Have you ever dreamt of bathing an elephant, immunizing a gibbon, or assisting in dentistry on a hippo? If so, an overseas wildlife conservation program may be for you! Working with animals combines travel to some amazing destinations with the opportunity to undertake credible wildlife conservation work.
With opportunities all around the world, you can spend a day, a week, a month, or longer assisting in wildlife conversation work and animal care, all whilst experiencing a new culture and country. In many cases, you can make a real difference in wildlife research, or even help orphaned or sick animals on their road to recovery.
However, eco-tourism and wildlife conservation is also big business. A search for wildlife conservation programs worldwide may leave you overwhelmed, due to the sheer number of options available. By reading on, you can ensure that you choose a program that is reputable, ethical, and enjoyable.
With so many different locations and animals to choose from, it can be hard to pick just one program. Not so long ago, wildlife conservation programs took place in deep Africa, but now there are many options with fantastic accessibility for you to consider. This means that you can even enjoy wildlife conservation work as part of a larger trip, with a number of organizations open to shorter-term volunteers participating in conservation.
While Europe probably isn’t the first place that springs to mind when you think of wildlife conservation programs, it offers many exciting opportunities for animal and nature lovers. Have you ever considered volunteering at a bear sanctuary in Romania, or tracking wild wolves and lynx in the forests of Slovakia? Didn’t think so! If aquatic mammals are more your scene, how about volunteering in whale and dolphin conservation in Scotland?
If you’re into helping elephants and apes, Asia has tons of offerings. You can undertake short-term volunteering at The Elephant Freedom Project in Sri Lanka, or work in an animal rescue center program in Ho Chi Minh City. Volunteering in Borneo gives you the opportunity to assist with the care of both Orangutans and Sun Bears, two beautiful species that live on the island.
Africa, the home of the Big 5, offers many unique experiences for volunteering in wildlife conservation. Perhaps you’d like to help with research on carnivore tracking in Namibia, or, if you are a qualified vet, you can take part in a 12 day Vets Gone Wild experience in South Africa. If you’re looking for a slightly different African experience, how about wildlife conservation in the Seychelles, where you can learn to dive and assist with coral reef regeneration projects.
If getting up close and personal with a baby sloth sounds like your idea of a good time, how about visiting Costa Rica? While touts roam with captive sloths looking for tourists ready for a selfie, you can assist Pod Volunteer with caring for mistreated or orphaned sloths instead. A longer-term option could have you volunteering for up to 24 weeks in Peru, undertaking rainforest rehabilitation and animal tracking conservation work.
Looking for an opportunity to stick to an English-speaking country? How about volunteering in Australia? Based in Perth, you can help the local community by working with injured or sick animals with Animal Experience International. You can even volunteer at Australia Zoo, an award-winning animal park founded by the famed Steve Irwin, on Australia's Sunshine Coast. Crikey!
One of the first things you'll need to be mindful of when looking for a wildlife conservation program is identifying a program that is both responsible and ethical. This is certainly not the case for a number of programs. Animal exploitation is a real problem, and many visitors fail to do their research before going overseas. However, the good news is that there are many reputable programs that exist solely for the benefit of animals, and are not quasi-tourist haunts where mistreatment and cruelty are a problem.
Wildlife volunteering programs can run from anything from one day to one year, depending on the content, location, and the type of animal or wildlife it is supporting. It is important to note that, generally, the longer you can stay with a program, the more opportunity you will have to make a difference. While this shouldn’t automatically discount shorter volunteering opportunities, you should be careful to ensure that they are acting in the best interests of their animals, rather than profitability.
Research & Tracking Programs
These programs will require you to take part in research projects or programs, run by experienced and educated staff, aiming to learn more about a particular species of animals. In some instances, this might involve watching or tracking animals. While you will not get up close and interact directly with the animals, you will be actively contributing to their ongoing care and conservation.
For qualified vets or veterinary nurses, there are programs that cater specifically to your skills. These programs will allow you to gain experience caring for, and operating on, animals you never would dream to see in your home country!
Rescued, Orphaned & Sick Animal Care
If you love getting right into the thick of it, these programs allow you to take part in the everyday care of lots of different animals. This might include preparing feed, bandaging or assisting with medical care, weighing animals, building housing, mucking out cages or stalls, and assisting local professionals.
If you are an outdoorsy person keen on a sustainable future, rehabilitation programs offer the opportunity to either reintroduce animals to the wild, or to recreate habitats to allow their eventual release. This work is extremely meaningful, and can help stem the tide of poaching and deforestation.
It's normal to feel a bit confused when planning for your trip overseas. Maybe you've never gone overseas before, or you're not quite sure whether you need vaccinations for your trip. Don't panic -- once you decide on the actual program you want to take, along with its location, planning will get a lot easier!
How to Choose a Wildlife Conservation Program
Choosing the type of wildlife you would like to work with, and your preferred destination, is a big part of choosing a program. You’ll also need to consider your comfort levels –- are you happy living in a shack with no electricity for two months, or would you prefer something a little more modern? Many opportunities for wildlife conservation offer quite basic facilities.
If you are looking for more ideas on the types of animals you can work with, read through this helpful Go Overseas article about wildlife volunteer programs around the world.
Health & Safety
Many countries with wildlife conservation programs will require you to obtain vaccinations. While these vary by country, you should (at a minimum) have your Hepatitis A and B, Cholera, Measles, Mumps and Rubella, Tetanus, and Polio vaccinations up to date. Some countries will require a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate, and specific animal work might require a Rabies vaccine. Anti-malarials are recommended in many jungle and rainforest areas. You must also ensure that you have adequate health insurance to cover the period of your visit.
Other Need to Know
Have you ever really thought about the job that a zookeeper or zoo assistant does? While the work is infinitely rewarding, it's not always the most glamorous. Volunteering in a wildlife conservation program could involve helping out with animal surgery, helping to clear paths in the forest, or mucking out stalls or pens where animals live. You might find the work monotonous at times, and it’s best to go into the experience realizing that you might only have limited animal interaction -- in most cases, the animals are wild, after all!
Many programs can assist you with obtaining a relevant visa for your period of volunteering, and it is sensible to ask early on in the process which visa is required.
Downsides of Volunteering with Wildlife
As mentioned earlier, there are many wildlife conservation programs that are less than reputable, so you need to weigh the ethical benefits of taking part in each wildlife conservation program you consider. Eco-tourism tends to attract large numbers of people, which, while causing a boon for the local population in terms of development, often means that the care of wildlife actually becomes a secondary concern.
In communities where locals have lived in relatively peaceful cooperation with nature, an influx of visitors can often mean the introduction of new rules, some of which can curtail their subsistence lifestyle. It’s also important to note that, particularly if you volunteer for a short period of time, it’s can be hard to understand just how much good an organization is doing. Good intentions might not always result in adequate care levels for wildlife, or even basic necessities for medical aid.