Travel Photography for a Good Cause: Volunteering in Kenya

by Lauren Yakiwchuk (Justin Plus Lauren)

It was always a dream of mine to combine my two loves: travel and helping animals. When an opportunity came along to volunteer with Animal Experience International in Kenya, I jumped at the chance. We traveled to Soysambu Conservancy in the Great Rift Valley to participate in a wide assortment of projects. I spent ten days there, and it definitely impacted my life in a positive way. It was an amazing experience I'll never forget.

My duties as a volunteer with Animal Experience International varied greatly. After all, there was lots of work to do across this 40,000 acre wildlife conservancy. There were thousands of African animals living in the wild, including lions, zebra, baboons, buffalo, and several threatened species of birds, to name a few. One task was to de-snare sections of the property, which essentially meant walking around and searching for large looped pieces of metal wire. Poachers use these to snare the legs of the animals in order to capture them. I had no idea that our small group would find so many wire snares every day. Every snare potentially saved an animal's life. We also worked on some manual labor projects and bird field monitoring - counting the numbers of birds in specific places at Lake Elmenteita, part of the Kenya Lake System (a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

My primary task at the wildlife conservancy was giraffe monitoring. An endangered species of giraffe, the Rothschild Giraffe, lives at Soysambu Conservancy. For this field monitoring project, we drove around the vast landscape and kept track of the giraffes we saw. I was the sole photographer for this project and played a very important role. We approached each giraffe and I took a picture of the right side and the left side of his or her body. After several hours of driving around and snapping photographs, we went back to the main office and compared ours to past photos of the giraffes. We looked at our photographs on a computer, and compared them to printed pictures in a few hefty binders. Then, we noted which giraffes we saw that day and where we encountered them.

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Why take pictures of both sides of the giraffe?

We identified the giraffes by their markings. The spots on a giraffe are like a fingerprint. Every giraffe has unique spots. The markings on the right and left sides of their bodies are different from each other. It is necessary to take photos of both sides of the giraffes in order to properly identify them.

Taking these pictures was easier said than done. Giraffes tend to roam across huge areas of land. For instance, I could easily take pictures of the left side of the giraffe. However, this giraffe could decide to walk in one direction, never turning around! In some situations, we would attempt to drive our car around to the other side of the giraffe, but sometimes he would change direction again. It was frustrating at times, and we had to be patient. With the hot African sun beating down, it was tough being patient at times. Of course, it was always worth the wait to properly identify the giraffe.

New Discoveries

Baby giraffes would spring up at the conservancy. We saw several smaller ones. One of the giraffes was so young, he even had the umbilical cord still attached. A proper catalog number was given to the giraffe, as well as a name. As volunteers, we were fortunate enough to be able to name the giraffes ourselves. For the tiny giraffe with the umbilical cord, I named him “Justin” after my boyfriend.

The Most Interesting Giraffe I Photographed

One of the giraffes was known as “Moses”, the white giraffe. This giraffe has been slowly turning white over several years. He used to have the same colorings as a typical giraffe, but now he is almost completely white. I captured a few photographs of Moses, as we randomly saw him during our daily game drives. When I returned home, I learned that he is an extremely rare giraffe – one of a kind, actually! He's the only giraffe in the world thought to have the skin condition called vitiligo, an infection that slowly turns the skin white over time (similar to the skin condition Michael Jackson had). My photographs of Moses helped a researcher as she used them in her scientific research paper about this specific giraffe.

How My Volunteer Work Helped

It's so important to keep track of the Rothschild giraffes. There really aren't very many of them left in the world, so we need to monitor them to keep track of their numbers. Approximately 90 Rothschild giraffes live at the conservancy, equivalent to about 10% of the world's total wild population. Throughout my days there, I photographed dozens of giraffes at a time and donated my pictures to this conservation project. As the conservancy doesn't always have access to a professional camera, my pictures were the clearest and best looking images they had to date. They'll be able to replace old photos that were too far away or blurry. We also tracked several new, baby giraffes, that were new additions to the catalog.

Thinking about planning a volunteer trip to Kenya? There are many opportunities to help, including working as a photographer for field monitoring work. When you're assisting such a worthwhile cause, it really doesn't feel like work. It also helped that I was doing something that I loved: travel photography. So, what are you waiting for? Put your skills to use on the trip of a lifetime.

Lauren is one half of “Justin Plus Lauren”, a travel blog focusing on outdoor adventures and eco-friendly travel. Lauren loves to travel, take pictures and video, and write all about exploring the world. She adores nature, animals, coffee, and her cats, Chickpea and Peanut.