Marathon viewings of Meerkat Manor, the Wild Thornberries, and the Lion King have left you with the burning desire to dash off to Eastern Africa and spend your days surrounded by zebras, giraffes and those goofy birds that eat bugs off the backs of rhinos. And how could you not? One look at a baby cheetah and anyone with a heart would want to give up all their earthly possessions and devote their time to snuggling them and singing them lullabies.
Hold your hyenas, though -- animals, like children, require special treatment and consideration, especially when it comes to volunteering with endangered species.
Many volunteer programs oriented toward wildlife conservation focus on smaller species that are easier to approach and generally less dangerous.
You may have dreams of volunteering in Africa with animals, waking early to walk the perimeter of a game reserve, listening to the sounds of big cats rustling in the leaves all around you -- and there are ways to make those dreams come true! -- but it’s not as simple as walking your dog around the block.
Even the question of the animal populations you’ll work with as a volunteer in Africa depends on location, program site and your qualifications -- remember, there’s far more to African wildlife than just lions! While there are loads of great volunteer programs that allow you to work with animals in Africa, there's also a lot to know before you book your ticket.
What Animals Can You Volunteer With?
Of course, the major draw for tourism on the continent as a whole, particularly in Southern African countries, is the "Big Five": lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo, and rhinos.
These animals get much of the attention when it comes to high-profile conservation centers and of course safaris, but they have that name for a reason: they’re big... and complex.
There are opportunities to work with the big five, but if you find a project working with any of them, you’re not very likely to be hands on. Instead, you'll have a more observational role, and rarely get up close and personal. It’s also good to be aware of some of the complicated ethical issues surrounding volunteer positions with them -- which we'll discuss a little later on.
Don't be discouraged though, there are more than five types of animals in Africa. Many volunteer programs oriented toward wildlife conservation focus on smaller species that are easier to approach and generally less dangerous. These can include:
- Amphibians (mostly with marine conservation)
- Kudu / impala
- Servals or caracals (two types of small cat)
While these little guys may be less photogenic than rhinos (nobody wants a new profile picture with a miniscule frog), they are no less important.
Where in Africa Can I Volunteer with Animals?
Africa is enormous and each region is hugely unique. Narrow down your search by choosing which country you'd like to volunteer with animals in.
Southern Africa (not to be confused with South Africa) perhaps has the most concentration of wildlife conservation projects in Africa, but you'll find projects working with animals throughout Africa. Some of the most popular countries for volunteering with wildlife in Africa include (in no particular order):
- South Africa
How Can I Find a Volunteer Position?
Whether you’re going to be spending your time with butterflies or buffalo, though, here are a few tips to keep in mind as you aim to fulfill your childhood dream of staging a live-action version of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.”
1. Be open-minded about what “volunteering with animals” looks like
No, you probably won’t have to clean out the lions’ bathroom corner every day, but you likely won’t be careening around in a Jeep singlehandedly saving rhinos from dastardly poachers, either. Conservation work is absolutely vital to saving endangered species, but it’s not always terribly glamorous. Sometimes, it's downright messy.
If you’re asked to help clear brush for three days straight (referred to as "habitat restoration"), try to remind yourself that there’s a reason for it, and that hauling branches around is contributing to the overall improvement of conditions for the animals there. Ideally you'll get to spend some face time with the animals as well, but remember that the work that goes into saving species goes far beyond selfies with the lemurs.
2. Search for a reputable program provider
Unless you’re already working in conservation, you're not going to be able to just waltz on to a nature preserve and ask to feed the elephants. If you want to volunteer around protected or endangered species, you need to be sure that both you and the animals are safe at all times.
Almost without exception, the best way to ensure this is to go through a reputable, established program that has a solid relationship with the site at which you’ll be volunteering. Not only does this help orient you toward organizations doing valuable work, but it also means your volunteer work will be part of a longer-term, sustainable process.
Begin by exploring Go Overseas's full, comprehensive list of volunteer program providers in Africa to find a program that best matches you and your goals.
Questions to Ask Your Provider
- Do you own your own projects? Ideally, these projects would be local initiatives.
- In what capacity do you support your projects? Projects shouldn't be relying solely on volunteers, but looking to support themselves in other ways (i.e. NGO funding, community resources, grants, etc.) as well.
- Are the staff qualified? For example, are there game rangers on site, are they qualified game rangers, or are they just hiring on ex-volunteers?
- Are they part of a larger conservation organization (like World Wildlife Fund or the parks board for that country)?
- Who is responsible for you on site? What happens if you have to go to the hospital or other emergency situations?
- How's your money being spent? Projects should be transparent about funding and not focused on the volunteer experience.
- Ask for evidence on how previous volunteers have made a difference. How have they impacted the host community?
- Just being qualified as a non-profit doesn't mean they're able to act responsibly. Sometimes having a for-profit model is more effictive in the long term (so long as they're being transparent)?
3. Make sure you choose a legitimate organization
Many animal research and conservation stations and organizations are desperately short-staffed and can always use volunteers, but some places treat their animals (and volunteers) far better than others.
If you’re going through a reputable program provider, then you’ll be placed at a reputable site, since the organization and host location typically have a well-established relationship with the host community and the environment, and depend on positive reviews to continue marketing their program.
If, however, you’re choosing to go on your own or find a host location independently, you’ll need to do a bit more of a background check before signing on to anything. See if you can find some reviews (like, here on Go Overseas) or other information online.
Speak with someone familiar with the site (like a past volunteer or NGO who works nearby) and ask to talk on Skype with some of the staff to make sure that everything is legitimate before you buy your ticket. Any legitimate organization should speak on the phone or Skype with every single volunteer.
4. Think about what else you want to contribute to the project
If you want to work strictly with lemurs, then it makes sense to look for a project in Madagascar focused on lemurs at a reserve or national park with a animal rehabilitation or wildlife study center.
Be aware that people study and train for years to acquire the skills necessary for working with large protected species, so don't complain if the closest you get to the elephants is with a pair of binoculars.
On the other hand, if you’re more interested in seeing what daily life is like for park rangers in game reserves, then direct your attention toward countries like South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania, which have large reserves that accept volunteers to help with everything from poaching patrols to documenting animal behavior, as well as offering opportunities to shadow rangers.
For some projects, wildlife conservation isn't just about keeping wildlife safe. It sometimes means educating the community, or giving them alternatives to poaching for ways to make money. If that's something you'd like to get involved with, definitely look for that! (Hint: look out for the term "community development" in project descriptions).
5. Just because it's cheaper, doesn't mean it's better
Remember, with any volunteer program, organizations who cut costs might not be the best run. If you want to be a responsible volunteer and make sure your needs (safety and otherwise) are taken care of, focus on how they answer the questions we listed above -- not how much it will cost.
How Can I Volunteer Responsibly with Animals in Africa?
Of course, you're here to help the animals, not yourself. Although you should make sure you're volunteering responsibly no matter what project you've signed up for, animals are sensitive to change. When volunteering in Africa with animals, you have to make especially certain you're volunteering with them in a way that helps, not harms.
1. Brush up on your zoology before you go
You wouldn’t walk into a boxing ring without knowing how many rounds you’re going, so why would you head halfway across the world to work with animals if you don’t even know what they eat?
Granted, any respectable host site or program will provide you with basic orientation and an introduction to the populations you’ll be seeing, but you’ll be ahead of the game if you come in with some prior knowledge about the country, region and the particular animals you may work with.
You don’t have to write a thesis about rhinos before heading out, but doing some basic research about the where, what and who of different programs and animal populations will not only help you decide where you’d like to go, but also make you a better volunteer.
2. Be aware of unethical programs and complicated conservation issues
We love that you want to volunteer with animals in Africa -- but there are some complicated issues with environmental conservation on the continent that you need to be aware of when choosing a project. Two incredibly relevant ones:
Lion cubs being bred for tourism purposes
In general, lion cubs shouldn't be included in a project. There's a growing industry related to "lion cub cuddling" and projects breeding cubs for tourism purposes (very similar to orphanages scams that borrow non-orphaned children to make money off well-meaning voluntourists.)
On these projects, tourists are made to believe that lions are being bred to repopulate diminishing populations, but in actuality, there is no shortage of lions. Instead, these lions are bred for voluntourism purposes, then later shot and their meat is used for rare meat consumption. Learn more about campaigns against canned lion hunting (as the issue is called).
As is often the case, environmental conservation doesn't exist in a vacuum. Many of the problems with diminishing wildlife populations, like the rhino, are the result of poor economic conditions -- which are hunted by poachers and sold as their main source of income.
This is a serious problem for Rhino populations in South Africa. 1,300 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone last year (mostly by poachers coming from neighboring Mozambique). Rhino horns, which are used in Asian medicines, can then be sold for a hefty amount of cash (somewhere around 60,000 USD). If this continues, the rhino population will be set for extinction in the next ten years.
As a volunteer, look for rehabilitation projects for baby rhino (whose parents were killed by poachers) or by joining an anti-poaching team or reserve management team. If you go this route, make sure you also check the safety precautions of these reserves.
3. Start with realistic expectations
Yes, cheetahs are super cool, but if you’ve never been close to a feline larger than your aunt’s overweight housecat, chances are you won’t be allowed to take on cheetah feeding duties on your first day -- or any day -- of your volunteer stint.
Wild animals, even if they’re in captivity, are delicate and complex organisms that need specialized care from experts. This doesn’t mean you won’t get to spend any time with larger animals, but be aware that people study and train for years to acquire the skills necessary for working with large protected species, so don’t complain if the closest you get to the elephants is with a pair of binoculars.
4. Make sure your organization has a long term plan
Specifically, make sure your organization has a plan to be sustainable in the long term, and to eventually not rely on volunteers. In essence, you want to make sure volunteers are working the organization out of its need for volunteers. Ideally, these conservation programs would eventually involve local community members, not foreign volunteers.
Planning Checklist for Volunteering in Africa
Logistics are the least appealing part of travel, but they’re also vital to ensure you actually make it there and back in one piece. Before you get totally distracted reading everything there is to know about leopards, put these important tasks on your checklist:
1. Make sure you have enough time
Some programs are as short as one week, but many ask for a minimum commitment of at least 10-14 days. Tack on a long flight and serious time difference, and (for Americans at least) you'll want to schedule more time for a volunteer project in Africa than you would for one in Central America. (Aussies, you know the drill.)
Also, the host project can't really benefit from a volunteer being there for only one week. Ideally, you'd be there at least a month.
2. Get your medical situation sorted out
This doesn’t just mean getting a regular check-up at the doctor. Check to see if there are any vaccinations required to travel to or from your host country, as well as if there are any specific medications or medical concerns particular to the animals with which you’ll be working. You don’t want to arrive just to find out you can’t be within 50 yards of the animals because you’ve never had chicken pox.
Whether you’ve got your heart set on frolicking with Madagascar lemurs or can’t wait to observe lizards in South Africa, there’s a way to get you closer to some of the world’s most impressive and captivating animals. Just don’t forget that you’re almost guaranteed to encounter one of the most ubiquitous and potentially deadly creatures of all: the mosquito.
Africa has the highest rates of malaria in the world, and if you weren't born and raised there, you have a much lower immunity. Get anti-malarial meds before you go to make sure you stay healthy and safe while volunteering in Africa.
3. Know your visa regulations
Generally, three-months is the normal tourist visa in South Africa. Go under a tourist visa if you're staying as a tourist. Extensions are possible, but you'll have to do that from your home country, so plan accordingly.
Other countries, you'll want to look at their visa regulations in detail or talk to your program provider before you go.
Make an Impact in a Biodiverse Region of the World
Africa's wildlife is perhaps it's worst kept secret. Some of these creatures can be found nowhere else on earth, and it has been one of the main incentives for travelers to visit Africa for centuries.
While volunteering in Africa with animals -- whether it's exploring marine life in the Seychelles or feeding giraffes in South Africa -- you're sure to see a side of Africa's wildlife that few tourists ever experience. Get out there, make an impact.Photo Credits: Vivian Bi, Kath Danaher, Jessie Beck, and Chip Beck.