M. SANJAYAN WALKED NORTH, following two guides, Samburu tribesmen with holes the size of nickels in their earlobes. One wore a blood-red robe. The other carried a rifle and wore faded military fatigues and combat boots that shone brightly in the constant sun. Around them, the Kenyan bush rattled and brayed, one lazy, sentient being at rest on a hot February day at the end of a long dry season.
Sanjayan, lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy, the wealthiest environmental organization on earth, had left behind some of the least modest accommodations in East Africa, the Sarara Camp, a $600-per-night lodge where rawboned Samburu served an unrelenting feast of crepes, mango, and sauvignon blanc to soft-fleshed British couples in safari kit. A 43-year-old biologist who was born in Sri Lanka but lives in Montana, Sanjayan was here to help finalize the Nature Conservancy's largest deal in Africa to date, a $30 million partnership with the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a luxurious, 62,000-acre preserve 100 miles north of Nairobi. His responsibilities included scouting Sarara—a satellite of Lewa, which lies 62 miles south—to be sure its open-air lodges and bottomless meals would suffice when hosting TNC's top brass and a group of deep-pocketed donors. As far as occupational obligations went, it wasn't bad. But Sanjayan needed a break from the steady caloric feed.
He walked toward the untenanted northern half of Kenya. Ahead, the Matthews Range, an unexplored series of 8,000-foot peaks, rose up in a blue ring. Beyond that lay a road freshly paved by Chinese contractors, a 300-mile scar, stretching to the Ethiopian border, funneling medical supplies, charcoal, and contraband ivory. Beyond that, millions of acres of arid bush populated by nomadic tribes, outsize wildlife, and, according to local rumor, Somali Al Qaeda trainees.
Five feet eleven, with an athletic build and large eyes, Sanjayan peered through his binoculars, searching for birds. He owns a dog-eared copy of Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania and has spotted and checked off about half the book's 1,114 listed species.
"When you've lived in Africa, you don't need to see any more elephants," he said. He lived in Sri Lanka until age five, when his family fled a burgeoning civil war. His childhood was spent in Sierra Leone, where he first fell for the wilderness near the colonial-style forest camp he called home.
As Sanjayan walked, he told stories, which is what he does best. His job description, to simplify a bit, is this: Skip around the globe on TNC's dime and tell crowds bewitching tales about exotic places in need of protection. In his downtime, he preaches the conservation gospel on the Today show, Letterman, PBS, and the Discovery Channel, where he has hosted Shark Week, Planet Earth, and the series Powering the Future. In the past year he's scuba-dived in Indonesia's Raja Ampat, visited wind-turbine production plants in China, and torn his meniscus trekking in the Namibian desert.
When Sanjayan tells stories, his British accent, picked up in African public schools, amplifies slightly and his hands grab the air. He had just finished telling me the one about the python that bit his palm in Australia and the one about the tiger shark he swam with in the Coral Sea. Then he started in on the time he'd roused a sleeping elephant when traveling with NPR reporters in Sri Lanka.
"I said to our team, 'Don't run,'" he was saying. "Sure enough, I hear the pitter-patter of feet, and the elephant charges."