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Want to make a positive impact on your next trip? Read on and learn how to vet voluntourism programs in Africa (and how to spot the fakes).

Let’s face it: Africa has the best big wildlife, and you want to get close to it on your next vacation.

How? Well, you could pony up for a luxury safari and be driven right up to a lion munching on a freshly-felled wildebeest, which is cool, but being led around by a guide in a tourist-packed vehicle can seem not just passive, but positively passé. Perhaps you’d prefer to provide hands-on help to animals, like your friend who recently bottle-fed orphaned baby rhinos at a secret sanctuary deep in the bush.

You’re not alone in craving this type of intimate interaction. Wildlife volunteer tourism ventures have mushroomed across Africa as increasing numbers of travelers seek out more meaningful engagement with the continent’s creatures.

Hundreds of organizations now offer the public the chance to work directly with wild animals in exchange for a fee, but before you book your beast-benefiting voluntourism vacation, be warned: Few such outfits genuinely benefit wildlife. Many make no contribution to conservation and some are harmful scams.

With that in mind, here’s the low-down on volunteering with a reputable African wildlife organization so you can make the most of your good intentions and precious vacation days.

VulPro, a vulture conservation project near Johannesburg, South Africa
First, decide whether you want to volunteer at a sanctuary-type facility with captive animals or out in a natural area with free-roaming wildlife. These are quite different experiences: Captive animal programs usually allow more time in close proximity to wildlife. Wilderness-based programs require you to be comfortable in the great outdoors, dealing with heat, dust, and the occasional dangerous critter; if that’s your type of thing, check out our story here.

If you want to work with animals in captivity, note that there are different types of facilities: Wildlife sanctuaries house animals that can’t be released. Although sanctuaries arguably have animal welfare and educational value, they are not conservation projects because their animals remain captive and don’t contribute to wild populations. Wildlife orphanages are just that—they raise orphaned animals. Ethical orphanages prepare their charges to go back into the wild, and this can be highly specialized work. Wildlife rehabilitation centers, on the other hand, care for injured wild animals of all ages with the aim of rehabilitating them for release. These are not strict definitions and some facilities perform overlapping roles.

Unfortunately, a large number of places that call themselves sanctuaries or wildlife rehabilitation centers are not. Experts warn that facilities working with high-value animals like big cats, rhinos, or elephants are more often involved in unethical practices than facilities working with smaller, less “valuable” species; you should be especially cautious before volunteering with these.

A classic African wildlife voluntourism scam plays out in “lion sanctuaries,” many of which are in South Africa. Paying volunteers are told that they’ll be helping to hand-raise orphaned lion cubs for conservation. “Volunteers are seldom told the truth about where the so-called orphaned cubs come from and where the older lions go,” explains Pippa Hankinson, a producer on Blood Lions (a must-see documentary for anyone interested in voluntourism or conservation).

The truth is that these are not sanctuaries; the lions are not released into the wild but are instead sold for trophy hunters to shoot in “canned” hunts, slaughtered and boiled down so their bones can be sold for traditional medicine in Asia, or put back into breeding cages to make more cubs. Using captive-bred lions to increase wild populations “is a bad idea,” says Guy Balme of big cat conservation charity Panthera. Not only are captive-bred lions often genetically compromised, but they’ve also lost their fear of humans and haven’t learned to hunt efficiently. “I’m not aware of any captive-bred lions that have made it successfully in the wild,” he says.

“Voluntourists should do their own research and ask lots of questions before committing to a program,” says Jane Edge, managing director of Fair Trade Tourism, an industry certification body.
Rhinos in Botswana
It’s a minefield out there for the ethical wildlife volunteer, but here are eight questions to help you find a reputable program.

1. A good idea is to check if a facility is legally registered, says Edge. Does it have a registration number? Is it open about finances? Some organizations have slick websites that make them look legit, but they’re actually profit-oriented businesses where animals’ needs come second to income.

2. Does it breed animals? If the answer is yes, dig deeper. Strict sanctuaries don’t allow their animals to reproduce; if a so-called sanctuary breeds animals, it’s often for profit. “Sanctuaries” that breed lions are a particular no-no, as outlined above. There are a few exceptions to the breeding rule, like the VulPro vulture conservation project near Johannesburg, which encourages injured birds that can’t survive in the wild to breed in sanctuary cages. VulPro releases their offspring, thus boosting wild populations.

3. Does the facility sell animals? If it does, this is a major red flag. Legitimate nonprofit captive animal centers generally do not sell their animals. They are housed at the facility for life if they cannot be released, are released into the wild if they can be, or are exchanged with other reputable institutions involved in scientifically managed conservation breeding programs.

4. Does it allow public animal interaction? If so, this is another cause for concern. Most experts consider direct public interaction with animals—such as posing for photos with them—generally harmful to wildlife because it can stress animals and habituate them to people. According to Karen Trendler, one of Africa’s most experienced wildlife rehabilitators, ethical captive centers always put the needs of animals before the wishes of the paying public and volunteers. Animals that are being prepared for release into the wild should only have the minimum necessary contact with people.

5. Where do animals come from and end up? Captive animal facilities should have solid records of the sources and ultimate destinations of their animals; otherwise they might be housing healthy animals that were captured from the wild and are thus merely zoos or trading facilities by another name. If a facility is vague about this information, it may be trafficking animals. Walk away.

6. How rigorous is the volunteer recruiting process? Trendler warns against “pay to play” facilities that take all applicants without screening for skills or commitment levels or that promise volunteers lots of close contact with animals. Unethical facilities often put volunteers to work without undergoing training and take lots of short-term help. Longer periods are better for the animals’ welfare, Trendler says. “Ask for a written copy of volunteer terms and conditions, as this will indicate whether animals’ needs come first.”

7. What does it cost? According to Trendler, facilities that charge reasonable or no volunteer fees tend to be more ethical than very expensive ones, which are often just interested in profit. “Your time is a donation,” she says, “and if volunteers are not paying, the facility has a greater ability to move them out if they’re not suitable for a care team or the animals.” 

8. What about security? As wildlife crime has ramped up around the world, a few sanctuaries and orphanages have been raided by criminal syndicates in search of high-value species. Voluntourists have occasionally been hurt in these raids, so security is especially important if the facility houses valuable species such as rhinos, elephants, and big cats, says Trendler. See if a facility informs its volunteers of risks up front, she advises, and then “look for visible security like guards and fences. Are there security protocols and briefings for staff and volunteers?”
The Okavango Delta, Botswana
Once you’ve decided on the type of program you’d like to join, you can research your options online or through an agency, but always be skeptical and check the basics: Can you find the project on a map or is the location vague? (Agencies sometimes fudge locations so they can do a bait-and-switch.) Are volunteer testimonials real or cut-and-pasted fakes? Are photos recent or out of date? You should also ask exactly what you will be expected to do, how many hours per day you’ll work, and whether you’re able to leave the premises or not; many voluntourists have found themselves effectively trapped in remote locations doing mind-numbing, round-the-clock manual labor.

The Facebook group Volunteers in Africa Beware maintains an extensive list of voluntourism destinations. Using information supplied by volunteers themselves, it ranks destinations on a “Good, Bad and Ugly” list according to how ethical the group perceives them to be. Note that some of the venues are sanctuaries that deliver no conservation benefit because they don’t release animals into the wild as part of a reputable conservation program; they are rated “good” because don’t trade their animals, hunt them, or allow interaction. (AFAR can’t endorse all the listed programs on Volunteers in Africa Beware, but it may be a useful resource and a good place to start.)

Finding the right wildlife volunteer program can be a time-consuming process, but if you choose correctly, you could be rewarded with a life-changing experience in Africa. 

>>Next: How to Volunteer in the African Wilderness