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Youth For Lions Blog: Volunteering: How to support true wildlife conservationists instead of money grabbing profiteers

Written by Youth Ambassador, Oliver Riley-Smith and published with permission
© Oliver Riley-Smith

With the globe growing ever smaller through social media and modern transport, volunteering is growing ever larger. Young people around the world are becoming more passionate to travel and volunteer across the globe but unfortunately many unethical organisations are capitalising on this. Dodging the complex minefield that surrounds ethical and unethical wildlife volunteering can be a real challenge.

A common and very accessible form of experiencing wildlife conservation is through short-term voluntourism trips that require advanced payment so you can support a charity organisation of your choice, often with little or no training. Many international travel and volunteering agencies promote these kinds of short voluntourism trips abroad, often no longer than a few days to a couple of weeks, where individuals have the chance to work alongside wildlife (often at quite a high cost). Such trips are a great and entertaining introduction to environmental volunteering and are seen across the globe. However, it is important to remember that there are many wildlife organisations offering voluntourism experiences who claim to be ethical facilities, but whose passions and goals lie elsewhere.

Let’s take South Africa as an example. Many unethical captive predator facilities in South Africa that claim to be big cat sanctuaries are often nothing more than commercial ventures profiting from the animals in their care. These facilities often provide voluntourism experiences with the promise of helping lion conservation by bottle feeding and hand rearing so-called “orphaned” lion cubs (and other big cat species). The harsh reality is that the orphaning of the cubs is most of the time at the hands of the facility itself. In almost every instance these sorts of commercial facilities involve big cats kept in sub par conditions with uncertain futures and the potential for further suffering, and in some cases, death as a result of “canned” or captive trophy hunting and/or the sale of their bones for the international wildlife trade.

© Oliver Riley-Smith

Sadly, many voluntourism agencies have been known to support these unethical institutions with false claims that draw in the less experienced. Much of the volunteer work advertised by these unethical organisations involves working very closely with wildlife, often hand feeding or directly handling wild animals and birds that should be allowed to live as natural a life as possible. Interacting with captive wildlife that cannot be successfully rehabilitated, whether you are a volunteer or paying tourist, is unacceptable and in many cases dangerous.

It is important to note that there are ethical wildlife organisations that offer voluntourism opportunities to paying volunteers who want to support genuine conservation efforts, both physically and financially. The additional funds raised from these volunteers are vitally important for the day-to-day running of these organisations and cover the costs of, for example animal care (in the case of true sanctuaries) or essential tracking equipment (in the case of wild conservation projects). There are also institutions that may provide hands-on work with select species that are suitable for rehabilitation and release. Individual animals whose captive rehabilitation is necessary due to incidents such as poaching or human intervention can be rehabilitated by volunteers under the guidance of experienced veterinary and/or management staff.

Having seen the aftermath of a rhino poaching incident myself, it is clear why some species such as orphaned rhinos need constant company in the beginning to provide solace and help them deal with their immense trauma. Bird chicks, often orphaned by hunting, or equines such as zebras are also species that volunteers can safely work alongside and help to rehabilitate. These species are not known to become habituated through controlled human contact and their releases are mostly viable. On the other hand, at many big cat facilities that profiteer from the animals, the cubs people interact with were generally taken from their mothers at a very young age so they can be handled by paying tourists and volunteers. Big cats are never suitable for interaction with humans, which is just one of the many reasons why they can never be rehabilitated or released into the wild [Learn more here: Myth Busting]. It is key to understand the species you may be working with and the organisation you wish to support to avoid getting into a situation where your own safety or the animal’s welfare is put at risk.

All forms of ethical voluntourism provide an amazing experience for the volunteer, while supporting the organisation in whichever way they need. For example, short-stay voluntourism trips can focus on providing the best experience possible for the volunteer due to the shortness of their stay, with the key benefit for the organisation being the financial support which they can invest in their conservation work. Longer term volunteering is often more focused on providing additional people-power and the best services for the organisation with the key benefit being the tasks volunteers perform on the ground. This also involves a more realistic delve into wildlife conservation where you can experience the spectacular as well as the more dull activities that turn the cogs of conservation.

With the growing appeal of voluntourism to many across the globe, ensuring you are supporting those whose goal is to aid wildlife ethically and responsibly is becoming ever more problematic. Voluntourism experiences are fantastic opportunities to pursue shorter environmental adventures while also financially supporting the institutions you are visiting. It is important to bear in mind that the activities you are likely to pursue on such ventures involve the more glamorous side of conservation, with your time on the excursion being diverted from more gruelling tasks. If you do locate an ethical facility that you wish to support through volunteering, your visit, whether short or long, will no doubt be supporting the fight for nature.

If you are a prospective volunteer, and you choose to book through an agency offering such experiences, always confirm the venues you are visiting far in advance of your trip to ensure that you are not being shipped off to an unethical facility without your knowledge. The only way to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you are supporting an unethical facility is through researching the agency, the facility and the area in which you want to volunteer. Use trusted sources such as Working Abroad, Wildlife ACT and Volunteers in Africa Beware, and ask questions to uncover the welfare and ethical standards of the organisation at which you wish to volunteer. Investigating the itinerary, cost and location of the volunteering project can provide valuable insight into its legitimacy. It should be your prime concern to ask all the necessary questions and avoid such commercial, profit-driven institutions whose priority falls away from wildlife conservation and animal welfare. Keep in mind that a true sanctuary focuses on the welfare and well-being of the wildlife in their care and are often registered non-profit organisations.

© Oliver Riley-Smith

I have had the opportunity to volunteer both at home in the UK and abroad in Namibia and South Africa. In South Africa, I joined Project Rhino where I volunteered to support the delivery of hundreds of meals to communities in Zululand (KwaZulu-Natal province) to help young children through the struggles that the COVID-19 lockdown presented. By supporting communities that surround nature reserves, it dissuades them from resorting to poaching for subsistence (i.e. bushmeat) or money (i.e. rhino poaching for profit). Alongside Grant Fowlds and Kingsley Holgate I was mentored on the numerous components that make up true conservation in South Africa. I was taken through the bush of the Eastern Cape province creating bush trails on mountainsides, tracking black rhino, and learning about black rhino expansion projects. Previously Project Rhino also gave me the opportunity to attend the World Youth Wildlife Summit in the Kruger National Park, where I volunteered as a group leader to facilitate the environmental education of 250 youth from around the globe.

Both these experiences had the essential keystones of ethical volunteering in common: it directly benefited Project Rhino and their initiatives in a responsible manner. Although the experience was incredibly enlightening and entertaining for me as a volunteer, it did require hard work and a realistic mindset, and was aimed at primarily benefiting the organisation and surrounding communities.

One thing is for certain: Volunteering organisations with only profit at their core, are of no benefit to wildlife or their conservation.

I hope this article may help you make a true positive difference for lions and nature while avoiding those that wish otherwise.

© Oliver Riley-Smith