TOP TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL WILDLIFE CONSERVATION VOLUNTEERING TRIP« Back
By Peter Lynch, author and volunteer
People volunteer for lots of reasons - maybe a gap year, a retirement plan, a personal challenge or a meaningful holiday. Wildlife volunteering can include collecting and inputting data, caring for animals, reforestation, minimising human-wildlife conflict, wildlife monitoring, marine and coral reef surveys or tracking animals using GPS systems. Volunteers need to be reasonably fit, but that’s the only real criteria and age is certainly no barrier – I’ve worked with volunteers aged aged between 16 and 70.
Whether your motivation is the destination, a particular species or expanded horizons there's a volunteer project that will suit you but like anything else you might buy you must do your background research and don’t take everything the salesman tells you at face value.
Planning is everything
Before doing anything it’s important to be clear about the purpose of your conservation volunteer trip – why do you want to do it? Are you interested in the big picture of climate change and deforestation or do you want to help save a specific animal? Do you hope to learn new skills or perhaps reassess your life/career options? Do you want to develop language skills? Do you want to be with a team of like-minded people or immersed in a foreign culture? Are you seeking adventure and out-of-the-ordinary experiences or are you after a holiday with a feel-good factor? You might just want to get out there and back safely; whatever your reasoning, choosing the right company and the right project is crucial if you are to avoid disappointment.
Horses for Courses
Be aware that different volunteer projects appeal to different age groups and lifestyles. In Greece I was sleeping in my own tent and pitching in with cooking and cleaning as well as daytime and night-time work protecting turtles. In the Amazon I lived on a glorious converted riverboat with air-conditioned cabins, hot showers, a cook and a bar on the top deck.
Is it right for you?
Different organisations offer trips with different emphases, so you need to ensure that the one you choose meets your expectations. Some specialise in long-term gap year-style trips, whereas others cater for those on a fortnight vacation; there are trips led by scientists and others that emphasise working with local communities; some attract a young party crowd, others are more studious and thoughtful. The goals and outcomes of these different types of projects vary enormously, and so will the work. Choose a company that is going to work in the way that suits your expectations.
If it sounds too good to be true ...
Remember that websites and brochures are usually advertising vehicles that only tell half the story – the bit that organisations want you to believe. Dubious phrases that suggest more spin than substance include – saving the planet - pristine jungle - a veritable Eden - undiscovered wilderness; hyperbole like this is best regarded with suspicion.
Who profits the most?
When selecting an organisation to volunteer with it's important to identify whether they are a charity, whether they design and lead their own projects or are they simply a commercial agent with no more involvement or commitment to the project than a high street travel agent has in a hotel they book for your annual holiday. Companies with the highest profile and biggest advertising budgets are usually commercial agents.
What's the point?
I've heard plenty of stories from volunteers and disaffected project staff about pointless and contrived volunteer projects. Some of the biggest volunteer sending organisations have told me that they, 'don't know what the outcome is from their projects, it's not up to us, it's up to the field workers to assess and analyse the effectiveness of projects.' So it's true, some volunteer projects are likely to be a waste of time.
Key questions to ask before selecting a volunteer trip:
• What sort of organisation are you - where does the money go?
• What pre-departure preparation is there – can I talk to past volunteers?
• Are there names & contact details for the project or is this undisclosed until I’ve paid in full? The best organisations tell you who, what & where before you pay.
• What will living and working conditions be like in the field?
• What environmental and ethical policies do you have?
• What safety procedures are in place – how do you deal with emergencies?
• What are your success stories – what have your projects already achieved?
For an independent and impartial analysis of where you could go, what you could do, how to plan the perfect trip, read inside company audits and find out more about Peter Lynch’s conservation volunteer trips see his book - Wildlife & Conservation Volunteering (Bradt travel guides, 2012).
What else should you read before you choose your volunteer destination? Read our section "Information".
Peter Lynch is a freelance travel writer. He has been on several conservation volunteer expeditions and is the author of the first edition of Bradt's Wildlife and Conservation Volunteering.