A weekend at a luxury game lodge would be anything but mundane for an American incentive group, but for South Africans, with their proximity to some of the finest game reserves in the world, it's likely they've been there, done that.

So when Uwin Iwin, an incentive company based just outside Johannesburg, was charged with adding some “wow” to an August 2006 game reserve expedition for South African insurance company Momentum, Huw Tuckett, the company's operations director, had some thinking to do. The answer came to him while he was visiting the eventual incentive destination: a private lodge at the Mashatu game reserve in eastern Botswana. There he met an elephant researcher and learned of the problems she was having tracking elephant movements in the Limpopo Valley area. Researchers in the area are concerned with ensuring that elephants are not wrongly identified as major contributors to the destruction of the wildlife habitat, which could result in the culling of herds.

“She talked about how difficult it was to do elephant research there, and how her funding was drying up,” says Tuckett, “and we thought that maybe this was something we could help out with.”

One of the ways in which elephant movements are tracked is by “capturing” the animals and fitting them with collars with tracking devices — a difficult and expensive process. As soon as the site visit was over, Tuckett contacted a game management company he had worked with in the past to see if they thought his incentive group could participate in something like this.

Then he pitched the idea to Momentum. “The client thought the idea was fantastic,” says Tuckett, although there was one exception: cost.

“You had to get veterinarians involved and people to help manage the elephants,” he explains. “And the collars were loaded with technology. It wasn't cheap.”

The cost escalated when it was decided that having all 55 attendees work on collaring one elephant would detract from the experience and make safety an even greater concern. So they decided that two elephants would have to be collared, which doubled many of the costs.

Logistical Hurdles

Tuckett found ways to cut the budget elsewhere. He sourced the collars locally to lower production costs, and transported many of the workers, including entertainers and animal management professionals, by ground instead of air and put them up in less expensive accommodations.

The organizers also faced logistical and regulatory hurdles. They needed permission to collar the elephants from both the game reserve and the Botswana Wildlife Authority. They also had to find a qualified veterinarian.

Then there were the safety issues. Dealing with elephants is an inherently dangerous proposition. The activity would involve firearms as well as powerful medications and anesthetics, and would take place in an environment filled with other wild animals.

Organizers decided to choose elephants that were already collared but whose collars were near the end of their battery life. Tuckett had to factor in the possibility that the group might not find both elephants on the day of the trip. So he devised an itinerary that was flexible enough to add time to the search, and — in a worst-case scenario in which the elephants were not found — allow for filming of the event, to be shown later.

The Big Day Arrives

The day started with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call followed by coffee, a light breakfast, and a reinforcement of the safety briefing that the group had received the previous evening. “It was important that the participants understood that they were not collaring elephants for the sake of it,” says Tuckett.

The weather was clear, but cold, which was typical for Botswana during the winter. Attendees had blankets to snuggle up in and hot coffee to keep them fortified as they searched out the elephants in their game capture vehicles.

They spotted the first elephant, Agatha, at 7 a.m. at the top of a small hill — not a good spot for darting and collaring. So while one group waited for her to descend to flat ground, the other ventured out to find elephant No. 2, Pamina. When Agatha finally wandered down to flat ground, she was darted, and the first group started the collaring process. Each participant was given responsibilities during the collaring, such as time-keeping, monitoring heart rates, and taking tusk and foot measurements.

From when the dart struck to the time Agatha was up walking around was just 35 minutes. The process lasted only 23 minutes for Pamina once she was found. Both groups were back at the lodge for brunch by 10:45 a.m.

Perhaps as exciting as the hands-on experience is tracking the elephants remotely. Participants can log onto a Web site and follow the movements of Agatha and Pamina through their GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) collars — and they continue to do so today.

Will Uwin Iwin offer similar events in the future? “It's possible, now that we've shown it can be done,” says Tuckett. “It's definitely sparked a lot of interest.

“But we've got to be careful — we're not going to be collaring wild animals for the sake of collaring wild animals,” he points out. “It would need to be something with genuine research potential. And it doesn't have to involve elephants. Believe it or not, it could involve something like performing vasectomies on lions in game reserves where the predator population is getting too large!”

Now, there's an idea.

Top Marks

The reaction from the Momentum qualifiers was universally positive, according to a survey taken after the event. According to the incentive planning company, Uwin Iwin, 83 percent of the participants rated the elephant-collaring experience “excellent,” while 91 percent, when asked how worthwhile the incentive was to them, also answered “excellent.”

Uwin Iwin submitted the program to the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives' Crystal Awards competition, where it was named one of two winners in the Most Outstanding Sustainable Incentive Event category at a ceremony at SITE's International Conference in December.