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 at 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…

Hands-on volunteer experience with wildlife, particularly concerning big predators like lions and wolves, often raises suspicion. In my decade-long involvement with conservation volunteering, I’ve witnessed numerous volunteers flocking to Africa and other destinations under the guise of “taking care” of wildlife without asking critical questions. Unfortunately, many of these volunteers end up in organizations that claim to be conservation-focused but are more concerned with profit or operate under dubious practices.

A regrettable example is volunteering in lion breeding organizations, which attract volunteers to care for lion cubs under the guise of providing a unique and beneficial experience for the animals. However, in the vast majority of cases, these cubs grow up to be less manageable and lose their appeal as they age. Consequently, they are either relegated to a life of captivity or become targets in canned hunting operations.

It’s heartbreaking to hear stories from friends who, upon returning from volunteering experiences, realized the unintended consequences of their support. Some, like Alexa and her dear Serabie, do everything in their power to raise awareness and save the animals they once cared for. However, it’s absolutely devastating to hear about volunteers who remain ignorant or, even worse, become staunch defenders of questionable organizations—often in denial or for reasons beyond comprehension.

Fortunately, this wasn’t the case for our young EwA’ian friend. A few years ago, she volunteered with an American organization associated with an African wildlife rescue center. Since then, the American organization has distanced itself from the questionable practices of the African center. Although the African organization initially seemed reputable, it was undergoing a change in management and mission at the time of our friend’s volunteering. This organization allowed close interactions with wild cats, including petting cubs, playing with them, sleeping with them, and photo opportunities. However, I cannot personally attest to the organization’s practices, as that’s not the focus of my discussion today.

What’s important to highlight is our friend’s change in perspective. Her recent experiences prompted her to reconsider her initial volunteering stint. In simple terms, armed with newfound knowledge, our young friend wouldn’t volunteer at that specific African rescue center today. She now recognizes how unfair it was to wildlife, and that’s fantastic news! Even better, she and I are contemplating writing an article about this journey of knowledge. Sharing this awareness is incredibly powerful.

The fact that awareness led to reshaping her thoughts is something to cherish. As our friend noted, it’s not always easy or obvious, and it often takes a second (fortunately ethical) experience to fully understand the implications of the first. It’s entirely understandable, though; “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Once again, knowledge is paramount here, and this wonderful exchange supports Earthwise Aware’s mission to raise awareness of conservation ethics and relevance, particularly concerning volunteering and travel. By understanding the implications and effects of projects or venues on wildlife beforehand, we can ensure that our actions have positive rather than unintended consequences. Unfortunately, knowledge often takes a back seat in wildlife voluntourism, but this time, it prevailed.

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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