“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — Henry David Thoreau
The EwA guides (Ref: Xplore | Prepare) and etiquettes† cover a great deal of information about wildlife tourism and, nature & wildlife conservation volunteering. These guides provide essential details to help you research and assess any wildlife and/or conservation opportunities, and for preparing you to live and promote a relevant volunteering or wildlife touring experience.
Here, for the benefit of the first time volunteer, the EwA Basics of Wildlife & Nature Volunteering pulls together some useful information based on questions that we get asked a lot, as well as it helps the reader navigate the EwA guides and etiquettes.
First Time Nature Volunteering? We’ve got you covered!
⏸ Before we start, remember that volunteering should be treated like a job. You may have paid money to do it, but you are committing your time, skills and energy for a purpose. The organizations who are hosting you for the time of a mission depend on your help and work. Also, don’t expect the comforts of your home and do expect the unexpected. Respect their way of life.
The short answer is that it all depends on your passion, the wildlife you want to be involved with, and what part of the world you want to see.
But, first, ask yourself what your motivations to go there are so that you best understand what you will bring to the table. Also, ask yourself what you want to gain from the experience.
Make sure to have the right expectations.
Check that your body and mind are up to the task.
There are a lot more opportunities available than there were 10 years, 5 years even a year ago. A simple ‘volunteering abroad or overseas’ in the search engine will present you with hundreds of choices. Beware that not all of them are genuine. So get the right keywords into your search as a start.
That is true and you need to watch out.
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 their websites and will highlight the work they are doing themselves and progress they are making. They will have volunteer opportunities to support their on-the-ground work 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, for instance, a front for hunting or the animal trade industry. Once you’ve seen a couple of projects that you could be interested in, search their organization name followed by ‘reviews’, ‘controversies’ or ‘scandals’. That should throw up any areas of concern.
So it is critical that you learn how to spot the good from the bad and that you communicate with the organization of interest before your trip, and ask the right set of questions.
Well, this is one of the questions you should ask the organization. Ethical volunteering companies will readily answer you and funds usually go towards a variety of their annual budgets from feed for the animals; research; local staff salaries. A portion will naturally go to your accommodation, meals, and transport.
The organization you are volunteering with should 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. Usually also expect bugs and insects. So many people forget that this comes included for free! And if an organization says to be prepared for hard work, expect that it will be and work hard.
It all depends but that is true of any holiday that you take abroad. No need to panic, just check out what’s happening in the country relying upon government sources from your home and your destination country. As for the work itself: check with the organization, follow all the provided health and safety guidelines, and beware of safety threshold differences.
Going/traveling on your own for a project is usually not an issue and you will normally be met at airports and have pickups arranged. In the rare cases where it’s not included, the organization will advise of best transportation and guidance costs. Once you’re there then the number of other volunteers depends on the time of year and how established the project it. Most volunteer groups are extremely sociable and those who are already there before you set out will help and welcome you.
A better question is what not to expect, that is: comfort, luxury bedding, electricity, an infinite supply of water, hand holding, and the list goes on. But if you prepare your mind for the right attitude, then you can expect to learn great stuff, including how to be more independent and confident, new friends and the satisfaction that you are making a difference.
Do you think people visiting your country should know a little bit of your language? It’s the same thing really. Make an effort to find out via the agencies, do a bit of desktop research and find out what languages are native and the most common speaking. Normally, the facilitator or ground contact is chosen for their ability to be multilingual or at least speak a decent amount of English. But you are going to have a better time if you can speak some basic local phrases if only for the pleasure of the locals when they hear you making an effort. And don’t forget to bring a dictionary (physical or virtual ).
Make sure first you have a valid passport. The organization you are volunteering with will tell you which visa you need. The majority of the cases require only tourist visas unless you are paid a wage. In all cases, make sure to get the correct one.
We’ve heard of lots of people panicking about the ‘what happens next’. It can be a daunting thing especially if you’re traveling alone and your destination is some small airport in a location not many people have heard of and where English/European is not really spoken. Nothing to fret about, just prepare for the transfer/pick-up (including a note of contact names and numbers) –as well as prepare your mindset– and then relax.
While traveling light is critical as you are likely to carry all the weight on your own, still there are some essentials. This starts with the red tape (i.e, important docs including copies of bank cards, passport, visas, flight itinerary, contact info). Then it follows with what the organization requires you to travel with, and what we have found to be essential. So make sure to study our few packing lists diligently so as to be really prepared. For instance not having working gloves, or leaking rubber boots can make a big difference between having a good and a miserable experience onsite.
Volunteering in Nature? Yes then: There will be bugs! You either need to decide to get over it or risk being that annoying one who screams at every spider!
Make sure you know before you go which bugs are likely to be a health risk (mosquitos etc) and prepare yourself accordingly, this includes being properly vaccinated and medicated for the trip.
Packing the right repellants is also key. We recommend environmentally friendly options although aware that some people will want to take the strongest DEET. Then do ask what are the products restrictions on the project site (e.g., DEET is a poison that can pollute streams, then washing your clothes might be only allowed with restrictions because of these pollutants).
Have a mix of cash and cards, and make a mental note that ATMs might not be readily available or even working where you go. Ask the organization how much you will need, as well as what are the tipping rules. A tip? Never tip when you should not. That can be an etiquette faux-pas or seen as condescending.
Remember that where you are going you may have no-or-limited internet access. So the minimum is to take your phone (& get a Sim card) for getting in touch with your loved ones upon arrival –and before getting off the grid. That’s also a good ‘tool’ to have in rare emergency cases…
Besides understanding and complying to the cultural etiquette, respecting the law of your host country, and having a good volunteer etiquette, also make sure that you follow a proper environmental etiquette. Ask the organization you’re going to volunteer for their volunteer policy & etiquette. Prepare further and read the EwA Wildness Etiquette. Make a copy of it, and take it with you so that you can pull it out, refresh your memory as well as share it with your fellow volunteers. Don’t underestimate how easy it is for all of us to forget the right way to behave in Nature when we’re in awe and excited in the presence of greatness.
In all circumstances, remember the EwA attitude rooted in the values of Empathy, Humility & Knowledge.
Do that for wildlife, while helping good causes & enjoying yourself!