Wildlife Volunteering — Expectations, Reality, Responsibility

Sharan Bahra, Earthwise Aware‘s Vice-President, was recently in Kenya, where she helped a conservation organization focused on protecting both giraffes and lions.

In an EwA post series, Sharan shares about the many facets of volunteering for wildlife conservation. Previously, she wrote about the difficulties of finding ethical conservation venues, and how she led her research to find the right experience.

In this second post, Sharan now shares about the realities of conservation volunteering, and the process of adapting to the difference between those realities and your original expectations. In the world of conservation, nothing is black and white, and the type of on-the-ground collaboration and adjustment described in this article is essential.

Sharan’s next article will talk about bird monitoring as a means to check ecological health. Pass along!

The ethics of conservation volunteering and travel need a lot more thoughts…’ –Sharan Bahra

I wanted to go back to Africa and help a conservation project. I chose a programme via the volunteering placement company, Projects Abroad, which has been in the game for about 25 years.

Normally I find more independent efforts; however, as mentioned in the first article, this seemed to tick all the boxes. They are especially geared towards younger or first-time volunteers. Once you are booked, they provide access to extensive documentation about everything that you need to know from visa requirements through to a detailed Kenyan conservation management plan and past volunteer feedback. Their management plan was of particular interest and aligned with the information on their website and with the few phone conversations that I had with them. They also asked for the completion of a questionnaire asking about the volunteer’s background, what their expectations are and how they feel they can support the project. All good stuff. 

The Reality

You never really know the value of a project (despite the amount of preparation) until you undertake the work. I’m definitely one to ask questions right from the beginning to make the most out of the experience both for myself and for the organization, as well as to validate through in-country discussions with staff and other volunteers, that the project is truly environmentally consequential.

From those initial conversations on the first few days, I went through a journey of panic, anger, and disappointment, all the way through to thinking by the end of the first week that this programme was actually better than advertised.

Most of my questions e.g. where are the researchers based? what are they working on specifically? what major land management/ conservation activities are being undertaken at the moment? were answered with “this is being handled on the other side”. 

The “other side”? Well, that was the actual Soysambu Conservancy side. 

Had I made a mistake? The detailed management plan indicated that we were part of the Conservancy and I had done some research on Soysambu itself before departing reviewing their very good website. Indeed, a few other volunteers already onsite and one who arrived a few days after I did thought the same.

The communal room had a lot of ‘unfiled’ data sheets going back to earlier in the year. Some didn’t even have dates or were missing GPS information. What was happening with these data sheets? What was the outcome of the monitoring work? What was happening with any research? The volunteers didn’t know. The board listing activities for the week showed onboarding & a giraffe survey for the afternoon. That consisted of 3 hours of driving around the Conservancy looking for giraffes but with no data being taken down. The rest of that week’s activity looked quite sparse and didn’t feel like a group of volunteers were needed. It was also unfortunate, that there was a national holiday in the middle of the week when I arrived, and so it seemed to me like that there was even less work to do.

From talking to the present volunteers, the predominant comment was “there is a lot of driving around!” and some work on eco-stoves but the work is overall very slow. Additionally, there didn’t seem to be much information being offered on the topics I asked about.

Jumping in

I needed a plan of action. Volunteers can pay a lot of money and it is a commitment of time and effort. Primarily the placement should engage volunteers in doing meaningful work. However, it needs to also satisfy the volunteer within reason and within the context of conservation. I asked to speak with the volunteer manager and prepared my list of observations and feedback. I also wanted to query back with the Projects Abroad head office. 

Did I put the volunteer manager on the spot? Yes. Was I a little bullish? Yes. At first, understandably, they were a little defensive, saying that I should give it to the end of a week and then I would be able to see the work fully. 

However, if by the end of the week the work & involvement wasn’t as I expected, then 25% of my time would have been wasted already on the wrong programme.

The volunteer manager made a note of everything that I gave feedback on and said he would arrange follow-ups to my requests, that is, a sight of what was happening with the data, a meeting with the head of the Conservancy, a site visit to the research centre which was on the Soysambu side and not on the Projects Abroad side. He also clarified that the volunteers upload all the monitoring data to the communal laptop. He advised that although it hadn’t been communicated, the induction actually takes 3 days and included a presentation. He was waiting for the last volunteer (who was expected the day after) to cover it all together. 

Whilst there were no researchers on-site on the Projects Abroad side, the volunteer manager is an ecologist by training so he can answer a lot of questions. Most of his time though was busy doing administrative chores and overlooking supplies. They were expecting 30 volunteers on-site every week from July for a few months so they were also spending time making sure that a second volunteer house was prepared. 

In the meantime, I also gave feedback to the Project Abroad head office. They are responsible for the marketing and information sold for bookings and they should be aware of what is happening on the ground.

It is fair to say that if I had booked with an independent, grassroots volunteer placement I certainly would have been more patient and approached this differently (less bullishly). However, there is an expectation that a global volunteer organisation should be accountable and should be held so.

Also, whilst my feedback, especially around the data filing, was valid, it seemed the volunteers on site had not asked any questions about what happens next. As an example, one had come for the animals, and other volunteers, whilst vocal when I asked for their opinions, were honest and admitted that they had come for the experience with no real expectations and therefore not vested to ask further questions.

Improving the Reality

The volunteer manager acted quickly and with good grace. He listened as did the head office. Through continued conversations, by the end of the first week, I saw how the programme was actually better than expected and that there was an opportunity to be even more valuable than just simply participating in the normal activities.

The volunteer manager had run through my feedback with the rest of the in-country staff. He agreed that the data logging definitely needed improving and that the suggestions for improvements had “put a spark in them”. One of the staff was going back through all the data for the year to bring it up to date, including any individual identification where possible.

The presentation was undertaken on day 3 after my initial feedback and after the last volunteer arrived. Adjusting to our group, the manager went into a lot more detail on the ecology and wildlife including conservation plans and status. 

What is sometimes difficult for the staff is adapting the information to the audience. For instance, the presentation can be much shorter for a family with children. The truth is that the interest levels in the actual work and conservation efforts vary based on individual volunteers.

They hadn’t had a volunteer truly interested in conservation for quite a while. This highlights a few issues with both company ethics and volunteer ethics. It can be easy for a company to become complacent when they are not challenged by the role they take. And it can be easy for volunteers to slip back into being tourists.

The staff was already re-assessing how many eco-stoves could be reasonably put in within a 4 hour period whilst still maintaining quality and that changed to 3 eco-stoves in one morning rather than 3 in the full day giving extra time for other needed activities.

They took on board the feedback of mixing up the day between monitoring and manual to increase engagement levels. Even the most passionate of volunteers can get bored with 2x 4 or 5 hours of driving, monitoring, driving per day, especially on the days when we were looking for the elusive pride of lions. 

It was known to the volunteers that there are WhatsApp interactions between Projects Abroad and Soysambu Conservancy staff for immediate observations (e.g. lion kill; hyena sightings; injured animals). What wasn’t generally known was that a weekly and monthly report was submitted by Project Abroad to Soysambu on the completed activities. All of the individual research groups did the same and this was collated so land management could be properly tracked and organised for the following period. In the same way, Project Abroad had a target of 12 eco-stoves to put in per month and this was fully tracked to show what percentage of the community remained. 

Whilst currently the giraffe monitoring information was utilised only by the Conservancy, they had a desire to publish the information on a global database (Wild ID). The difficulty they had was there was not a consistent technical resource to help them fully set it up. A previous volunteer had got it as far as they could. I helped a little further and identified where the system bug was and found the support team contacts, however that was at the end of my time with them. 

With respect to the volunteer programme schedule and coordination, volunteers are allowed to come anytime, any day. What this means for the staff is that they can and often will pick up 1 or 2 people the same day, transport them to the volunteer site (circa 5 hours journey), and then turn around the same day to meet and greet the next person. If you arrive in the afternoon, Projects Abroad houses people in a budget hotel in Nairobi (at their cost). This was the case for me. The person who met me came with me three-quarters of the way, helped me with money exchange and local sim card, handed me off to the volunteer manager and then turned back around to meet the next person. A massive output of resource, cost and time.  

They were also expecting a large influx of students from China throughout the next few months (30 students per week) alongside smaller normal contingents from other countries. One can see how the “come anytime” arrangement can put a strain on resources. A suggestion on my debriefing feedback questionnaire was that they could have a “try and come on specific days” e.g. 3 or 4 times per week, to reduce inefficiencies and costs. Other placements do this and this seems to work well. They were discussing how and if this could work for them.

All in All

So taking all this into account, this programme ended up being better than advertised. Here’s why:

  1. Welcomed feedback. If I had not been upfront at the start, the in-country staff wouldn’t have had the opportunity to address these and improve. The fact that they were willing to discuss and accept some of the feedback showed their desire to do the right thing to support the conservation and land management goals through the work of the volunteers. Overall, I experienced a much more open set of conversations with all the staff about the work undertaken, the operations and conservation as a whole by expressing my thoughts openly and I believe we mutually got a lot out of it. I certainly gained a lot of knowledge and as a bonus, we were able to find more slots for work activities to do by moving things around on the schedule! 
  2. Community impact. Alongside the excellent partnership with Soysambu Conservancy, Projects Abroad Kenya directly funds and delivers a big and laudable piece of work in building eco-stoves for the local community through the efforts of the volunteers and through the hiring of local contractors. Eco-stoves are critical in helping to reduce the demand for firewood and are desired by the community. The website and the original land management plan didn’t profile this.
  3. Open to suggestions. Volunteers, depending on their expertise and desire, can choose to continue to support them after leaving the in-country experience. I chose to offer to help them to update their land management guide. The original was good, however, it needed updates and clarifications on how the partnership with the Conservancy worked.

Mutual Responsibilities

For future volunteers, it’s useful to outline the “terms of contract” as it were when ‘you pay’ to work. Here are a few considerations for both the organization and its volunteers.

Company responsibilities

  • Provide an onboarding within a few days. State clearly that it will happen and when. The onboarding may be short or long dependent on the programme as long as it covers the bases of goals, progress, role expectations.
  • Provide meaningful work aligned to the organization’s overarching goals and principles.
  • Communicate work expectations to volunteers and undertake quality control. Provide feedback on any area that needs improvement.
  • Provide education and learning.
  • Encourage inputs from volunteers. Assess their suggestions, and follow-up with discussing the merits or explaining why they may not be implementable.
  • Be transparent on how volunteer funding is used to support the overarching goals of the programme.

Volunteers responsibilities

  • Ask, ask, ask and be engaged. If something is unclear or you are not happy about something, ask the staff. Don’t wait. 
  • Even if only going for the experience or the animals, there is a duty on the volunteers to be involved in all the activities signed up for. You may have paid, but it is still a commitment (and it ought to remain ethical).
  • Understand the work involved and take responsibility for its completion. In one case, it was to individually identify the giraffe and upload all the monitoring information into the database. Yes, it may be boring or take a long time but it’s a necessary part of the job. There’s no point in completing the monitoring sheets and carefully taking photos for them to gather dust on the proverbial shelf.
  • Be open and honest with feedback, however, also be aware that not all suggestions may be viable e.g. a suggested improvement may not meet the goals of the conservation programme or doesn’t take into account the country/culture/funds.

For more details about wildlife volunteering ethics and expectations, also check EwA’s Traveler & Volunteer Essentials.

In my next post, I’ll talk about birds and how monitoring them helps to assess the ecological health of habitats. Bird monitoring is also a wonderful way to introduce both good wildlife ethics and the field of conservation.

Further Reading

The Travelling Giraffe –Protecting a Species. Bahra, S. (EwA 2016)

Volunteering in Kenya: Choosing the Right Programme. Bahra, S. (EwA 2019)

Conservancy Management Plan, 2017 Soysambu Conservancy, Kenya

A Computer-assisted System for Photographic Mark–recapture Analysis. Bolger, D. et al. In Methods in Ecology and Evolution 3(5):813-822 DOI: 10.1111/j.2041-210X.2012.00212.x (2017)

EwA Guides and Etiquettes

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The Basics

📙 | Basics of Nature & Wildlife Watching
📙 | Basics of Nature & Wildlife Volunteering
📙 | Guide to Choosing Nature & Wildlife Venues


📘 | The EwA Leader Etiquette
📘 | The EwA Volunteer Etiquette

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The Essentials

📗 | Traveler & Volunteer Essentials

Tips & Recommendations

Cub Petting: Cute and Harmful…
Volunteering with or for Big Wild Cats?
Spotting Conservation Volunteering Fakes


Jan, 16th 2020 | by  Sharan Bahra 

The photos in this article are the property of the author. 

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◊ First published Jan 10th, 2020 | Our tips are regularly revised and improved.

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