Many nature enthusiasts often dream about venturing off into the great outdoors to volunteer with wild animals. The experience promises the prospective volunteer an opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the most exciting creatures on the planet, whilst contributing toward their welfare and survival. As a wildlife fanatic, I too had this ambition and began to seek out such opportunities during my time in Southern Africa.
When researching organisations that offer excursions or volunteering with wild animals, I always aim to seek out the most ethical option. I strongly believe that ethicality should take precedence over price or popularity when making a decision between organisations and that it is important to ensure that your time, money and effort are not contributing toward an immoral or corrupt cause. I generally sort between the good and bad organisations by comparing their mission, goals and practices to other foundations that I know to be honourable and trustworthy.
Last summer, I decided to sign up for a wildlife volunteering program that took place in the Mapungubwe area of South Africa. I conducted all of the research that I typically would on any other organisation and felt satisfied that I had opted to go with a credible institution. Unfortunately, I was terribly mistaken.
Before revealing the tasks that volunteers participated in, I feel it is worth mentioning that the organisation I chose to go with were reluctant to inform potential volunteers that trophy hunting was permitted on the very reserve they operated on. There was absolutely no mention of it on their website nor when I spoke to the volunteer coordinator over the phone. In addition, upon arrival, we were informed that the reserve was owned by a large diamond mining company that has long been under the human rights microscope due to its history of unethical practices. In fact, the reserve lay adjacent to the largest diamond producing mine in the country.
The moment that I became aware of these flabbergasting facts, I immediately reported my discontent to the facilitators. It was only then that I was informed that the reserve had only recently fallen under new management, and that trophy hunting had only been permitted a few months prior to my arrival. It astonished me to know that the organisation were still content with taking honest animal-loving volunteers money in return for what turned out to be an extremely ironical and quite frankly, absurd program.
During the time that I spent on the reserve, I participated mainly in road clearing, cleaning the dilapidated camp and trying to track a lion that had clearly abandoned the reserve – and with good reason. I might add that when trying to locate this phantom lion, only one individual was responsible for operating the tracking equipment whilst eight to ten other volunteers were left twiddling their thumbs. I couldn’t help but feel my time, money and effort could all have been put to better use elsewhere. I remedied my disastrous situation by reducing the initial six weeks that I had intended to spend volunteering there, down to three. I had wanted to leave earlier but for the fact that the reserve was located in a very remote area and I had nowhere else to stay. Changing the dates of my outbound flights also proved to be tricky.
I realise that the predicament I found myself in last summer was an extreme case, but I still cannot help feeling that there must be other organisations offering wildlife volunteering that are hiding similar dirty little secrets.
A short while before my volunteering experience in Mapungubwe, I had spent two months living on a game reserve where I trained to become a certified FGASA field guide. The same reserve also ran a respectable conservation experience program that included activities such as erosion and bush encroachment control, eliminating alien plant species, fence repair, monitoring and recording data on wildlife, road clearing, telemetry tracking, setting camera traps, veterinary care, and game capture.
While I don’t doubt that most of these undertakings have had a positive impact toward the welfare of the reserve's inhabitants, I feel that there are some where volunteers actually become more of a hindrance than a help. For example, game capture by volunteers often results in injuries to both animals and themselves. Over enthusiastic amateurs who participate in veterinary care can sometimes compromise the wellbeing of a sick animal. In my opinion, the activities which contributed greatest toward the welfare of the animals were those that did not involve working directly with them. However, I can appreciate that it would be almost impossible to lure do-gooders from halfway across the globe without the promise of a few close encounters with wild animals. A good volunteering program will get the balance right, and this organisation had it spot on.
In conclusion, it is imperative to thoroughly research the organisation in question before embarking on an expensive volunteering program. Browsing the organisation’s website alone will not necessarily give you a clear insight into their true objectives and therefore it is a good idea to contact previous volunteers and seek out the opinions of foundations that you already trust. It is also important to ask yourself about the reasons behind your desire to volunteer. Do you want to work with animals or for animals? In my experience, the best volunteers are those who understand that wild animals are better off having as little direct contact with humans as possible. If you are not prepared to spend the vast majority of time partaking in activities such as bush clearing, then wildlife volunteering probably isn’t for you.
Those who choose to volunteer for the sole purpose of experiencing close encounters with wild animals should instead opt for an ethical safari and leave the labouring to the professionals. In many cases, a reasonable sum of your money will go toward maintaining the reserve, as it would have if you had volunteered. If you still wish to volunteer directly with animals then I urge you to do so at a local animal rescue centre, where I believe your efforts would be considerably more helpful. The most effective means of contributing toward the welfare of undomesticated animals is by signing relative petitions, joining peaceful public awareness campaigns and supporting worthy organisations such as Born Free, iWorry, and Panthera.