You either know where you want to go already, or you are looking for opportunities to see or help with a specific (or set of) species possibly in a specific area. At this point, all that is important is to make sure that you start your adventure with a good state of mind. No matter where you will end up going, the key attitude that needs to surface is one relying upon knowledge and resting on the values of empathy and humility for the habitats and wildlife that you are about to discover.

➭ Question your Motivation & Purpose

So now that respect, empathy, and compassion are in check, the first thing to do is question your motivations further so that you gain a clarity of purpose as well as set and correct your expectations accordingly.

Clarity of purpose and the right expectations are critical for making the most of the experience, maximizing personal satisfaction and ensuring a positive environmental impact. A few key questions one should ask oneself include:

– Why am I going there? What do I want to get out of the experience?

Is it for learning about specific conservation issues, learning new skills? Is it about giving a hand or contributing an expertise and in what way specifically? Maybe it is both… Do I want it to be a relaxing experience with a conservation element? Or am I ready to rough it up and live a spartan life the time of the visit…

Now if your primary purpose is to have the opportunity to pet animals and be up close to wild animals then please make a special note of the next section.

– Are my motivations aligned with ecological or wildlife welfare ethics?

If you don’t understand the ramifications of the word ethics in the context of the opportunity, you should then research or ask experts specifically (how we describe our ethics for EwA maybe a good basis for your own groundwork).

Surprisingly, this is a much harder question than it seems and certainly so when it comes to volunteer (hands-on) with animals. For instance, our desire to pet and cuddle big predator cubs or pups is similar to the effect of a drug but one that is most detrimental to the animal health and survivability as seen in the case of the cub petting industry ([SS15], [BL15], [GS16]). The drug effect is so powerful, that our brain dismisses the evidence and justifies in any way that will make us escape the guilt. Ourselves we met both: volunteers who were devastated to realize the consequences of their volunteering (some of whom doing all they could to save specific individuals after realizing the damages), as well as volunteers and tourists who became the most vindicated defenders of such practices until scandals broke out (such as in the case of the Thai Tiger Temple scandal [GS16]).

Now whilst we don’t support hands-on volunteering such as lion cub petting / walking with lions, handling baby animals in general –as they can potentially support animal trade and poaching– there are some reputable NGO rescue sanctuaries who work with species that are more amenable to close interactions with humans [CB16(a)].

To go back to the main point: We are sure that you will want to be as ethical as you can be. Then making those questions and their answers clear to yourself will naturally focus your attention to important details when researching opportunities and organizations.

➭ What are my Preferences and Priorities?

Besides targeting institutions with proper conservation and animal welfare ethics, knowing or defining your priorities and preferences will help you reduce your field of investigation – The ‘What to Ask’ section will increase your confidence about the ethics of the organization that you are considering.

For instance, when exploring volunteering opportunities, think about your requirements regarding:

Cost –Project fee (which does not include airfare), accommodation, local transportation and flight tickets, etc.
Duration –Can you commit to the optimal duration they need a volunteer for? Timescales can change the decision on where and what you do.
Species, ecosystem, country –What is driving my choice? is it a species I want to work with or is it to support an ecosystem? Will the choice of the country lead my decision?
➢ The type of organization or experience that you want to work with (charities, NGOs, etc.)
➢ The Pre-departure organization details: good amount of information vs. sparse reading material, references, past experiences.
➢ Location, language, and culture.
➢ In the field logistics and accommodation help.
Post-trip follow-up requirements (or not)

This means asking yourself questions such as:

❓ Is it a species or an ecosystem that I want to work for? Or is it a country that will drive my choice?
❓ Do I favor strenuous physical project over easy projects?
❓ Am I comfortable with long hikes as part of the project?
❓ What are my fitness limitations?
❓ What kind of accommodation type(s) am I comfortable with?
❓ Do I have an issue with gaining language skills for the job?
❓ What age group do I prefer my colleagues to be in?
❓ What kind of pre-departure interactions with the organization do I favor?…

Make a list of your top 10 priorities, these will then help better directing your search.

➭ General Safety Precautions to Acknowledge First

– Country Safety

How safe is it to go where I want to go?

As you should do for any holiday abroad, check out what is happening in the country. Don’t only rely on what the news is telling you in your own country as ‘Home’ news always reports on the worst, but also check the news in the potential host country. In all cases, after doing your own research, always go with what is comfortable to you (and you only).

⚠ For example, many people on hearing about our Zimbabwe volunteering trips, think the whole country to be generally unstable, with danger lurking around every corner. This may be true at certain times of economic instability but generally, the daily life is as safe as at home –which means be responsible.

If you’re going via an agency, you can usually be fairly confident that they won’t arrange a trip if they deem it unsafe. However, it never hurts to ask directly, with the benefit of being reassured. If you’re booking yourself, check the Home Office website (UK), the Travel State Gov (US) or any country equivalent as well as the organization contacts. Again, a volunteer organization will not encourage people to visit if there are political issues affecting safety.

– On-Site Safety

Regarding the safety on the volunteering site: of course, there will always be an increased safety risk depending on what you are doing. For instance, if you are doing manual labor, handling tools, looking for poaching snares in the bush, then you are likely to get scratched. So you need to exhibit a degree of caution. Don’t play with the machetes! If in the proximity of animals, there will always be an element of unpredictability. Be aware of that.

However, don’t let these things put you off. If you follow common sense and the safety briefings provided to you, you’ll be as safe as you can be.

Some organizations, due to their own culture or how they are set up, may not have the same level of health and safety briefings than in your own country. What may be acceptable to them may be unacceptable to you and vice versa. They may well see our consideration of health and safety rules as overly protective.  Don’t be critical but rather be aware of what they recommend and ask questions about safe handling of equipment if you need to.

– Going Alone

Can I go on my own? Will there be other people there?

Short answer: This depends on your level of confidence and independence.

Traveling on your own is no issue and you will normally be met at airports and have pickups arranged. If this is not included –which is rare– the organization will advise of best transportations and their costs.

Once you’re there then the number of other volunteers depends on the time of year and how well established the project is.

If you prefer going somewhere where you’re sure to meet other volunteers, choose a placement agency as this normally guarantees it as they require a minimum number of volunteers to run a project (e.g. Ecoteer, Earthwatch). If you’re comfortable with small groups or solo volunteering then you can choose organizations who are self-advertising (but again make sure to assess yourself the ethics of any particular project offered by the organization you choose to work with).

➭ Having the Right Expectations

Know what to expect so as to make the best of the experience.

– Know What you are Expected to Do

Sharan at workIn general, always be prepared to work hard and to work long hours. After all, you are here essentially to work pro-bono while learning tremendous things!…

So first be ready to fulfill what you are expected to do.

The organizations should at least have a basic job description of daily and weekly duties including the number of days of work. Read thoroughly on what you are signing up for.

Most volunteering involves:

Early starts –this could be 5 or 6 am
➢ Manual labor and getting dirty
➢ Using in-country tools –which may not be to the same standard as your local garden or DIY stores
Research / reporting
Walking –sometimes long hours
➢ Doing the unexpected –wildlife and nature is not always predictable and you may be asked to pitch in as needed
➢ Also, expect bugs and insects –so many people forget that this comes included for free!

If an organization says to be prepared for hard work or warn about a strenuous activity level, expect that they are indeed correct. There’s nothing worse than being on a team where someone says they didn’t know or weren’t expecting to muck in or that they really can’t do early starts.

➨ Treat volunteering like a committed job, because it is exactly that.

– About What You Should Expect

A better way to approach the question is to know what not to expect…

Don’t expect the same comfort as at home.
Don’t expect to have your own room –volunteering organizations are normally short on funds so will offer dorm facilities.
Don’t expect to have someone do your laundry for you. It’s usually a bonus if it’s available.
Don’t expect electricity, water, internet at any time of the day or night. Again in some countries, this is a bonus to have it even sporadically, especially internet.
Don’t expect everyone to speak the same language as you.
Don’t expect to be babied and that the in-country team is there to be holiday reps.
Don’t expect that everything will be smooth sailing. Do expect things to go wrong and unusual ways the locals fix the problems. In southern Africa there are 2 catchphrases –‘This is Africa’ and ‘We’ll Make a Plan!!’.
Don’t expect that you’ll get on fabulously with everyone you meet. As long as you’re working collaboratively and everyone gives mutual respect then that is great. Of course, we’ve also made lifelong friends through volunteering.
Don’t expect that if you have a great high paying job at home to be treated differently. You’re all equal and working as a team.
Don’t expect that it is acceptable to drink at night and not be ready for work the next morning.

If your expectations aren’t that this will be a holiday with turndown service for your bed then you’re all set!

Once you have the right mindset, what you can then expect is:

A fantastic opportunity to work and live with and like the locals.
Meet great like-minded people and have great conversations.
An opportunity to do some meaningful work.
Experiences that will last a lifetime.
An education and time to learn new skills and about conservation efforts.
Probably a travel bug to do more in offbeat places.
Learning how to overcome obstacles with very little money and resources.

➭ How is my Fitness Level?

Climbing & with a smile please!

Climbing & with a smile, please!

Visiting an accredited zoo, or sanctuary is not likely to require any specific fitness level but some volunteer places do and wildlife adventures involving hiking, trekking, building and carrying stuff in rough environmental conditions (e.g., heat, humidity, cold, bugs) might. Be aware of the fitness requirements necessary at the site and make sure to match these requirements. Think about safety and security: if you’re deceiving yourself thinking you are in a better shape than you are in reality, then you might jeopardize your security, the security of the other members of your team or group, and even compromise the security and life of the wildlife around you (remember the story of the volunteer who fell in a Amazon piranha pond?).

➨ If you are not fit for the adventure that you are targeting: let it go. Be humble. Make it a goal: You can do it later when you get to the required fitness level. Meanwhile, there are innumerable other projects and venues these days with easier fitness requirements that will be able to host you.

➭ What are the Skills that I Bring to the Table?

Going to a zoo, planning a wildlife tourism won’t require much other than a willingness to learn and respect the environment and wildlife. Now if you are looking for a volunteer opportunity, then know your skills and the lack thereof.

Data recordingAbout the skills that you may not have: Always ask what are the skills are required for the job (yes volunteering should be treated as a job). If you don’t have the required skills (or they are likely hard to gain before the experience), then let go of that specific project. Don’t waste the time and money of the volunteer organization, and yours. Remember that this is not about you, this is about them and the wildlife. There are many projects where you can help. You’ll find one, just not that one.

So what if you have those skills and have more to offer? The goals of volunteering are not necessarily just to give a hand, it can be an opportunity to contribute your own valuable skills. These skills can make a whole difference. It should never be one-sided, and more than often we see organizations that fail to make good use of the skills of their volunteers, too busy that they are in fulfilling their own (sometimes suboptimal) agenda.

Conservation should be communal and allow a dialog and an exchange of good practices in all domains (from technical knowledge to leadership practices). Besides this is one great way for the institutions to show that they value their volunteers and their time. So know your skills so that you can push them forward. Explain these skills and offer them.

➭ Travel Involved? How can I Offset my Carbon Footprint?

These days we travel more than necessary. We want to live it all, and that comes at the expense of the environment [GB15]. So a question to always have in mind is:

Is there travel involved? Does it need to be? Nature is at our doorstep, we don’t necessarily need to travel the world to do good in conservation, or to see species. But yes, we probably will have to or will want to indulge once in a while, for many various reasons. In those cases, then consider offsetting your carbon footprint and ease the environmental cost.

💡 Ways to Offset your Carbon Footprint While Traveling

Carbon Footprint Vacation closer to home when possible.
Avoid air travel and opt for the train when you can.
If you fly then prefer airlines that recycle waste from food, drink, paper, and plastics.
 Favor airlines & hotels that offer to offset your carbon footprint when booking –ask them explicitly.
Avoid cabs and cars, use public transportation, bike or walk instead.
✓ When in your hotel room, avoid waste as at home: turn off lights and air conditioning, reuse towels, avoid plastic bottles or re-use them…
Use rechargeable gadgets, bring a solar recharger…
Support the local communities: eat local, buy local, avoid chains.

Read more: Can Eco-Conscious Travelers Do Anything To Fly Green?

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◊ The references mentioned on this page are listed in the Extended Bibliography.

Guide to Choosing Wildlife & Nature Venues
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