Questions to ask when volunteering with animals

By Lindsey Chynoweth 1 week ago

The United Nations (UN) recently revealed that 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, with that number estimated to rise to 68% by 2050. With more of us inhabiting towns and cities than ever before, the urge to reconnect with nature is undeniable.

While urbanization continues to skyrocket, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a Living Planet Report this week that shows wildlife populations have plummeted by 60% since 1970.

In the last 30 years, half of the Earth’s shallow coral reefs have been lost. A fifth of the Amazon rainforest has disappeared in the past 50 years. Conservation projects are now more critical than ever to preserve the current biodiversity of species.

Whether you want to help rehabilitate elephants from tourist camps, collect data for marine conservation or aid research efforts for the endangered jaguar, the most important decision is choosing an ethical provider to work with.

 

volunteering with animals

GVI participants help to record data while on an elephant hike in the mountainous province of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

1) How can I make a positive impact when I volunteer abroad with animals?

As volunteers, we must travel responsibly and be informed about “wildlife experiences”, and the true impact on the animals involved.

To volunteer for a meaningful cause, choose an operator that considers animal welfare, and not profit, to be paramount.

With GVI, you can contribute to animal care or wildlife conservation by giving of your time, providing financial support and by raising awareness of important conservation issues.

2) What does an ethical provider look like?

sustainable tourism

GVI participants help with the process of dehorning a black rhino in the Karongwe Private Game Reserve in Limpopo, South Africa. The process occurs every two years to ensure these endangered animals are not poached for their horns.

 

A non-governmental organization (NGO) or social enterprise should prioritize conservation above all else. The volunteer programs should:

  • focus on sustainable long-term conservation goals
  • measure their impact
  • host educational programs alongside their conservation work to empower local communities to take charge of preservation efforts
  • partner with local communities to protect species and their natural habitat
  • build environmental awareness, while respecting local customs and practices
  • collaborate with reputable and trusted organizations to ensure long-term impact.

GVI is a social enterprise and we are transparent about how program fees support our conservation and community development projects.

We work alongside global partners, including government bodies, community organizations and NGOs, to deliver award-winning programs in responsible travel and sustainable development.

3) Can I trust website reviews of volunteering with animal programs?

volunteering with animals

Participants on Curieuse Island in the Seychelles catch and release lemon shark pups in order to collect conservation data on this understudied species.

 

Not necessarily. Generally speaking, an operator that delivers responsible travel will have social media platforms where volunteers can freely share their experiences. If there is only a glossy website with selected reviews, and no other online presence, you should be skeptical.

Third party review websites (such as TripAdvisor) can be helpful, but you should dig deeper than the star rating. Read the reviews to suss out if the programs are truly animal-friendly.

Besides, ratings can be deceiving. A collaborative report by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and World Animal Protection showed that 80% of visitors left positive reviews for attractions that had poor animal welfare standards.

4) How can I avoid an unsustainable provider?

save the sea turtles

A leatherback turtle hatchling makes its way safely to the ocean in Jalova, Costa Rica. GVI participants monitor the nesting sites of both the green and hawksbill sea turtles to help safeguard the species.

 

It can be tricky to determine what is a ‘con-conservation’ project or a ‘pseudo-sanctuary’, but look out for:

  • breeding programs that further limit resources needed to care for existing animals
  • programs with unlimited access to the animals
  • opportunities to feed wild animals that are able to hunt or forage for themselves
  • activities with close proximity to wild animals, including touching, bathing or riding
  • poor housing that does not replicate the animal’s natural habitat
  • photo opportunities that use the animals as ‘props’
  • animals performing unnatural or humanized stunts, such as dancing or painting

5) What level of interaction with the animal should I expect while volunteering?

volunteer holidays with animals

Participants on Curieuse island measure the shell of a nesting hawksbill turtle, as part of ongoing efforts to build up the base of scientific knowledge on the health of the island’s ecosystem.

 

You can expect to get close to the animals at times, but remember that you are there to observe and monitor, not handle. Unnecessary touching can cause behavioral problems or stress, and damage conservation or rehabilitation efforts.

In some volunteer projects, there may be minimal handling, which is required to perform health checks or to conduct surveys for conservation efforts.

For example, interns participating in the conservation of the endangered loggerhead sea turtle in Greece tag individual turtles in order to collect data. In this case, handling is essential in order to measure the impact of conservation efforts, and safeguard the animals’ future. Monitoring nesting sites also helps protect the species by preventing illegal poaching.

If you want to make a difference and volunteer abroad with animals, contact GVI to find out how to get involved.