“If our hopes of building a better and safer world are to become more than wishful thinking, we will need the engagement of volunteers more than ever” ~ Kofi Annan. Critical to conservation, we also need those volunteers to be governed by a strong understanding of environmental ethics.
How we behave in the wild, and with our fellow volunteers & leaders on-site is absolutely critical. Bad behavior sometimes due to ignorance can be detrimental to a project, to a species we are volunteering for, and to the whole group we are part of. It is not unheard of that a person jeopardizes the safety of mission as a result of non intended recklessness, or that our ignorance actually fuels the extinction of a species…
Here are some keys to behaving responsibly when volunteering for conservation: Expectations – Mindfulness – Commitment – Flexibility – Respect – Humbleness – Friendliness – Quietness – Alertness.
Know what to expect so as to make the best of it.
Take the time to ask yourself why you are volunteering. Volunteering means working and having pleasure doing it for sure.
However, if you are volunteering away from home, it should not be seen as a glorified vacation opportunity. For those who have not carefully considered their motivations for and expectations of volunteering abroad, the experience can become frustrating and disappointing and we have seen it first hand.
Don’t expect that you are just going to live in the same conditions than those of your everyday life. For instance, don’t expect luxury bedding, excellent food, plenty of free time, etc. This seems obvious but more than often we’ve seen and heard volunteers complaining about the living “conditions” not matching their expectation (given the money they paid the project).
The truth is that if you should obviously be treated with respect, you are volunteering and therefore giving a hand willfully. You came here by choice and what you should certainly expect is that it is a learning opportunity.
Know yourself – your strengths but also your weaknesses.
Self-awareness is very important when choosing a project and during the mission. One example is how physically fit you think you are.
Don’t pick a project where you won’t be able to perform physically. Unfortunately it is not unusual to see volunteers who underestimate or dismiss the advertised physical requirements for participating in a wildlife volunteering mission.
⚠ The example of a woman in the Peruvian Amazon, out of shape to the point that she had difficulties walking around in the forest comes to mind. This woman slowed down the entire team as she could not keep up with the pace and therefore had the entire project going at her own pace so that she was kept in check in a dangerous environment. She ended up putting herself and the team in jeopardy the day she did fall from a boat in a hazardous lake in the middle of the jungle. The project head of staff made mistakes as well: he should not have accepted her in the team after evaluation of the situation, or should have asked her to stay at the camp while the rest of the team were working their shifts.
Once you commit then treat the mission and the time of others seriously.
Before you commit, make sure you understand and are clear about what it being expected of you as a volunteer. Be diligent, get information, ask questions: It’s better to be honest now than resentful later.
You’re most likely not getting paid. You might even have given your own money to be here and volunteer in this wild place. This does not mean that it is not important. The organization, the people who benefit from your time do rely upon you. So make it a first-class contribution or don’t do it at all. Simply treat it as a job.
Remain calm and focused in any unplanned situation.
The correct expectation to have when working with wildlife or in the Nature in general is that what has planned might not happen. The weather might turn for the worst suddenly, a piece of equipment fails, an animal gets injured, you name it… You cannot avoid this and this come with the territory of working in the wild. Do your best, remain friendly, focused, alert. This will help you and your co-workers to analyze the situation and make safer decisions for moving forward.
Learn about the culture of the place you are visiting. Make the effort to know a little of the local language.
Although respect seems an obvious request, often cultural etiquette is overlooked. It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to learn about the destination you’re going to before starting your journey.
Dress code (covering your head or not, shoulders showing, shorts, length of a skirt), gestures (hand shake or not for instance), the way one look at someone else (looking straight in the eyes or avoiding the other’s gaze), which hand you use to eat, how you address someone from the opposite sex, an elder, a child…
There are countless cultural differences that reflect the history, religion, good manners of the place you are visiting. Do not expect the local people to know that you don’t know. You are a guest over there and therefore it is expected that you learn about what to do as much as you can prior to visiting.
Making an effort to learn a little bit of the language is always appreciated too as it eases any interaction and shows respect of the society you are visiting.
Accept that you know less than you think you do. Learning is great and opens your horizons.
Be aware of the socio-economic status of the country. Dress with humility, do not show off expensive jewelries, clothing and alike.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we know better, or that we have a better value system. You are there to help yes but with the understanding that you respect the place and the people around you. For instance you don’t get to a little fishermen village somewhere in Mexico to tell the inhabitants of this village that they should not fish sea turtles because they are endangered. The reality might be that they had been fishing those sea turtles for centuries as a means of feeding themselves, and the reason they are endangered might not even be linked to them directly but rather due to the sea turtles consumption of a rich social class somewhere else in the world. The point is that you should let the expert organizations tackle this issue.
Your job as a volunteer is to follow the lead of those who are working with the local communities, learn and ask questions. In short, guard against being patronizing when working on a project.
You are part of a team, reach out to others.
For many, volunteering is also a way to meet new people and to become part of a community. Avoid gossiping, ostracizing some members of the team (yes this happens more than you can imagine). Reach out to new volunteers and introduce them to others. Be generous and share with your teammates. Learn from one another.
Respecting wildlife means minimizing habitat disruption, this includes noise.
Human noise pollution starts with the sound of our own voice. We are gossipers and loud by nature, much more so than any of our great apes siblings. While working in the wild, on the trails refrain to chat just for the sake of chatting. Wait to be at camp. Communicate with purpose and do it quietly. This way you minimize harmful disruptions of wildlife activities around you , as well as you will increase your chances to actually observe wildlife [5, 6].
Stay alert to scams, unethical conservation behaviors and projects.
Discuss with your fellow volunteers and leaders. Take notes, research and report to specialists/authorities if you have any doubt about the ethicality of a project. In short look for the ‘con’ in conservation.
For instance, there is currently a very big trend in having so-called conservation institutions offering close interactions with wildlife. Numerous volunteers from all ages are fooled into cub petting, walking with lions or other big cat species having been reassured that it is done ultimately with a conservation intent. Almost all of these facilities actually are nothing else than entertainment sites or farm facilities whose lions once too old are sold to canned hunting operations and such. Ask us for references if you want to know more, you can also scan our website newsroom’s posts or visit our social media (including Facebook, Twitter or Google+) where we regularly discuss these issues. In all cases, even if you have been a victim of such scams, do not keep it for yourself, spread the word about the project(s) and institution(s) so that proper authorities and experts can investigate and act accordingly.
Being a volunteer comes with the social responsibility to alert or report when necessary.
More About Professionalism
The following references target international volunteering in the Health sector, however the same general observations and guidelines apply to wildlife conservation volunteering. These references are a great source of material to help the nature volunteer prepare for a mission.
More About Wildlife Etiquette
Check the EwA Wildness Etiquette. Our rules of conduct of the EwA nature lover and photographer, so that we enjoy wildlife ethically and therefore protecting it!
The following references may target specific regions, however they highlight very important rules that apply broadly, and help preparing the volunteer about how to behave in nature habitats.
 How and Why Environmental Noise Impacts Animals: an Integrative, Mechanistic Review. Kight CR1, Swaddle JP. in col Lett. 2011 Oct;14(10):1052-61. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2011.01664.x. Epub 2011 Aug 2.
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Note that this Etiquette is and will remain a work in progress. If there is anything else you would like to see added, please let us know and we’ll do our best to include it. Let’s be Earthwise Aware. Let’s enjoy and protect wildlife responsibly! Thanks for your support!