If you’ve always had a secret wish to be an African game ranger roaming the savanna to protect spectacular creatures, but don’t want to sell everything and disappear over a Wi-Fi-less horizon forever to make it come true, you’re in luck. An increasing number of wildlife voluntourism programs in Africa allow you to work in wilderness reserves for a few weeks or months to give you a taste of the adventure.
These programs, which are situated in both public and private reserves, are especially popular among young people considering a career in conservation. But buyer beware: not all of them operate ethically. The growing popularity of volunteer vacations has drawn chancers and profiteers into the field, sometimes crowding out legitimate outfits.
According to Jane Edge, managing director of Fair Trade Tourism, an industry certification body, “It’s often difficult to determine whether a wildlife voluntourism program is ethical or delivers real conservation value, but quality programs do exist if you look for them.” Her organization has recently developed best-practice criteria for voluntourism programs and already certified a few, including International Marine Volunteers and Shamwari Conservation Experience in South Africa.
Simon Morgan of Wildlife ACT, a South African company that is undergoing Fair Trade Tourism certification, encourages would-be voluntourists to research their options thoroughly. “When people hear the word ‘wildlife’ they often assume that something’s helping conservation, but not all wildlife voluntourism projects are conservation projects,” says Morgan. He warns that some programs research arcane academic questions and deliver little practical conservation benefit, or push Africans out of jobs by using voluntourists to do manual labor like cleaning or road maintenance.
Wildlife ACT, he says, aims to generate value by using voluntourists’ money and labor to support and expand legitimate conservation projects, create jobs for Africans, and give their clients eye-opening experiences and new skills. His firm partners with reserves and nonprofits to survey wildlife according to scientific protocols—for example, by radio-tracking endangered African wild dogs and training volunteers to collect data that helps reserve managers to conserve threatened species.
With this in mind, here are a few questions to ask before you sign up for a wilderness-based voluntourism project:
1. Is the project endorsed by reputable conservation organizations or academic institutions, and does it have a track record of real research or conservation work? Generally speaking, programs that require you to do basic manual work instead of using and expanding your skills are depriving Africans of jobs and may not be doing serious conservation work. Ask to see project reports and academic papers about previous research and make sure they’ve run in reputable publications, says Johan Maree of Wildlife ACT. You can confirm that the nonprofit you’re interested in is properly registered, and vet it with respected conservation organizations. Another option is to pick a project that works on public land to avoid being duped into doing meaningless work to boost a private landowner’s bank account.
2. Will I be working with an experienced local mentor? Some projects use inexperienced unpaid foreign volunteers to mentor other inexperienced unpaid foreign volunteers; this is a sign of a low-grade, purely profit-driven program, says Wildlife ACT’s Maree.
3. Will I have time to engage with my mentor or project leader? Maree says that you should not have more than about five volunteers per mentor if you want a quality experience.
4. Will I be safe? Wandering around in Big Five country can be hazardous to your health if a pro isn’t looking after you. Unwary volunteers have been stomped on and snacked on by large beasts. Dangerous humans in the form of poachers and criminals can be found in the bush, too. Malaria, HIV, venomous snakes, and even the searing African sun can kill you. If a project isn’t clear about risks and can’t provide quality medical care–which in Africa usually means private medical care with airborne emergency evacuation options–go somewhere else.
If you have a hunger for big critters, bigger horizons and the most intense sunsets you’ve ever seen, you’re probably made for a wilderness volunteer vacation in Africa.