Wildlife is not all about fluffy mammals. Marine conservation is on the rise – and with the chance to spend weeks living on a remote beach, nights patrolling for sea turtles, or hours underwater monitoring corals, these are some of the most diverse and worthwhile placements. Can’t dive? Many trips offer PADI certification as part of your placement.
Vacation time is precious, and committing to two weeks of hard labour might be a bit much. But that’s where a taste of volunteering comes in. A day or two of your vacation can be spent on conservation activities or caring for rescued animals – or spend a week of a longer trip helping at a nursery or collecting data for marine research. You’ll learn about your surroundings – and decide if you fancy coming back for longer next time.
This is an essential yet strangely overlooked aspect of having a successful volunteer trip. You wouldn’t take over a classroom back home, so why volunteer as a teacher overseas? Using your skills – in healthcare, education, biology – or manual labour will mean you can actually achieve something worthwhile during your stay – which is better for those you’re helping, and will make you feel much happier, too.
The benefits of volunteering as a family are vast. As well as spending quality time together without an iPhone in sight, your children will gain an extraordinary education from being immersed in a way of life entirely different to their own. They’ll get hands on experience of conservation – and learn firsthand about the threats facing our environment. And they’ll learn the value and pleasure of working – hard! – for a worthwhile cause.
Teaching abroad takes many forms – from helping students practise their English, to teaching subjects that match your own skills, from science and art to music and conservation awareness. If you’re not a qualified teacher, you can work as a classroom assistant or help out with homework – or run sports coaching sessions or art workshops for kids. It’s the enthusiasm that counts!
Looking after animals in sanctuaries is all very well, but this is really just putting a sticking plaster on a wound. To reduce the need for sanctuaries, habitat conservation is essential – and the best thing is that these placements usually require few high-level skills. Fitness and a willingness to muck in are essential – as you’ll be planting trees, maintaining trails and fences or even monitoring the underwater world with diving expeditions.
It is said that seeing a huge turtle haul herself across the sand by moonlight to lay her eggs is one of nature’s most moving sights. Many sea turtle species are endangered – so the beach patrols, nest protection, hatchling releases and awareness sessions you can do as a turtle conservation volunteer are all vital to their survival. Plus, you’ll be living on some seriously gorgeous beaches.
The world’s largest land mammal has had a bit of a rough deal. Used in wars, logging and entertainment, as these have fallen out of favour, many elephants are now rescued or retired in sanctuaries across SE Asia. With huge appetites and in need of daily baths, exercise and clean enclosures, there is plenty of worthwhile work for volunteers, who can get up close to these gentle giants.
Though this may sound like one of the most worthwhile placements, it is actually often the most harmful. A boom in volunteers – and the fees they pay – has made orphans something of a commodity, and there has been a sharp increase in the number of orphanages, many nothing of the sort. Plus, a revolving door of well-meaning volunteers means the vulnerable children are abandoned again, and again, and again…
A photo of yourself feeding a baby lion will wow friends back home – until you realise what might happen to the cub once your safari is over. Habituated big cats can never be released into the wild, and when the cub gets too big to be safely handled it’s not cost effective to keep. To put it bluntly – there’s a good chance it’ll end up on a private hunting reserve.
Many so-called elephant sanctuaries are actually glorified circuses, where elephants paint, perform and carry tourists on their backs. Any sanctuary that promotes elephant rides does not have the animals’ best interests in mind; they will have been badly abused to persuade them to carry tourists. The placements available through Responsible Travel have all been screened for their commitment to animal welfare.
With the exception of longer term or highly skilled placements, volunteering should never be all about your CV. Roles can be challenging, satisfying, enjoyable – but the key question is not 'what will it do for me?' – but 'what will it do for others?' Projects must exist for communities, not volunteers; any valuable skills you gain will be a bonus – not the focus.