I’ve heard that a lot of companies are just a front and aren’t really about volunteering. Is that true?

Yes, that is true and even more so when volunteering is about supposedly preserving species that happen to be majestic, beautiful and/or have cute babies… So you need to watch out. Here are a few tips to help you distinguish the good from the bad.

In short, the one thing to be careful of is whether the organization is set up primarily as a business opportunity under the guise of volunteering or whether it is a true volunteering opportunity.

A good organization can be identified through its/their websites and will highlight the work they are doing and the progress they are making. They will have volunteer opportunities to support their work on the ground as an adjunct to their efforts and a means of spreading education and awareness. A good organization will have expert partners and legal accreditations.
A bad volunteer organization is one for instance where they bring in people either by luring them in with the promise of animal petting or using volunteers as free labor.
An even worse volunteer organization is one that actually is not about conservation (despite their claim) but is a front for hunting or the animal trade industry…

Once you’ve selected a couple of projects you should search their organization name followed by ‘ethical’ and ‘reviews’, or ‘scandals’. That should throw up any areas of concern. Any hint of a scandal specifically should be taken seriously, as demonstrated with the Thai Buddhist Tiger Temple scandal where countless volunteers fueled for years –in essence, that’s what it is– the illegal tiger trade for parts (& cubs).  Were they ignorant? Some most likely and as the result of not doing proper research about the ethics of volunteering with wildlife and about this venue specifically. but more disturbing is considering those who knew about the warnings but decided to dismiss them.

So it is critical that you learn how to spot the good from the bad and that you communicate with the organization you are interested in working with before you start volunteering for them. Do not hesitate to ask them / email them with questions pertaining to their operations, its impact on wildlife and the locals, and how they handle their money. Better is to ask the right set of questions (Browse this article’s references for help).

Uncomfortable asking? You should not (once again you can communicate via email if you’re not at ease calling them). These organizations are or should be non-profit organizations, therefore how they operate in all its details should be available to the public. Any professional, ethical conservation organization should not think twice about answering those questions. Any sign of the opposite should be considered a red flag.

References & Further Reading…

Please take the time to consult The EwA Complete Guide to Choosing Nature & Nature Venues. It is a comprehensive and easy guide to facilitate your research of Wildlife/Nature conservation volunteering or citizen science opportunities. It gives you tools for getting a sense of the ethics and relevance of the venue, as well as it helps you understand your motivation, define your goal(s) and match your needs.

And if you intend to spend time in a captivity center (including zoos, sanctuaries, rescue centers), then you can refer to The EwA Zoo Evaluation Essentials.

[1] Legitimate Sanctuaries versus Pseudo-Sanctuaries. Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

[2] Sanctuary Standards. Big Cat Rescue (2015).

[3] Questions to Ask if you Want to Volunteer in Wildlife Sanctuaries — via Earth Touch News

[4] Volunteering with Captive Wild Animals? Earthwise Aware (2016) — Volunteering in a wildlife rescue can be a good experience as long as it does not harm voluntarily or involuntarily the species. Quick tips about how to recognize them, and what to do to prepare.

[5] Volunteering with or for Big Wild Cats? Earthwise Aware (2016) — Often volunteers look for and ask us about missions where they can interact with wild cats. And more than often we hear that the motivation for joining projects allowing these types of interactions is a way for them of affirming their love for these cats. But by getting so close to them, are we really helping those animals we love so dearly?

[6] My Journey to Becoming an Ethical Wildlife Volunteer. M., Heggen (2016) — Our actions are not always ethical –not because we don’t want to be but rather because we don’t know– and organizations may not be what they seem…

[7] Saving Serabie: The Fight Against Lion Hunting. Winner documentary of the 2015 Wildlife Conservation Film festival A documentary film about the fate of farmed lions for the sole purpose of feeding the hunting industry.

[8] Blood Lions — Blood Lions follows environmental journalist and safari operator Ian Michler, and Rick Swazey, an American hunter, on their journey to uncover the realities about the multi-million dollar predator breeding and canned lion hunting industries in South Africa.

[9] Volunteering with Lion Cubs in Africa – What I Wish I Had Known! The experience of a volunteer, and things you should be aware of before applying to similar programs…

[10] Cub Petting: Cute and Harmful. Earthwise Aware (2015) — Before considering cub petting or volunteering in a facility that allows close interactions with cubs, pause, research and think about the consequences…

[11] Tiger Temple Scandal Exposes the Shadowy Billion-dollar Asian Trade. Vidal, J. (2016)

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