need a power (voltage) converter. To be sure, check the label on the appliance. If it states ‘INPUT: 100-240V, 50/60 Hz’, it can be used in all countries of the world, e.g., chargers for tablets/laptops, photo cameras, cell phones, toothbrushes. There are solar chargers in each room that have two USB ports that are useful for charging small items like phones.


There is some phone connectivity at the Camp, but it can be sporadic. There is Internet access on Kivuli Camp (using Vsat technology) but it can also be patchy, and when multiple people are using it simultaneously, it can be very slow. However, there is more reliable Internet at the Wildlife Works Main Office (using Fiber Optic technology). Should camp Internet fail completely (unlikely), volunteers can arrange emails to be sent out by the Field Team to inform or reassure friends and family at home of your safe arrival and continued status during the session. Heavy streaming or large downloads can slow the Internet and quickly soak up allocated bandwidth; therefore, such use is not permitted as the Internet is also used for work by Wildlife Works’ employees. The time in camp is also a great time to “unplug” and catch up on your reading, socialize, discuss the project, go through the guide books, learn bird songs, play a game, and other ‘unwired’ activities! We advocate maintaining your relaxation and stretching routines to stay mentally and physically nimble under conditions that likely differ from the ones at home!


For both the activities within the ranch and on farms, the maximum distance any team will have to travel from the camp is about 30 km (ca 20 mi). Most farms, large trees, transects and waterholes will be about 10–20 km away. However, actual travel times will depend on both the wildlife encountered along the way and the terrain; average speeds in this terrain rarely reach 40km/hr. (25mi/hr.).


There are dedicated cooks and service providers at Kivuli Camp. The volunteers might be asked to assist in basic activities such as clearing the table and tidying up. When doing community work or wildlife research in areas that renders it difficult to return for lunch, snacks and lunch bags will be prepared for the volunteers and lunch will be eaten in the field.

It is generally not recommended to eat at very local restaurants without advice from the local field staff or Kenyan volunteers. You can however eat out in Voi during your recreational time, and the field staff will be more than happy to guide you about the best places to go.

The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

  • Breakfast: Tea, Coffee, Milk, Hot chocolate, Bread (with jam and butter), Cereals, Eggs, Sausages, Pancakes, and Assorted fruits
  • Lunches and Dinners: Rice, pasta, potatoes, chapati, ugali (typical food akin to thick porridge or polenta made from maize flour), meat (beef, mutton, chicken, goat and occasional fish), lentils, beans, peas, cowpeas, cabbage, kale, spinach, french beans, carrots, capsicum, tomatoes, onions, in-season including mango, oranges, avocado, bananas, passion fruit, watermelon
  • Beverages: For drinking, there are several dispensers around camp dispensing treated water bought from licensed and certified companies in Kenya

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms. The camp can accommodate special diets, such as vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free as long as they are informed in advance (though there are no gluten free bread or pasta, vegan cheese or vegan “meat substitutes” like, tempeh available).

Project Conditions


For weather and region-specific information, please visit Wunderground.com and search for your project location.

The physical demands of the work could be described as 3–7 on a scale of 10, being higher for on-farm related activities.

The work will consist of some long days (early mornings and late evenings), working in the hot sun, driving around bumpy terrain, walking up and down farms, construction of deterrent fences, and some digging for soil sampling. None of this should be too much for a modestly fit individual, and with the right preparation and care in the field (e.g., re-hydration, sunscreen, clothing, shade breaks, and footwear).

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion
  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is not your own.
  • Carry personal daily supplies such as water, cameras, binoculars and other small field equipment
  • Enjoy being outdoors all day in all types of weather, including rain, heat, and humidity, in the potential presence of insects, snakes, and other wild animals
  • Hike up to one kilometer per day over uneven terrain while carrying about 5-10kg of equipment
  • Collect data (images, samples, etc.) and search for animal signs (scat, tracks) on the ground while moving over uneven terrain and steering clear of obstacles such as animal holes and sharp branches
  • Get low enough to the ground for extended periods of time to measure plants, collect samples, and access camera traps
  • Get up into and down out of a four-wheel-drive vehicle, minibus, or car and ride seated with seatbelt fastened
  • Ride, seated, for extended periods (up to three hours a day) in a four-wheel-drive vehicle in tight quarters. Much of the research will be conducted from the project vehicles.
  • Be alert and ready to take evasive action (running quickly, returning to the project vehicle, lying flat on the ground, depending on the situation) if the guard/ranger advises it (e.g. if there is dangerous wildlife close by).

Health and Safety


Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.


Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or region where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions


Dehydration, heat exhaustion, sunburn, and other heat-related illnesses can occur, but you can protect yourself by drinking sufficient water, wearing high-SPF sunscreen, taking breaks in the shade before you are distressed, and wearing appropriate clothing and hats. Dehydration from sweating can be a problem; please bring your own water bottles that you can easily carry and refill with water and/or electrolyte-replacing packets.


Teams may encounter several road hazards, including large trucks, potholes, livestock and wildlife, rain/mud, dust, and/or poorly maintained tarmac or dirt/gravel (corrugated) roads. Only qualified drivers will transport volunteers in project vehicles. You must wear your seatbelt and always stay seated when vehicles are in motion. Volunteers are not permitted to drive.


The terrain of the Tsavo ecosystem is mostly flat and undulating with acacia and Commiphora trees, various types of grasses, dirt and rock, with uneven areas. There are sometimes fields or paths on the farmland.

Behavior on agricultural land

Wear modest clothing, including long pants, appropriate footwear(hiking boots with ankle support) and good socks, while conducting research on farmland. You will walk and work in only designated areas after receiving permission to do so. Avoid stepping on crops, and maintain awareness of your surroundings at all times. Your team will be instructed on appropriate behavior within the ranches. It is advised to always ask permission before taking photographs, and enter areas that are prescribed research areas only. Do not enter any private land or buildings that are not part of the research activities. Converse with each other at normal volumes, and only shout or make loud noises when you must signal danger or are in an emergency situation. At all times you should respect that you are someone’s property and a visitor to their lands, country, and culture.

Wildlife: large mammals

Once in the field, you will be briefed on the necessary precautions associated with living and working in the midst of a wilderness area, particularly when walking in the open bush. You will receive a practical demonstration of bush ethics and safety during the safety briefing at the start of the expedition. Abide by the “go” and “no go” areas and never go anywhere alone. Remain alert while in the field and follow all instructions related to field communication, following distance, the use of hand-held radios, and responding to wildlife in close proximity. You must heed staff instructions and adhere to project rules and protocols at all times. The major large mammal threats will be in the form of elephants, buffaloes and big cats.

Wildlife: snakes

Kenya is home to many snake species, including both venomous and non-venomous snakes. The majority are non-venomous, but the main poisonous species of concern are black and green mambas, spitting cobras (brown,

black-necked, and red spitting cobras; forest, Egyptian cobra), and puff adders, and boomslang. You should watch where you walk; avoid reaching into the grass without seeing where your hand is being placed; check dark, moist, cool areas; be careful unfolding materials or equipment that has been stored and always heed staff instructions. Wear appropriate closed toed footwear in the field at all times.


Stinging and biting insects, such as ticks, bees, scorpions and mosquitoes are present in the region. Insect-borne diseases, such as chloroquine resistant malaria, dengue fever, African tick fever, Rift Valley fever, filariasis, leishmaniasis, onchocerciasis (river blindness), African sleeping sickness, and yellow fever are also present. Speak with your physician about malarial prophylaxis prior to fielding. If you have allergies to insect bites, bring appropriate medications (e.g. antihistamines, or at least two Epi-Pens if your allergy is severe). Take precautions to avoid bites/ stings by wearing appropriate clothing (long sleeves and long pants), and using mosquito nets and insect repellant. There are bee hives at the research sites, so if you have a bee allergy, then you must bring Epi-Pens.


There is security at the Rukinga Wildlife Sanctuary project site, but avoid areas designated as off limits by project field staff. In Nairobi, as in many large cities, robbery and violent crime are serious issues. It is wise to take sensible precautions: travel through the city in pairs or groups, avoid displays of money or valuables, take official taxis (your hotel can usually help you book transportation), and avoid traveling alone, especially when going out at night. Terrorism is also an ongoing threat in Kenya; bomb attacks have occurred in Nairobi and the Mombasa region in 2013, 2015, and 2019. Exercise caution and always be vigilant especially in major cities, and avoid travel near border regions with Somalia, South Sudan, and Ethiopia.


Diseases found in Kenya are hepatitis, rabies, HIV/AIDS, polio, tuberculosis, meningitis, measles, cholera, plague, typhoid, malaria, dengue fever, filariasis, leishmaniasis, onchocerciasis, African tick bite fever, trypanosomiasis, schistosomiasis, and tuberculosis. Traveler’s diarrhea also affects many international travelers. You can decrease your risk of many diseases by avoiding mosquito bites, practicing good hygiene, and drinking only potable, bottled or filtered water when appropriate. Please see the CDC (cdc.gov) or WHO (who.int) websites for more information on these conditions and how to avoid them or consult with a travel doctor. If you feel ill once you return from your trip, make sure you inform your doctor that you have recently returned from a tropical region.

Travel Planning


Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, Kenya

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.


Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.


Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website: www.travisa.com.

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.


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Note: The two Wilson books are similar.

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