How to choose a wildlife conservation vacation

First things first: itís important to note that most wildlife conservation vacations involve little hands-on contact with animals. The reason for that is quite simple Ė the aim is to keep them as wild as possible rather than fostering a dependency on humans. That said, there are some trips that do offer a degree of hands-on activity if thatís what youíre hoping for, from helping to wash baby elephants, or playing with cute baby monkeys. But just as rewarding, and arguably more impactful, are the projects where about the only contact you have with animals is seeing them off in the distance: restoring habitats such as nature corridors, or researching the depletion of coral reefs. That may not sound quite as exciting, but this type of trip is often the most effective in ensuring the future of these species in the wild.

Think of wildlife conservation trips as essentially working vacations. Youíll be joining a team of professionals and other volunteers to take part in often long-term projects aimed at protecting animals and /or their natural environment, which may well be profoundly affected by human influence. This kind of project tends to be reliant on huge amounts of volunteer manpower engaged in everything from basic research to physical labour on manual tasks. It may be hard work at times but that doesnít mean it wonít be fun: you will be in the company of likeminded people, youíll learn a great deal, and you will go to sleep every night knowing that your efforts are making a real difference.
All projects will accept that you are giving up your free time and that you want to make a valid contribution. These are often expensive trips and may take you to exotic and remote places where amenities are basic. You will likely be working quite long hours most days, too, so itís important to understand what will be expected of you before you commit. There has been enormous growth in interest for volunteering vacations over the last few years, and unfortunately that has also led to plenty of Ďbogusí projects that offer little or no tangible benefit either to the wildlife, or the volunteer. The best way to avoid booking yourself onto a value-less project is by asking questions: of the trip operator, of the organisation youíll be working with and perhaps most importantly, with people that have volunteered on this project in the past. Reading the authentic reviews on our trips is a great place to start.
The types of skills required by different projects vary, but there are three things that you absolutely need to have when booking any wildlife conservation vacation: a passion for the natural world, the enthusiasm to muck in on whatever tasks need doing at the time of your visit, and a willingness to learn.

Types of wildlife conservation vacations

Field research

There are a number of options for volunteers wanting to engage in practical field research, often involving tracking and monitoring wild animals. You may be working at the only (but very well-regarded) animal sanctuary in Malawi, setting camera traps and mapping sightings of big cats in Namibia, or helping to measure, tag and release sea turtles in Costa Rica. These projects are vital for keeping an eye on population numbers and making the case for conservation efforts.

As you will usually be joining established projects performing important work, there may well be a necessary training period before you can be sent out into the field, but experience is rarely required. For that reason, it is better to stay as long as possible on this type of wildlife conservation vacation, so that both you, and the project, get the most from the experience. Some marine conservation trips can involve scuba diving, and in most cases it will be useful if you already have at least a basic qualification to skip having to earn it at the start of your trip.

Habitat conservation

Habitat conservation vacations can be physically demanding, but this is one of the most essential and effective tasks in conservation. Even a couple of days as part of a longer trip can make a massive difference. Many species are endangered, some critically, due to the degradation of their natural habitat, which sadly is more often than not the result of human activity such as unsustainable agricultural practises (palm oil plantations and logging in Borneo have drastically reduced orangutan territory), urban sprawl, and overfishing, which has badly damaged many coral reefs. In order to ensure the continued survival of these species in the wild, and indeed protect the biodiversity which we ourselves depend on, we need to restore these natural landscapes.

On this kind of trip, the majority of your time is likely to be spent on work such as clearing or planting vegetation using provided tools. Regular breaks are included of course, but you can expect to be working quite long hours in order to get as much done as possible. You will, then, need to have a decent level of fitness, and for families, itís suitable for older kids only. Projects vary, from planting the fruiting trees that lemurs love in Madagascar, to maintaining nature trails in the rainforest of Belize. Youíll have limited or no contact with the actual wildlife itself, but you may well look up now and again to meet the curious stare of a monkey or a macaw keeping a close eye on you.

Volunteering with animals

There are also many trips where you will be volunteering with animals such as elephants, monkeys or orangutans in a sanctuary. Sanctuaries take care of animals that may have been orphaned or injured in the wild, or rescued from captivity or cruelty. Here itís important to note that sanctuaries may either aim to eventually return these animals to the wild, or provide a permanent home for animals that are too badly traumatised or injured to return. In the case of the former, itís naturally important that the animals donít become too dependent on humans and stay as Ďwildí as possible, so again your contact with them is likely to be limited.
The enormous range of species that you can volunteer with is at once bound to inspire the concerned traveler, and also a breathtaking indictment of how badly humans have neglected and degraded the animal kingdom. You might be bottle-feeding and playing with baby monkeys in South Africa, many of which will have been orphaned by the bushmeat trade; protecting nesting sea turtles from poachers keen to steal their eggs from the beaches of Costa Rica; preparing food for wolves in Portugal that have been released from captivity or saved from hunters; creating enrichment activities for bears in Romania that have been rescued from the cruel entertainment industry; cleaning out the enclosures of orangutans in Borneo that have seen their habitat drastically reduced by human activity, or caring for elephants in Thailand that have been injured and scarred by their time in the logging industry or carrying tourists around.
Our wildlife conservation guide goes into greater detail on what this type of trip entails, and how to find out if itís right for you. You can also read our guides to elephant conservation, and turtle conservation to supercharge your knowledge of what different types of trip involve.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Volunteer travel or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Community engagement

For a wildlife conservation project to be successful, itís vital that the local community is on-side and, preferably, actually involved so that conservation efforts are not frustrated or misunderstood by local people, and after the experts and the volunteers have moved on, their work can be continued. For this reason many wildlife conservation volunteer vacations will involve spending time with local people, perhaps giving simple presentations at schools to make children aware of the projectís work and why itís important, or accompanying visitors around the sanctuary you are volunteering at.

In some cases community engagement can actually make up a large part of a wildlife conservation volunteering vacation. One example is an elephant conservation trip in Namibia, where as well as tracking animals you might also be building schools in rural villages, putting up walls to protect water supplies from elephants on isolated farmsteads, and getting to know local farmers to learn about the lifestyles and how their needs must be balanced against those of the elephants in order for them to coexist without conflict.
Anne Smellie, from our supplier, Oyster Worldwide, shares her opinion on the importance of community involvement: "Community engagement is an important aspect of most wildlife conservation trips because itís essential to have the locals onside with what youíre doing. Elephants, for example, eat about 5 percent of their bodyweight per day, so a neighbouring farmer would be perfectly within his rights to be concerned about an elephant coming along and munching his way through his crops. So relationships with the local community are essential building blocks so they can understand what the project is about and why itís taking place Ė enabling it to run smoothly alongside local life."
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Frontierofficial] [Top box: Pacific Southwest Region USFWS] [Sea turtle nest: U.S Fish and Wildlife service Southeast region] [Elephant and locals: Tobias Scheck]