Many nature enthusiasts dream of venturing into the great outdoors to volunteer with wild animals. The experience often promises ample opportunities to come face-to-face with some of the most exciting and iconic creatures on the planet, all the while contributing toward their welfare and conservation. As a wildlife lover, I too had this ambition and began to explore the vast array of options available during my six-month spell in Southern Africa back in 2013.
When researching wildlife excursions or volunteer projects, I always aim to source the most ethical option within my budget. I firmly believe that a strong moral philosophy should always take precedence over price or popularity when making a decision. After all, it is important to ensure one’s time, money, and effort are not squandered, or worse still, contributing toward a dishonest or corrupt cause. I generally determine the integrity of an organisation by comparing their mission, goals and practices with other foundations I know to be virtuous and trustworthy.
Bird ringing is an example of an activity that can cause animals high stress when not conducted by someone with experience
A few years ago, I decided to sign up for a wildlife volunteering programme located in the Mapungubwe region of beautiful South Africa. Having conducted a fair amount of research on the organisation, I felt satisfied with my choice. Unfortunately, I was terribly mistaken.
Before revealing the activities that volunteers participated in, it is worth mentioning that prior to my arrival, the organisation withheld the fact that trophy hunting was permitted on the very reserve they operated on. There was absolutely no mention of it on their website nor when I spoke to the volunteer coordinator over the phone.
The moment I became aware of this shocking fact, I immediately reported my discontent to the facilitators. It was then that I was informed the reserve had recently fallen under new management, and that trophy hunting had only been permitted a few months prior to my arrival. Regardless, it astonished me to know that the organisation was still content with taking honest animal-loving volunteers’ money in return for what was later revealed to be nonsensical project.
Field research includes tagging animals such as this young Arctic Fox in Sweden
During the time spent on the reserve, I participated mainly in road clearing, cleaning the dilapidated camp and trying to track a lion that had clearly abandoned the reserve – and with good reason. I might add that when trying to locate this phantom lion, only one individual was responsible for operating the tracking equipment whilst eight to ten other volunteers were left twiddling their thumbs. I couldn’t help but feel my (and other volunteers’) time, money, and effort could all have been put to better use elsewhere.
The predicament I found myself in a few years ago was probably an extreme case, but one doesn’t need to dig too deep to learn there are many other organisations hiding similar dirty little secrets.
A short while before my volunteering experience in Mapungubwe, I spent two months living on a game reserve where I trained to become a certified FGASA field guide. The same reserve also ran a respectable conservation experience program that included many activities such as erosion control, fence repair, monitoring and recording wildlife, road clearing, setting camera traps, veterinary care, and game capture.
Some projects allow volunteers to carry out work that should be left to professionals
While I don’t doubt that most of these undertakings have had a positive impact toward the welfare of the reserve's inhabitants, I feel that there are some where volunteers actually become more of a hindrance than a help. For example, game capture carried out by volunteers often results in injuries to both animals and themselves.
The activities which had the largest impact were those which did not involve working directly with wildlife. However, I can appreciate that it would be almost impossible to lure do-gooders from halfway across the globe without the promise of a few close encounters with some of the planet’s most spectacular creatures. A good volunteering program will get the balance right.
Volunteering at local shelters usually has the greatest impact
In conclusion, it is imperative to thoroughly research each organisation before embarking on an expensive volunteering program. Browsing the organisation’s website alone will not necessarily give you clear insight into their true objectives and therefore it is a good idea to contact previous volunteers and seek out the opinions of foundations that you already trust. It is also important to ask yourself about the reasons behind your desire to volunteer. Do you want to work with animals or for animals? In my experience, the best volunteers are those who understand that wild animals are better off having as little direct contact with humans as possible. If you are not prepared to spend the vast majority of time partaking in activities such as bush clearing and erosion control, then wildlife volunteering probably isn’t for you.
Those who choose to volunteer for the sole purpose of experiencing close encounters with wild animals should instead opt for an ethical safari and leave the labouring to the professionals. In many cases, a reasonable sum of your money will go toward maintaining the reserve, as it would have if you had volunteered. If you still wish to volunteer directly with animals then I encourage you to do so at a local animal rescue centre, where I believe your efforts would be considerably more helpful. The most effective means of contributing toward the welfare of undomesticated animals is by signing related petitions, joining peaceful public awareness campaigns and supporting worthy organisations such as Born Free, iWorry, and Panthera.