How Do I Choose A Wildlife Volunteer Abroad Program?
With so many different volunteer programs on offer these days it can be extremely difficult to narrow down on one that truly fits your expectations, vision, and experience level. When wildlife is brought into the mix the hardest part is finding a program that is legitimate and and offering an experience that is worth while your hard-earned money and hours of travel!
Never fear though! In the age of the internet there is an abundance of resources at your fingertips to help you find the right project for you where you can start making a difference!
Solo Or Group Travel?
The first big decision to make before taking a trip like this is whether you’d like to “go-it-alone” or you’d like to travel in a group. The first option may sound daunting at first but there are many benefits to being a solo traveler such as:
- Complete Freedom: This is your chance to be completely selfish in the best way possible. You can schedule your trip however best suits you and choose the project that you feel most passionate about without having to worry about the preferences of others. Travelling in a group means that you may have to do things that don’t particularly interest or excite you for the benefit of others within that group. Solo travel allows you to spend your time doing the things that YOU love and that interest YOU- maximizing your travel time and planning your itinerary to experience what interests you.
- Making New Connections: Travelling with someone you know often results in staying close to that person during the entire trip- which is a natural reaction- they are someone familiar and with whom you feel comfortable. But at times this can be a little like going to a party where you only know one person and end up only talking to them all night. Just imagine all of the incredible connections you may be missing out on- travelling solo pretty much forces you to interact with and create brand new connections with fellow volunteers and even the locals. The best part is if they are doing the same trip as you, you already have some common ground and will be experiencing everything together. You have the chance of making life long friends from across the globe- which opens you up to the possibility of more travel and more experiences!
- Step outside of your comfort zone and boost your confidence: Comfort zones are great- but they don’t encourage growth. Solo travel will undoubtedly force you out of your comfort zone- especially if this is your first time as a solo traveler. Travelling solo will present you with opportunities to push your boundaries that you may not have had before- whether it’s solving a problem without the help of friends or family or making new friends. That growth is something that will stick with you for years to come.
- Create memories that are YOUR OWN!
Factors To Consider
Before you take the plunge and deciding on a Wildlife Volunteering Program for you there are a few factors to take into account that will help you find the right fit for you. The project you choose should align with your values, meet your needs, align with your budget, and last but not certainly not least provide the best possible experience!
A great place to start would be through reviews or talking to alumni members of the program. These will be the most honest and “behind the scenes” view on the project. Hear from the people who experienced the project as a volunteer. Ask them anything you need to in order to give you peace of mind that this experience is for you! No question is too silly- chances are they had exactly the same question in their mind before they embarked on their own adventure!
For reviews a good place to start is:
Lion, Elephant and Wildlife Project Antelope Park
Lion and Wildlife Sanctuary Victoria Falls
Organizational Partners- Aligning Values
Any wildlife facility you are thinking of working/volunteering at should be easy to research on your own. Do their values align with your own? Do they support the local and surrounding communities?
There are also questions as to whether they can offer research opportunities, or internships that align with your specialty at university should you need an internship placement. This is obviously completely dependent on your needs or what you would like to get out of the program itself.
The bottom line is you need to find a project that you would be proud to have played a part in supporting!
Project Layout And Daily Experiences
Getting a full understanding of what a typical day on project looks like is an important part of deciding if a volunteer program is the right fit for you. Talking to previous volunteers who have experienced this for themselves is a great way to start or even asking the program if there is a set itinerary.
Some things you may want to take into consideration are whether you will have any hands-on care for animals? Will you be working with local vets and caregivers? Will you be cleaning and building? Planting and doing research?
This is a great way of assessing what value you will get from the project? Will the experience be educational and most importantly will you be making a difference?
The cost of a project may be one of the biggest deciding factors when choosing a program abroad. While many may associate the word “volunteering” with a free experience this is often not the case. You may be wondering why this is?
While you may be helping an organization with the daily running of their game park/ sanctuary, they too have costs of their own while taking you on. For example the staff employed to guide and facilitate your stay.
A volunteering option will still usually work out cheaper than a guest experience if you begin to take into account everything that a package includes. Try to weigh up how much extra this would cost outside of the package for example:
- Transfers to and from the airport
- Training and supervision
- Educational talks
- Laundry Services
This is a good way to measure whether you think you are getting good “bank for your buck”.
Safety And Health
It is important to keep in mind that as a wildlife volunteer you will be coming into contact with a range of different animals and while you will be with trained professionals who have years of experiences animals can be unpredictable. You may think that every interaction or encounter will be a great experience- and it probably will be! – but accidents do happen and in case of this you need to ask some hard questions in order to keep your mind assured of your safety!
- Are there support staff available to you 24/7?
- Consider language barriers- are you going to be able to communicate a problem to them clearly?
- Are there nearby hospitals and are they accessible from the project?
- How much would a trip to the hospital cost on average?
- Have there been any crimes or accidents on project before?
- If so, how were they dealt with?
- If I need to leave project before my intended date what happens?
While accidents are very rare it is important to take these questions into consideration- it is also always a good idea to make sure you have travel insurance and medical aid- just in case!
Going to a planned out volunteer program guarantees more security and support than a solo adventure. Volunteer Encounter provides 24 hour support from staff who have had years of experience with volunteers from across the world.
The Animals Should Always Come First
If you are volunteering as a wildlife volunteer you presumably are doing so because of your love for animals. While some volunteer projects may look good on a surface level take into account how they are benefiting the animals.
While you are gaining knowledge surrounding the animals you are working with, conservation, or even building your skill set as a vet or other wildlife orientated career, ensure that the effect you are having on the animals is a positive one or at least neutral.
Also take into account that built into your project fees are funds that are used to continue the upkeep of the animals and support the staff who work with them on a daily basis. If you can contribute more financially that is great!- but just by volunteering you are already supporting a cause and an organization.
While we all want “instagrammable” moments of our trip there are of course more tedious activities that are vital in the upkeep and well-being of the animals on project- such as cleaning enclosures, filling water troughs, and planting trees. However, these less glamorous parts of project are so important in helping the wildlife while working at a distance from the actual animals. It is important to find a program that balances these moments in a way most beneficial to your experience as well as to the well being of the animals.
How Do I Make A Final Decision?
With all that has been said the final decision and choice of project is entirely dependent on you and what you would like to get out of the experience. Of course, your budget, values, and accessibility to the project will be one of the greatest deciding factors.
Just always remember that you do not have to go through it alone with research readily available, past volunteers who would be happy to share their own experiences and the organization themselves who will be able to guide you into a project that is the best fit for you! Just reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dare to take the step today for an adventure of a lifetime!