In our first blog we looked into the ways to spot ethical wildlife tourism options, in this one we are going to discuss a particular, very popular form of wildlife tourism - voluntourism. What better way for a facility to accomplish their mission, then with the help of well-intentioned, caring, tourist volunteers who are willing to donate both their time and money. However, not all volunteer opportunities are as wonderful as they seem, in fact, many volunteers get tricked into supporting an organization that doesn’t have the best intentions. So as a potential wildlife volunteer, how can you know if you are choosing a good place? Here are a few things to look for when researching where you are going to volunteer.
What is their mission, and how will you help accomplish it?
There are many larger travel websites that will facilitate volunteer travel bookings, however these websites usually give you little information about the place you will be volunteering other than a few attention-grabbing key points. Try to find out the name of the location or organization, and take a look at their personal website. As a side note, it is usually cheaper to book directly through the organization's website rather than through other second party travel websites. Once you have located their website, it should be easy to find out what their mission is, and if they are accomplishing what they are trying to do. The most common wildlife volunteer options take place at wildlife rehabs, breeding programs, and conservation and research projects. Good organizations will be very open about how many animals they are releasing back into the wild, how they are contributing to conservation and what research projects they are doing. If this information is very vague on their website, it could be a clue that they are in it more for the money than for conservation.
Second, look at how your presence will be helping the place where you will be volunteering. Good organizations will make it clear that while you get to do fun things, you will also be required to do some hard, and not so glamorous work, such as cleaning enclosures, prepping food, fixing roads, removing plants, recording research notes, etc. If the website advertises that you will spend your days cuddling, playing with, and feeding cute baby animals, and relaxing, with no mention of real work, chances are they may not be the best place to spend your volunteer trip. You are there, to work after all! You are donating your time and money to help worthy causes succeed, and that will involve more hard work than cuddle time.
Where is your money being spent?
Many people are surprised that you have to pay to volunteer, however these funds are essential to keeping many volunteer projects up and running. Once again, good organizations will be open about how they are using your money and since you will be spending a lot of your hard earned money to be there, you want to make sure it is being spent the right way. If there is little to no mention on how the money is being used, that is typically another sign you should be wary of volunteering there. Good ways for organizations to spend their money include; using it towards medical supplies, food, maintenance and upkeep of the centre, providing volunteers with lodging and food, putting money towards conservation efforts, and anti-poaching measures, and providing jobs for locals.
Is there any community involvement?
Any good conservation project knows, that research projects, breeding, or rehabbing and releasing animals back into the wild is only the start of the solution. The reason these organizations and projects exist is because wild populations are facing a variety of issues, including being poached, injured, losing habitat or are being captured for the wildlife trade. Simply protecting these animals or releasing them back into the wild isn’t enough to end these problems. The solution needs to come from education, which is why many good projects work very closely with local communities educating on the importance of wildlife and conservation, teaching that animals are worth more alive than they are if they are hunted or sold. It is also recommended that you choose a project who works with the community in other ways such as assisting with community gardens, bee projects and helping women’s business initiatives. Asking volunteers to pack with a purpose and helping provide jobs to the local community are all great signs that you are choosing a project who truly cares about the wildlife they are trying to protect, and the areas in which they live.
Do they promote hands on wildlife encounters?
This can be a tricky one. Most volunteer programs do offer some sort of hands on encounters with wildlife, after all, it is part of the draw to voluntourism, and isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. Many projects, wildlife rehabs in particular, have animals that have been rescued, but due to various circumstances, can not be released back into the wild. Many of these animals are habituated to human contact, and volunteers will therefore get the opportunity to work closely with them, using them as ambassadors for their species. What potential volunteers need to be wary about are projects that guarantee daily encounters with baby animals, or animals that aren’t permanent residents of the rehab centre. Any animal who is being rehabbed and will be released back into the wild should have limited contact with humans, to help ensure its survival once it is released. Good rehab centres will follow this practice.
Will you have the opportunity to ride elephants, raise big cat cubs, or walk with lions?
This is a major red flag. Most people are aware of the training methods associated with riding elephants, and how awful they can be for the animal including physical and psychological abuse in order to get elephants to comply to their handlers. Many places have stopped offering saddled riding, however there are a few places that still offer it which should be avoided. Studies have suggested that around 64% of elephants in tourism are plagued with back injuries. With the prominence of elephants used in captivity, mainly in areas of Southeast Asia, it is essential that we understand welfare implications, and that tourist advocate for improvements of elephant care. There are many other opportunities that can provide volunteers with amazing experiences with elephants that don't cause them harm. Observing them participating in natural behaviours, preparing their food, feeding and bathing them, and helping staff to provide other daily necessities are all duties that help enrich the lives of the elephants, while supporting responsible care and conservation initiatives.
As for the opportunity for volunteers to raise lion cubs, and other big cat cubs. This is still a voluntourism trend that is very common, in southern Africa especially. Volunteers are told they are supporting a lion breeding program, that is broken up into stages, with the intent of the lion cubs bred at the facility eventually being released into the wild. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to hand raise adorable little lion cubs, that will eventually repopulate the wild population, right? WRONG!!! The sad truth is that no lion has ever successfully been reintroduced into the wild, and these are well oiled money making organizations. They make money not only off the well-intentioned volunteers who are used to raised the lion cubs, thinking they are doing a great thing, but off paying tourists who come to support the “breeding program”. Most of these programs will breed lions, remove the cubs immediately and hand raise them, they will then charge people to come play with and cuddle these tiny cubs, when they are too big for that they are moved to the “lion walk” program where again tourists and volunteers are charged money, and given the opportunity to walk alongside a sub-adult lion in a “wild” setting, an activity that can be extremely dangerous. Finally when they are too old for the lion walks, they are usually moved into an enclosure “until they can find a suitable wild location to release them in” which never ends up happening. Unfortunately profiting off the lion doesn’t end here, as they are very often sold to rich trophy hunters, where the only time they are let out of their compound, is right before they are killed. It’s the sad truth of most of the lion breeding program volunteer opportunities. So as tempting as the thought of hand raising lion cubs may be, remember what will ultimately happen to that cub, when it's not cute and cuddly anymore. If lion, or big cat conservation is something you are passionate about, there are many other great volunteer opportunities, involving lion research, education and conservation, that are hands off, but make a big impact of the survival of the species!
Now trophy hunting can be viewed as a pretty controversial topic with some arguing that the revenue generated can actually support conservation projects, while others state that this is most often not the case - this will be a topic for a future blog, so stay tuned!
Voluntourism can be a great way to make a difference for wildlife and conservation, as well as provide you with some amazing and unique travel memories. We hope that these steps will help you make the best decisions when choosing a wildlife cause to volunteer for. Also check our review pages on our website as we have reviewed many places that accept volunteers and will be adding more in the future! And please, if you have volunteered somewhere that you would like us to review based on your recommendation, please submit a review on our website, so you can help us make sure everyone makes the best wildlife tourism decisions!
Borchet, P. (2013) Is walking with lions good for conservation? Probably not. Obtained from https://africageographic.com/ on Feb 17, 2018.
Guttentag, D.A. (2009) The possible negative impacts of volunteer tourism. International Journal of Tourism Research, 11, 537-551
Hunter, L.T.B., White, P., Henschel, P., Burton, L.F.C., Loveridge, A., Blame, G., Breitenmoser, C., and Breitenmoser, U. (2012) Walking with lions: why there is no role for captive-origin lions Panthera leo in species restoration. Oryx, 46(1), 19-24.
Kontogeorgorgopoulos, N. (2009) The role of tourism in elephant welfare in Northern Thailand. Journal of Tourism, 10(2), 1-19.
Magda, S., Spohn, O., Angkawnish, T., Smith, D.A., and Pearl, D.L. (2015) Risk factors for saddle-related skin lesions on elephants used in the tourism industry in Thailand. BMC Vet Res. 11:1
Schmidt-Burbach, (n.d.). Taken for a ride: the conditions for elephants used in tourism in Asia. World Animal Protection. Obtained from https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/ on September 27, 2017.
Wearing, S., and McGehee, N.G. (2013) Volunteer tourism: a review. Tourism Management, 38, 120-130