Know what to expect, prepare for the unexpected.
You’re going to be excited, and you should be! And it’s best to get mentally prepared before that excitement fully sets in so when you’re in the moment the right things come naturally.
Some questions we ought to ask ourselves first:
❓ Ask yourself what your purpose is. What and how will you contribute?
❓ How do you intend to treat the environment and wildlife? Will you treat wildlife as it is there for your entertainment or as they are sentient creatures you’re sharing a space with.
❓ How will you view the host culture? Will you immerse yourself in the culture or keep at a distance tourist stance?
This introspection will lead you to understand what type of volunteer/tourist you are or wish to be. Are you:
– a sensitive/sensible traveler (vs. a judging one),
– willing to learn and understand (vs. having a savior complex),
– an ethical traveller (vs. entitled tourist).
The three core values to get to are those at the root of the EwA Wildness Etiquette: Respect – Empathy – Compassion. And underpinning these three is: Open-mindedness.
Don’t come “empty-headed”.
You need to acquire a minimal knowledge to be able to contribute efficiently, learn to ask the right questions, and challenge when necessary.
Some questions to mull over:
❓ What is the conservation purpose of the organization you are going to visit or work with? Is it about conservation research, re-wilding, habituation, rehabilitation?
❓ What is their history and where are they heading as an organization?
❓ What animals and habitats are you expecting to see?
❓ What’s the expertise level of people on site?
❓ How will you be contributing?
Ask the organization for literature and references.
✓ The organization’s website.
✓ Courses of pertinence.
✓ Books on the topic.
✓ Related science articles.
⚠ Say you’re going to join an in-situ conservation project that is centered around the study of orangutans. Do you have a good sense of the ecology of the area? Do you know about the social structure of these great apes, the impact of humans on the populations, the basic behavior of the animal? No? Then ask prior to your trip about literature references on the topic, so that you arrive prepared to be a good contributor as well as ready to ask pertinent questions.
Having base knowledge is even more important when you volunteer or visit a sanctuary, and where understanding behavior and social needs of the species can help you evaluate and contribute more efficiently to the place. Never rely entirely on the knowledge of the staff, unless you have a 100% guarantee that they are ethical experts. If you are unprepared then you will not be able to identify or challenge wildlife abusive situations that you may encounter. For instance, this has been experienced by many volunteers made to believe that they were volunteering for good (even ‘supposed’ scientific) organizations taking care of cute cubs, when they were, in reality, fueling the trophy hunting industry, the illegal pet trade, or the exotic pet trade ([HL13], [SS15], [BL15], [GS16]).
Are we there ‘consuming’ wildlife for entertainment? Or are we there to learn and help conserve either through our guest payments or through volunteer activities?
It is the difference between the I-centered love for animals – ‘Here’s me riding an elephant in Asia or lying on a tiger’s back’– versus truly loving and respecting nature and animals. The best way to appreciate Nature and learn about it is seeing an orangutan in the distance making its nest or listening to its long call to capture a female’s attention. Or it is observing with binoculars in hand a black bear sow scolding her cubs to get back down a tree.
Now let’s not believe that the rules do not apply to us. Of course, we strive to do better than that, however, it’s not that obvious: How many times, caught in the excitement, do we forget basic distance and security rules. We’ve been guilty ourselves but nowhere near to the extent of the incident below.
⚠ In September 2015 a news article went viral where people were so entranced to see turtles laying their eggs on the coast of Costa Rica that tourists and locals arrived in droves. They disrupted the normal nesting process, packed the sand over these eggs affecting their already fragile survivability. They put the wildlife at risk without any second thought. The title of the article –‘Sea Turtles Chance for Life Destroyed by Selfie’ makes it clear of what it was all about.
In order to be best prepared about how to behave in the wild, take the time to study the EwA Wildness Etiquette before leaving for your adventure. We do it regularly ourselves, and each time we are reminded that is not that easy to be truly environmentally ethical: refreshers are good.
Know what to expect, as well as what is expected of you… Culturally.
Your way is most likely not the visiting country’s way. Do a web search to inquire about the cultural etiquette of the hosting country. It’s very easy to find out a little about a country culture from the internet by just looking at Wikipedia, tourist board sites, holiday review sites, lonely planet blogs.
Be respectful of the local culture and remember that you are a representative of your own culture and country. Show your best side.
⚠ For instance, many people visit African or Asian countries as volunteers. These places are not beach holiday cultures. Instead, volunteers are working around with local villagers. And dressing appropriately for local customs may mean that instead of wearing skimpy swimming costumes or speedos in the water, you need to cover up with shorts and tee shirts. Respect that.
Some general recommendations:
✓ Do not swear or speak poorly. We have so many examples of young volunteers swearing like sailors in other countries. This gives a very bad image, and send a wrong message to the hosting culture.
✓ Always dress appropriately.
✓ Drink ‘respectfully’ therefore avoid drinking if the culture frowns upon it. Some projects will reserve the right to kick out of the program people who dismiss this rule.
✓ Try and learn some basic phrases as a sign or respect for the host country. A few words go a long way in opening the hearts of people.
✓ Also understand what the local religion is even if you are not religious at all. Don’t try to impose your religious or non-religious view –that’s not the time and place for that, it’s not a crusade.
Your experience will be so much better if you try and integrate even just a little, and locals will be more willing to share their information if they know you are respecting them. It’s the same message as we give for wildlife –you are in their territory, play by their rules. Respect those rules.
Fitness?!? Why should I care? Well… if you’re going to visit animals in captivity, you’ll most likely be fine. However, if you’re volunteering, then you’ll work. And the level of fitness that you need will depend on where you are going and the terrain. So many people get caught up in the excitement of the trip without realizing that actually, it may be strenuous. Whether it’s because of high altitude, manual work involved with volunteering or a lot of trekking or walking in rough terrain it’s worth making sure you know what to expect and prepare for it.
Understand what is acceptable and not acceptable for the project. Know that some projects will kick people out –as they should– if they ignored the main tenets of the program for example for not being fit for the work or to be around the wildlife, therefore, jeopardizing the team (and project).
Things to know:
➢ High altitudes or different terrains can take its toll even for normal activities.
➢ Nature/wildlife volunteering is normally not just about being in proximity with animals, it’s also about helping out the local communities with their chores, clearing/building conservation areas. There can be some real hard manual labor involved.
➢ Gorilla or chimp trekking may require a trek up to 5-8 hours in muddy, tough terrain.
➢ Gearing trees for study in a rainforest can last hours in a slippery terrain under long downpours…
➢ Observing a nest way up in the canopy 6 hours at a time with no pause in a wet humid environment with hundred of critters buzzing, crawling incessantly might get you…
⚠ We volunteered several times at a rhino/elephant conservation site involving a lot of manual labor. We readily got stuck in helping to fix roads, lifting trucks, clearing land of invasive and harmful tree and shrub species. All these did not bother us, but what we did not account for was also needing to fight an unplanned bushfire and having to run from it when the wind changed direction. Since then we realized the importance of being cardio-prepared.
In short, you can never underestimate thinking about and preparing for fitness. For instance, Gorilla trekking is one case where you think you are sufficiently prepared and regularly you are not: Having to trek through wet-dense-damp-slippery cloud forests, battling with nettles and sometimes under torrential rain is nothing close to easy.
Being ill-prepared will impact both your enjoyment and your contribution as well as can potentially negatively impact your fellow travelers or volunteers.
⚠ The example of a volunteer in the Peruvian Amazon comes to mind. She was in bad physical shape to the point that she had difficulties walking around in the forest. This volunteer 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 could be kept in check in a dangerous environment. This meant that we could not do the amount of work we were supposed to do in a given time. 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, and that we had to jump as well to rescue her…
Prepare to be eaten by lions!
Ok that’s a little extreme, but the point is to prepare for the unexpected, including the kind that can be more than offsetting. In preparing mentally it’s worth thinking of emergency situations. More specifics are in the ‘If Things Go Wrong’ section, but first think of how you will react if the unforeseen happens.
It’s not about focusing on doom and gloom, it’s just about preparing for eventualities and be confident about it. For instance, in places like Africa, there’s a high likelihood that your vehicle will break down (dust and sand is pervasive and the impact of off-road terrain takes its toll), or you may be involved in a traffic situation. Emotions may naturally run high especially in a foreign country. Then mentally prepare to be level-headed and patient and make sure you are covered with insurance, and that your host has contingency plans for any delays (if and when applicable). Then forget about it!
The same applies for your packing. Where are you going? Will it be remote? Is there a chance that you will get lost? So pack your compass, a torch, a swiss army knife, an emergency whistle whatever you think is appropriate for a worst case scenario depending on where you are heading. And then again…. forget about it!
Now relax back into thinking about your journey.