Responsible wildlife conservation vacations

The emphasis on responsible wildlife conservation falls wholly on research – sadly, there exists today a huge drive from particularly heartless humans to favour profit over protection where our wonderful wildlife is concerned and many bogus ‘volunteering’ trips exist aimed at abusing your trust and cashing in on the vulnerability of animals. On the flipside, fortunately there are also a plethora of hugely rewarding and enjoyable volunteering vacations with placements as varied as the animals they serve and the incredible destinations they are based in. It’s essential that the wildlife in question must take precedence over wanderlust for volunteers to avoid getting lured in by false claims, so recognise what it is about a wildlife conservation effort that really floats your boat before you choose where to go. Then do three things: research, read reviews and ask questions. Any organisation worth it’s sustainable salt will welcome both your curiosity and your keenness, slotting you and your expectation into the right area of wildlife welfare.

People & culture

Getting the locals on board

Much wildlife conservation work used to focus solely on looking after the wildlife with little thought to the role that the local community played, both in terms of behaviours that may be damaging the wildlife and its precious habitat, and how they could be better included and educated to prevent further damage. Understandably, this led to travelers questioning what the point was in spending their hard earned cash to join a project and help protect wildlife if the local population were not working towards or understanding that aim too.

Fortunately, it’s fair to say that that tide has well and truly turned, and there is today a massively significant relationship between the local community and the conservationists, so much so that one of the markers of a conservation project’s success now is how well it works within the local community. Thanks to conservation projects reaching out to local schools, using the skills and services available to them locally, and welcoming any involvement from locals by providing relevant jobs and training, there is a far greater awareness among local communities of what conservation projects are doing and why, and this is forging a very successful collaboration as well as helping to bring home the message that there won’t be a sustainable tourism future if what the tourists are coming for isn’t looked after.
What can you do?
Conservation work is what’s required of you on a trip, and it’s unlikely to be mandatory that you engage with the local community, but doing so will add so much more to your experience – if you don’t feel comfortable teaching English to school kids, set up a game of rounders on the beach, or organise an informal question and answer session on the animals that you’ve been working with; any interaction that educates locals about the importance of wildlife conservation and educates you about their lives and attitudes will be enriching for both parties. Some wildlife conservation projects work in very remote locations and it can be almost impossible to interact with the locals daily; if this the case, organise a local guide to show you what life is like in the nearest village or two during your downtime and in turn it’s likely you’ll be asked to share stories of what you’re doing there too.
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 it’s essential to have the locals onside with what you’re 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 it’s taking place – enabling it to run smoothly alongside local life."

Beware of the bogus bandwagon

What is sadly on the up is the presence of companies offering trips dressed up as wildlife conservation, but that are actually in existence to benefit he organisers financially, or, worse still, to involve unsuspecting volunteers in very cruel hunting practices (see below).

The key here is to research really thoroughly and ask lots of questions: whom are the organisers supported by? Are they supported by well-known organisations such as WWF? Who are their partners? Are their partners well established and trusted in the conservation sector?

It’s important to establish how many people will be joining you on a project too – if you are monitoring from the back of a 4x4 vehicle and there are 10 people on the vehicle, it’s hard not to question why – why do you need 10 people and what are they all doing? Large group trips are likely to be a safari dressed up as conservation – our supplier Wildlife ACT, for example, has no more than five people on their vehicles because everybody then has a specific role and if someone needs a little bit more help learning how to take down data and input it, the ranger is on hand to offer one on one support.

The word ‘research’ should also be considered – because research can take on so many different forms and in such depth, the term can be used as a bit of a red herring. You can do research on a lot of things, but it’s important to be aware what the outcome is of the data that you collect. What is it used for and does it have a constructive purpose? If it’s not put into a paper that is ultimately used effectively then what is the use? If it’s just data collection for the sake of it there is little or no point in collecting it.

What can you do?
Research, research and research again. If you can’t find the answer to your question then ask the tour operator you are booking with, that is what they are there for and any responsible company with honest aims will welcome your curiosity. Asking questions about the process from start to finish is the only way to determine if it’s an admirable conservation project that you’re getting involved in and any legitimate organisation will be able to out you in touch with past volunteers so you can chat with them about their past experiences.
Johan Maree, from our supplier, Wildlife ACT, shares his opinion on bogus volunteer trips: “There are so many wildlife conservation trips out there, but they vary so much in their experience and in how much they actually contribute to wildlife conservation. Unfortunately, I would put a figure of 90% on the wildlife volunteering projects that actually do not have an impact on conservation. They are conservation experiences dressed up as conservation. Panthera is the largest big cat conservation organisation and it works across the globe; they have looked into how much volunteer research actually translates into important research papers and it’s not even 1 percent, which really showcases the lack of efficiency that a lot of wildlife volunteer projects have. The work that we conduct has specific management applications; the monitoring that we do and the data that we collect is handed over to the reserve managers and without that data they wouldn’t have the means to make effective decisions about which endangered species to focus on and what aspects of their behaviour need focus.”

Wildlife & environment

Hunting’s darkest side

A horrific abuse of a volunteer’s trust and a particularly nasty hunting practice, ‘canned hunting’ is a very prevalent problem in South Africa - though as of 2021 it looks as if it will be banned. Effectively, organisers take lions and tigers and breed them, and then advertise for volunteers in to look after the baby cubs – bottle feeding them, hugging them, walking them and playing with them as if they were kittens – so they become habituated. The volunteer thinks they are doing a worthy job looking after vulnerable big cats, but actually those cats are going to be sold on to a canned hunting farm, which is a tourist facility where rich westerners can come in, shoot themselves a lion, and keep the pelt and a distasteful picture as a souvenir of their abject manliness. Because the lions have been habituated by unsuspecting volunteers don’t have the inherent fear that a wild lion would have of an apparent hunter, so they’re easy pickings. It’s just an expensive, distasteful and disgusting way to guarantee a dead lion.

What can you do?
Of course, there are some breeding places in Africa where lions are released into the wild and everything is hunky dory, but always remember that these projects are not very hands on – the big question marks should always linger over those volunteer vacations that offer you the promise of walking, playing with and hugging baby lions. Proper wildlife conservation trips are difficult to come across and this is for very good reasons – always ask a lot of questions.
Effectively, organisers take lions and tigers and breed them, and then advertise for volunteers to look after the baby cubs - bottle feeding them, hugging them, walking them and playing with them as if they were kittens - so they become habituated.
Anne Smellie, from our supplier, Oyster Worldwide, shares her opinion on canned hunting:
"This is a really controversial topic and sadly, I speak to a lot of people who have unwittingly gone on a project to work with lions and then upon arrival realised that the trip is not at all as it seems. Even worse, a lot of people will arrive and not find out that the project is corrupt. It simply exists as part of the culture of wanting to make money out of animals and, the most upsetting thing is that it’s completely legal in Africa. Be sure to only ever book a trip involving big cats – or any animals for that matter – with a reputable company who cares about your experience and, most importantly, about the welfare of the animals involved."

What’s wrong with riding elephants?

Across Southeast Asia there are a profusion of sanctuaries, rescue centers, rehabilitation centers and refuges which profess to care deeply for, and provide a peaceful carefree environment for elephants to simply be elephants. While in some cases this is undoubtedly true, in many cases these establishments have a much more sinister raison d’être; profit.

In 2014 we decided to stop promoting any vacations that include elephant riding in their itineraries and any volunteering opportunities in wildlife sanctuaries that permit their elephants to be ridden or to perform in shows for tourists’ entertainment.

Unlike horses or camels – where selective breeding has produced domesticated animals, there are no domestic breeds of elephant. All elephants, whether captured from the wild (which in Southeast Asia many are) or bred in captivity, are born with all their wild – and naturally intelligent, empathetic and sociable – instincts intact. In order to comply with their human handlers’ commands elephants must be subjected to a cruel training programme known as ‘the crush’. Babies are separated from their mothers at a young age, kept confined in small cages then starved, abused and essentially beaten into submission. Fear drives them to obedience – something that is reinforced as they are later trained to perform tricks or to accept human riders on their backs or necks.

Sanctuaries which force their ‘rescued’ elephants to perform or give rides are reinforcing this cruelty with little care for the animals’ welfare. What’s more, the tourist demand for elephant encounters is driving more poaching of wild elephants to supply camps and sanctuaries. Asian elephants are endangered across their range – with less than 45,000 Asian elephants remaining in their natural environment, scattered across 13 countries in ever decreasing patches of land. If you care about elephant conservation you wouldn’t buy ivory – so don’t support sanctuaries and camps that offer elephant riding, which could ultimately be just as destructive to the species.

Read more in our elephant conservation travel guide
Find out which sanctuaries we support, and which we don’t.

Animals: cute, NOT cuddly

Though there can be limited hands-on volunteer work with animals, it’s a tricky area and projects should never be hands-on just for the sake of offering volunteers an ‘experience’. Responsible operators choose projects that are already proven to be doing great work in conservation that can be supported and advanced by the presence of volunteers as opposed to somewhere that offers a ‘cute and cuddly’ experience and is attracting volunteers for that reason alone – if you’ve chosen the right project in the first place and are helping to achieve something really worthwhile then the good experiences are an offset of that.

Elephant care placements working with elephants that have been rescued from the logging industry, or the dark side of the tourist trade are by definition a more ‘hands-on’ role, as is working with orphaned monkeys. Volunteers may get to do some hands-on work such as feeding the animals, but there will always be wildlife that may feel threatened by humans and doesn’t enjoy that interaction, so nothing hands-on will be encouraged with them. It’s important to recognise and respect that human contact simply may not be in their best interests.

Disease transmission to primates is another reason why hands-on volunteering isn’t encouraged, as it’s very easy to pass on diseases in both directions. There is also a good possibility of release for a lot of the animals that are successfully rehabilitated, so the last thing you want is them getting used to human contact and becoming conditioned to an environment that is unnatural.

What can you do?
It’s important to remember that helping rehabilitated wildlife is really sticking a plaster over a wound. Ideally, there would be no need for these centers in the first place. Look for initiatives that work with communities – on reforestation projects, or in community tourism which allows them to make money from the forest in its natural state, thus reducing the incentives for logging and poaching, and empowering them to stand up to big businesses. Planting fruit trees on the edge of a national park may sound less glamorous and exotic than snuggling a baby orangutan – but it's far, far more helpful in the long term.
Anne Smellie, from our supplier, Oyster Worldwide, shares her opinion on hands on wildlife conservation: "Hands-on work with animals is very limited and is done in a very clever way – if a very young monkey is brought into a rehabilitation center, then one volunteer will work with the monkey for a solid 24-hour period and then the monkey will go to a different volunteer, so no attachment to one particular person is formed. In that way the monkey is very used to being around different people and has a sense of independence. Six months to a year later can be put into a large enclosure where there is no interaction at all and where it can learn how to be a monkey, with other monkeys before release back into the wild."

Responsible tourism tips

Find a responsible tour operator for your trip. A good starting point is conservation rather than tourism when doing your research. Responsible Travel has spent a lot of time screening all the tour providers listed on our site, and has transparent responsible travel policies. We also publish unedited, warts-and-all reviews of our guests' experiences - which frequently include conservation issues. Question marks often linger over the subject of where the money you pay for your trip is being spent and it’s important to realise that wildlife conservation is extremely expensive, from the enormous amount of food that elephants chomp through (5% of their body weight per day!) to the funding that scientists need to carry out their research. You’re donating your time, but the money you pay to do so is essential to the future success of projects. When it comes to volunteering with elephants, we would recommend avoiding sanctuaries that offer the opportunity to bathe elephants, especially in rivers or ponds. Having members of the public close to elephants is not safe unless the animals are kept under strict control, which can involve the threat of violence. Sanctuaries should be just that - places where rescued animals can behave naturally, safe from abuse and exploitation. Remember: just as we are encountering the wildlife in its natural environment, so it is encountering us. We are in its territory, and some highly intelligent wildlife will be studying us at the same time. It's a two way process, with a lot of fascinating interaction going on - this is what often brings people to tears when they come eye to eye with an elephant. It is intense. A good quality and responsible wildlife conservation trip will have an expert team of researchers and guides leading the way and the focus of the trip should be on education rather than sensation. A responsible company will have details of the professionals involved with their trips on their website, their experience and qualifications. It will also have a responsible wildlife conservation policy of some sort, with all of the advice being adhered to. An environmentally aware conservationist will give a detailed talk before the trip as well as during and will prepare you for the next day’s duties the night before. They should create a vivid understanding of the truly wild nature of the creatures you are hoping to see, and have a good knowledge of species and their respective behavioural patterns. It is important to have realistic expectations when it comes to seeing any wildlife in its natural environment. It is not always possible to have a great encounter and they are not there to perform, but doing what comes naturally to them and it is vital that we respect that.
Beware of irresponsible hatcheries if you're working with turtles. While many are a necessary, effective way to protect eggs and ensure increased numbers of hatchlings reach the ocean, some are poorly-run, or exist only to attract tourists. Hatcheries which use tanks to house the newly-hatched tiny turtles are to be avoided in particular. Read more about why we don't support turtle tanks here. Never feed any wildlife a conservation vacation is about protecting their world and wellbeing, not polluting it. Never approach any wildlife without permission and/or guidance. The clue is on the name – animals are wild and every effort should be made to ensure they stay that way. Leave no trace: be extra mindful of removing all of your rubbish, empty bottles or food containers from the beaches at night. Even if you’re going to spend most of your time working, it’s really important to respect the traditions and culture of the local people in the country that your visiting – make an effort to integrate with the locals and respect their way of life at all times.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: Frontierofficial] [Getting the locals onboard: Pacific Southwest Region] [cuddling lion cub: Frontierofficial] [Turtle hatchery: Ankur P]