An estimated 1.6 million people spend over $2 billion annually on volunteer travel. Today’s wander-happy youth prefer doing good while on the road — 84% of millennials opt for philanthropic adventures. While critics question the ethics and efficacy of volunteer travel, when done thoughtfully, it supports important causes and fosters cultural exchange.
In particular, helping with conservation or animal-related issues offers a special detour from the standard tourist track. Human-animal relationships have profoundly shaped individual lives, community values and species-wide evolution. Plus, there’s a bond between animal lovers that seems to transcend culture. And with a veritable buffet of opportunities, from saving animals one at a time or focusing on large preservation projects, there’s something for everybody.
Here’s a list of some volunteer-friendly organizations across the globe that do right by the critters and the communities they serve.
With several locations throughout India, Wildlife SOS rescues and rehabilitates wildlife in rural and urban environments. Some of its most well-known actions have included pulling “working” animals — remember the crying elephant, Raju? — off the streets. One of the things that sets this group apart is its ability to respect the big picture. When rescue efforts disrupt an animal-owner’s livelihood — as is often the case — caretakers are often offered training and jobs with the organization. Wildlife SOS also manages human-wildlife interactions throughout the country to minimize conflict.
Volunteers serve outside of Agra, assisting with either elephants or sloth bears. Duties vary from day to day but can include preparing food, facilities maintenance and building enrichments for the animals. Days can move slowly as, ultimately, this place pays locals to do the necessary work. But volunteers seem to genuinely take some of the load off for busy keepers and inexperienced machete-wielders never cease to entertain. The staff is always eager to hear fresh ideas for further improving the animals’ environments, so if you have expertise, let them know! Wildlife SOS is a big organization these days, but one that hasn’t forgotten its grassroots beginnings. Plan to come for at least a week, though longer commitments are preferred.
Sort of a “Doctors Without Borders” for animals, World Vets dispatches teams of volunteers to 44 countries across six continents to provide veterinary aid and training. With a diversity of programs addressing local knowledge, animal welfare, disaster relief and zoonotic disease transmission, the international NGO needs helpers with diverse knowledge and skills. There are volunteer opportunities for veterinarians, technicians, students and general assistants.
Outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, Elephant Nature Park (ENP) draws tourists and volunteer travelers with big hearts. That’s likely because the founder, Lek Chailert, has devoted her life to improving the world for a variety of creatures. ENP rescues cats, dogs and elephants from throughout Thailand and Myanmar. The organization also champions reforestation efforts and fights tourism practices that harm elephants. While the surprisingly stealthy pachyderms are ENP’s stars, as of early 2014, the park also sheltered over 400 dogs, recovered during provincial flooding. Some of the canines have temporary housing while awaiting adoption and others have made the elephant sanctuary home.
ENP hires locals for the day-to-day work, part of an effort to maintain social and economic relations with villagers. In a country where back-breaking elephant rides have historically been a preferred money-maker of the tourist economy, Chailert offers a more humane alternative. Volunteers with ENP stay for at least a week and can work with either dogs or elephants, assisting with routine care and facility maintenance. Qualified veterinarians, veterinary techs and vet students can also apply as fieldwork volunteers.
Sitting on over 200 acres in the foothills of southern Colorado’s remote Wet Mountains, Mission: Wolf marries non-domestic canid rescue with conservation. The volunteer-run sanctuary provides a lifelong home to captive wolves and wolf-dogs and runs a nationwide on-the-road education program. In keeping with its ethos of sustainability, Mission: Wolf relies on green technologies to minimize waste.
Volunteers are encouraged to visit and lend a hand — whether for a day or a month — with daily tasks from gardening to meat processing. If you have a special skill — whether you’re a Wordpress wiz or woodworking warrior — be sure to share it! Volunteers can camp on the nonprofit’s three acre “village,” reveling in the Rocky Mountains’ rugged wilderness and wildly colorful sunsets. If you’re only coming for a week or two, make sure to bring your own food.
Rhino Revolution (RR), based in Hoedspruit, South Africa, emerged through the collaboration of local citizens, rhino conservationists and private nature reserve owners. RR actively fights poaching, engages in community education and rescues and rehabilitates rhinoceros calves. While the organization primarily solicits volunteers from the local community or those interested in helping with education programs, one special opportunity stands out. RR works with local horse professionals to give retiring racehorses a second career as mounts in a formidable anti-poaching unit. And through a collaboration with African Conservation Experience, expert equestrians can ride alongside the pros, patrolling the reserves by day and staying in bush camps by night. The ultimate inter-species coalition.
Stacey is a freelance writer covering travel, adventure, health and social justice. A longtime vagabond, she lived all over the U.S. as well as in France, Austria, Morocco, and Canada before landing in northern Colorado. If not tramping about the U.S. with her husband and dog, she’s probably avoiding winter in the deserts or tropics.