Recently, when interviewing a young EwAnaut friend about her volunteer experience, I was reminded of how harmful not-knowing can be. Our friend had just returned from volunteering in an accredited African wildlife conservation rescue organization. This was a good ethical experience and this made a difference on so many accounts compared to the too numerous unethical hands-on volunteer experiences that are creeping into the very lucrative voluntourism market…

cheetah-cub-1Hands-on volunteer experience with wildlife is usually suspicious when it concerns big predators such as lions, wolves, etc. Since I started being involved with conservation volunteering a decade or so ago, I have seen flocks of volunteers going to Africa or elsewhere for ‘taking care’ of wildlife full hands-on (no questions asked). They end up more than often in organizations that pose as conservation organizations, but that is more CON than anything else or shady at best. Unfortunate examples include volunteering in Lions breeding organizations, that attract volunteers to take care of cubs – volunteers who are fooled into thinking that they are having a unique experience and doing for the good of the animal. Down the line (in an overwhelming majority of the cases), that little lion or tiger (when older, not so cute anymore, and less manageable) is sent into living the rest of its life in captivity or shot in a canned hunting operation.

It is heartbreaking enough to hear the stories of some of my friends who after returning from volunteering realized what they unknowingly supported and then do everything they can then to raise awareness and save (say) that cub they took care of as in the case of Alexa and her dear Serabie. But it is absolutely devastating when you hear those stories of volunteers who remain ignorant, or worse turn into the most vehement defenders of these CON organizations truly in denial or for some other reasons that are beyond my comprehension…

This was not the case of our young EwA’ian friend. A few years ago she had volunteered for conservation with an American organization associated with a hosting African wildlife rescue center. Since then the American organization separated itself from the questionable one. That African organization had started as a good one years before but was going under a change of management and mission at the time our friend volunteered there. That organization allowed close interactions with some wild cats, such as petting cubs, playing with them, sleeping them, and photo-ops. Anyway, I can’t tell about the organization myself and that’s beside my point today. What I find important today is to comment on our friend’s change of perspective. Her recent experience made her rethink her first experience. Simply put: with what she knows today, our young friend would not volunteer in that specific African ‘supposed’ rescue center. She said to me that she sees now how ‘unfair’ to wildlife, her first experience was. And for me, it is great news! Even better she and I are thinking of writing an article on this knowledge journey. Knowledge can truly be powerful and even more so when it is shared!

That awareness led to a reshaping of her thoughts is something to treasure. It’s not always easy or obvious as our friend noted. Indeed it took a second (fortunately ethical) experience to recall the first one and understand what was not good about it. It’s totally understandable though: after all, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.

Again, knowledge is key here and this great exchange supports our Earthwise Aware‘s mission to help raise awareness of conservation ethics and relevance particular to volunteering and traveling, so that a project or a venue and its implications/effects on wildlife are understood beforehand, and not left to chance. More than often these days knowledge does not shine in wildlife voluntourism, but this time it did…

Claireby Claire Bagley 

Read the story of our friend ‘My Journey to becoming an Ethical Volunteer‘.

The photographs in this article are Google images found using the filter ‘labeled for non-commercial reuse with modification’.

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