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The pitfalls of wildlife volunteering programmes and how to avoid them

Uncategorized Apr 28, 2021

by Sophie Bell

Extensive experience of volunteering and working with wildlife is usually a huge advantage in the conservation industry. Unfortunately, the costs, availability and location of these opportunities can alienate large groups of people, resulting in a biased skew of more privileged industry professionals. This is a huge shame, as conservation is improved massively by having varied opinions from different backgrounds and cultures. It also means that people with the biggest passion for wildlife, and potentially amazing talents that could achieve wonders for the industry, end up never getting into it. 

Sadly, there are also a number of volunteering programmes which take advantage of people desperate to care for wildlife. Personally, I have fallen into a tourist trap whilst volunteering abroad, which could have been avoided if I had the resources and knowledge to complete the proper research beforehand. I didn’t realise until a while afterwards that I had paid an extortionate amount of money which didn’t add up when considering the experience I received. I have communicated with multiple people over the years that have had similar encounters, some much worse than mine - like mistreating of volunteers and poor animal welfare standards. 

There are of course plenty of legitimate and impactful volunteering programmes abroad, and with lockdown measures slowly lifting, this may be something you are looking into. This blog post aims to make wildlife workers aware of any potential red flags to look out for, and how to go about researching different opportunities (something I wish I had read before choosing one myself). 

Disclaimer: I am speaking from the perspective of wanting to gain meaningful and useful wildlife experience. If you are looking for more of a tourist experience, that is completely fine as long as it is responsible and not harmful to the environment (some of the following points may not be as relevant in this case - but still worth keeping in mind in terms of what kind of establishment you are giving your money to).

FIRST OF ALL: Whenever possible, don’t pay to work

These opportunities might be a little harder to find, but they definitely exist. Some professionals I know of in the industry have never once paid to volunteer. This is especially important if you are qualified, and you are volunteering to help with something you are highly skilled in (ie. you aren’t receiving any training or benefits). 

Understandably, some reserves/sanctuaries/projects may not be able to afford to provide your accommodation and food. A good rule to go by is working out how much this costs you compared to staying at home. For example if you receive very basic, shared accommodation and meals, this shouldn’t be costing more than it does for your more luxurious life at home. 

However...

A large amount of sanctuaries and reserves (for example in South Africa) do not receive any government funding, therefore they do rely on volunteers to fund them. These places will charge slightly more in order to do this, however if you are helping them through free labour, paying for your living expenses and extra donations… you should be receiving a great experience in return. Here are a few things to look out for to make sure you will receive this!

1. Do they explain where your money will go? 

This might seem like a super simple one, but this is something I didn’t look into enough and was too presumptuous about. Sometimes as well as the money to pay towards your living costs, there may also be a donation to the reserve or sanctuary you are helping at. Be especially careful when booking through a large volunteering organisation, as I assumed automatically that my donation would go towards the animals - but if they don’t explicitly state this, unfortunately this might not be the case. If the donation explanation is very vague, see if you can enquire further - if it goes towards conservation or running costs etc, they should be happy to share this with you.

I would advise against booking through large companies and going direct instead, as they tend to be extortionately more expensive and all of your money will not be going towards your chosen cause. However if it is your first trip abroad alone, there are safety implications which I understand are put at ease when travelling with these companies (this is what I did, so I only know the price differences in hindsight). 

If there is little to no information about where your money is going, and they offer no further explanation when asked, this may be a red flag.

2. How much information is there about the work they do for conservation?

The majority of the time, a legitimate conservation programme will have a decent website, with information about what they do and how this benefits the animals. Obviously they want to attract volunteers, but take into careful consideration the amount of content catered towards that - it should be more about the conservation work they are doing, rather than the money volunteers draw in. 

If you are looking at a programme that charges thousands of pounds for a short period of time, but they don’t have much of an online presence or detailed website, this may be a red flag.

3. Do they involve the local community in their work?

Community is a huge part of conservation, as more often than not, a lack of understanding from humans is the reason a lot of animals may face extinction. In developing countries, even just having members of staff from the community is extremely helpful as it provides local jobs. It also improves understanding of conservation amongst local people, rather than alienating them from it.

If the programme you are looking into only seems to have more privileged, western people leading it, this may be a red flag.

4. Do people who have previously volunteered there recommend it?

 Usually it is fairly easy to find people that have previously volunteered, either through the programme’s social media, or searching for the location tag or facebook groups (if it is difficult to find anyone, this could be a red flag). Reaching out to people personally rather than reading - potentially biased - reviews and posts published by the programme means you are much more likely to receive honest feedback. 

Questions to ask:

  • What were the owners and the project leaders like?
  • Do you believe the animals were well cared for and not exploited in any way?
  • Did you feel that you made an impact on the animals’ lives or wellbeing? Or in conservation generally?
  • Did you feel like this was a beneficial experience for your career?
  • Did you gain any useful skills or practical experience? 

 If the owners don’t seem passionate about the animals or appreciative of the volunteers, this could be a reg flag (ie. more about money and free labour).

5. Does it seem like you will be making an impact?

This can be difficult to research, as obviously programmes can promise that you will be doing amazing work which makes a difference, and then simply not deliver the promised experience when you arrive. However, you can look closely at the specific day to day activities and tasks you will be responsible for and weigh up if you think that this will help you to gain the experience you are looking for to forward your career. 

If day to day life on the programme doesn’t seem like much hard work and your intention is to gain work experience - this could be a red flag.

6. How many volunteers do they take on at one time?

This isn’t a huge issue, but something to consider depending on the experience you are expecting and what they are advertising. You may also want to take into consideration the number of leaders there are compared to volunteers. If you are hoping to gain a lot of new skills and be taught in detail - you may not want to choose a programme that takes on 30+ volunteers at once and only has 2 or 3 leaders. Also take into account the daily activities involved compared to the number of volunteers. Weigh up if there is enough to do to fill this many people's time efficiently (and if this amount of people is necessary to keep the project running). For example, if the program takes on over 30 volunteers at once, but the daily tasks are just to clean out a few animal enclosures, you may question if they are taking on that many people out of necessity or greed. 

If this is the case, it might be that the programme is more social than impactful - which could be a red flag if you are looking for something beneficial to your career development.

7. Do they have breeding programmes or always seem to have baby animals?

If the programme claims to be an animal sanctuary, they should not have any breeding programmes in place. If animals are being rescued and rehabilitated, the intention should be to release them back into the wild one day. If it is not possible to do so, there is no reason to breed these animals in captivity (with the intention of keeping them in captivity) - especially those that are not endangered.

In terms of having baby animals constantly, this is more of an issue for animal rescue sanctuaries, but again it depends on varying factors such as the species and times of year. For example, some animals in certain areas may be more likely to be orphaned or injured as babies, therefore it could be completely legitimate for a sanctuary to have more of them. However - if they use the baby animals as a selling point, this could indicate that they are secretly breeding them in captivity, which is unnecessary and cruel. 

Research the area and the wildlife - for example in areas like South Africa, canned lion hunting is a large issue, and constantly having “rescued” lion cubs is a red flag.

8. Can you touch and interact with the animals? 

This is completely dependent on the type of volunteering you are taking part in and the context of the interactions. Some volunteering requires more hands on work with the animals, such as rehabilitation or veterinary care. Professional handling of animals may even be the experience you are looking to gain for your career. However, if you are looking into volunteering at a programme where being hands on seems out of place, or they are using this as their selling point to lure in tourists, this could be a red flag. If all of the pictures you see advertised with the animals seem out of context or unnecessary (eg. posed with the animal, rather than any action being taken like hand rearing, or giving medical care), this could be another. As well as this, if they are offering hands on experiences with older animals, they will not have intentions of releasing them into the wild, as they will be too reliant on human interaction (plus this is extremely dangerous).

Basically if the programme's main selling point is cuddling wild animals - this is a red flag. 

9. Do they have YouTubers or influencers advertising for them on a large scale? 

Pay attention to how you discover certain programmes - is it through reliable conservation related means or influencers who are unlikely to be specialists in the area? It isn’t always a bad thing if influencers are involved, however it is worth considering if their advertising seems to be a regular occurrence. 

Usually, if you are paying to volunteer somewhere, it is because they cannot afford to let you stay free of charge and need donations to stay afloat. If they can pay large scale influencers regularly for content and allow them to stay free of charge... do they really need your money to take care of the animals or is it going elsewhere? 

It is also worth looking into the type of people that represent them - are they professionals in the field or people that truly care about animal welfare? Are they responsible with their content by providing information and disclaimers when posing with wildlife, or is it all out of context? Could they be turning a blind eye to what goes on behind the scenes and just in it to get paid for promotion?

Consider the type of content you are consuming from influencers as well, assess if what they are doing seems to be genuinely adding value to the animals lives - or just comes across as a romanticised ‘trip of a lifetime’. 

10. Do they offer any teaching or structured skill gain? 

This is something to consider if you are paying a lot of money and are hoping that your experience will help to forward your career. If you are looking for useful skill enhancement through your volunteering, look out for a structured teaching programme or certifications to be achieved at the end. This is useful as it shows you exactly what skills and knowledge you will gain - and some kind of tangible proof of this is fantastic for your CV. 

If they claim to give fantastic work experience for your career but offer no teaching plan or certification, this could be a red flag. 

Don’t take these red flags at face value...

Remember that if a programme you are considering has one or all of the ‘red flags’ discussed, by no means does this write them off as a non-legitimate volunteer experience. These red flags are just something to consider when researching, but are all dependent on context and the type of experience you are looking for. These are tips I wish I had known about before booking my own experience, as when I was advised to ‘do my research’, I didn’t really know what questions to ask (even though I thought I did at the time). This information is intended to guide you towards a more impactful and genuine volunteering experience. However these red flags don’t always mean that these programmes are bad and exploiting the animals - just that perhaps they might not be offering the experience that would be most beneficial to you and the difference that you want to make. 


This is just one of the issues that humans face when working to help wildlife. Check out our #humans4wildlife Project HERE to find out how you can help us to address problems like this to help humans to help wildlife.

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