Working abroad can take many guises – as seen on this website, you could work for ski resorts, restaurants, cruise ships or families. But could you work for free?
Despite the lack of pay, volunteering abroad is a thriving niche market, made popular by the rise of gap years and career breaks. It is a fantastic way to get experience in a job you like, but without the commitment should you change your mind. Like any market, there are many different jobs on offer but in this issue we are focusing on volunteering to work with animals.
Sadly, animals are suffering from human interference with their habitats, food and numbers, and unless something changes many species will go extinct. The number of charities dedicated to preventing this is testament to the global interest we have in animal welfare. Perhaps it is not surprising that volunteering with animals is so popular?
The range of programmes available to work with animals is extensive, so it is possible to go almost anywhere and do whatever you want. Whether your dream is to conserve crocodiles or protect pandas, there is a project out there with your name on it! Just keep looking!
The flexibility of animal volunteer programmes means they are ideal for people with little time to spare. Unlike volunteering with children, which usually requires a commitment of at least three months, animal programmes can last as little as two weeks. Projects tend to be ongoing, so you will probably replace previous volunteers supporting regular staff members. Sometimes you can extend your stay by paying for additional weeks, so long as the company can accommodate you.
Ah, yes. The money. Voluntary work in your home country is free and easy. Voluntary work abroad is trickier. Before anyone starts grumbling about having to pay to work, think about where the money goes. It covers your expenses during the project – that is, your food, accommodation, equipment and in-country support. The more remote and unusual the project, the more it is likely to cost.
Flights, visas and vaccinations will differ for each volunteer so voluntary companies rarely include them in the project cost – you will have to find that money as well. Animal projects can be risky, so it is usual for companies to require proof of vaccination against certain diseases, such as rabies and tetanus. Parting with large sums of money can focus your mind on the technicalities, so pay attention to what is included in the price, and more crucially, what is not.
But with so much choice, how do you know what is best for you?
Speaking to previous volunteers can help narrow down what you want out of an animal voluntary project. It may be that you have a strong desire to work with a particular animal. For example, giant pandas are a popular species for voluntary placements, because there are so few of them left. Helping out in an Asian sanctuary is a great way to spend a few weeks either as a holiday or as part of a gap year.
Sandra Nelson went to China with Real Gap as a single traveller. She was looking for “a holiday with a difference,” and she certainly found it. She spent two weeks volunteering at the Wolong Nature Reserve in Bifengxia, Sichuan Province.
Sandra said, “The work was spread out throughout the day with most of the morning cleaning out enclosures. Feeding the pandas was a pleasure to do and often entertaining.”
Other duties including preparing food, observing the pandas and helping staff promote the animals to sanctuary visitors. What did she think was the best bit?
“Having some play time with the one-year-old pandas where we actually had a chance to go into their enclosure and feed them carrots and bamboo. We had to give a donation to the panda club but it was money well spent.”
Working at Wolong Nature Reserve is quite exclusive – there are never more than ten volunteers at a time. It costs £499 for one week and £1099 for four weeks excluding flights, visas, dinners and insurance (breakfast and lunch are provided). Tourist visas are obtained from the embassy and Real Gap can advise you if things seem complicated. You will need a medical certificate to prove you are fit and healthy.
Why should you choose this project? Sarah Raine, PR manager for Real Gap, said, “All our programmes are selected to add value to the community and environment they are in. China is an exciting country as it opens up more and more to tourist and travel opportunities. You have the chance to see something as it begins to evolve towards becoming one of the world’s top three nations.”
Sandra believed that volunteering gave her the chance to see the ‘real China.’
“Not only did I meet some amazing people and have a chance to get so close to the pandas, I was also able to experience China itself by living in a non-touristy area. I learnt a lot about the culture and also about pandas – there’s quite a lot to know!”
Accommodation for volunteers is often basic to keep costs down – besides, it is not quite authentic to volunteer in a sanctuary then swan off to a five star hotel! This might mean you have to rough it and realise that Western expectations are not always practical. Most importantly, volunteers need to bring their sense of humour. Sandra said, “Our keepers did not speak much English so it was often quite tricky trying to communicate with them. We were paired up with other volunteers so we could laugh about it.”
Marie Terle had no difficulty seeing the funny side of things when she volunteered to monitor turtles on the South Pacific island Vanuatu!
Her “simple but effective” shower was an unforgettable reminder of how different island life is to Western norms!
“A large, strong plastic sack filled with solar heated water, hoisted into the air with a tube and shower rose attached and voila! I preferred to shower before bedtime, which meant that the water was invariably cold and I had an audience. The coral floor was constantly on the move with hermit crabs and dozens of cockroaches appeared to watch my ablutions – bloody big ones too!”
Marie joined Global Vision International (GVI) for her five-week turtle project. She got back to nature by sleeping in matted ‘bush bungalows’ with sand floors (“the large spiders with eyes that glowed in the torchlight like iced diamonds, the constant rustling of the roof made it sound like soft rain…”) and lived the islanders way of life. This included fetching water from the well for cooking and washing, and helping at the small island school. One memorable experience was watching Ratatouille in one of the homes with a generator.
“Being a guest, I was offered the only chair, the family sat on the floor grouped around the TV screen. After 15 minutes I glanced behind me – another dozen children had materialised out of nowhere. From then on, it was like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – every time I looked behind me there were even more of ‘em!”
The project itself was set up by the islanders to monitor turtles using Vanuatu beaches to breed. Volunteers help the islanders carry out beach surveys at night, track turtles coming to lay eggs and record data.
Most of the work is done at night, so during the day volunteers have free time to spend with the islanders, either helping in the school, basic construction or collecting firewood. It is possible to catch a boat over to the capital every Friday, but most of the time is spent on the island.
The minimum time limit is four weeks, which costs £1,160, but this is extendable. The project attracts gap year students and professionals on career breaks, but only accepts seven volunteers at a time so it is an opportunity to forge some close friendships.
If birds are more your type of creature, then Twin Work and Volunteer has an amazing project in South Africa – rescuing penguins afflicted by oil slicks. Your regular duties will include maintaining and cleaning the enclosures at Table View near Cape Town, and caring for recovering penguins. In emergencies you will help clean, feed and medicate oil-covered penguins, then releasing them back into the wild when they are well again. The working hours are regular: 8am to 5pm five days a week, and an activity trip or sightseeing tour is arranged by Twin Work and Volunteer to introduce you to the area.
The projects run from six to 52 weeks, and a six-week placement costs £1,200, which includes hostel accommodation and an 800 South African Rand food allowance. Flights, visas and insurance are extra. If you book the project more than three months before your start date, you can obtain your visa from the South African Embassy. Those who leave it to the last minute to book can get a visa when they arrive in the country.
The project takes up to ten volunteers at a time, and your evenings are free to socialise with fellow workers or to explore Cape Town. A weekly whale-watching trip to Robben Island will be a sight to remember: the island is home to one of the largest colonies of African penguins in the world!
Sadly, many penguins do not survive and Claire Coulson, Marketing Manager at Twin Group, said that seeing birds die despite your best efforts is the hardest thing to deal with. It is ideal work experience if you want a career in conservation and want a project with tangible results – every rehabilitated bird survives due to the hard work of the workers at Penguin Rescue.
Rather than rescuing injured animals, perhaps you would prefer to bring them into the world? Amanzi Travel send volunteers out to Gweru, Zimbabwe and Livingstone, Zambia, to work on a lion breeding and release project that not only lets you bottle feed cubs and walk with young lions in the African bush but also to work with orphaned elephants.
Many people do not realise how few lions now live in Africa – it is estimated that only 15,000 are left. This project has spent many years researching the best way to increase the number of lions in the wild and in National Parks throughout Africa.
The four-stage release project focuses on familiarising young cubs to the wild and honing their hunting skills, then releasing them into a controlled mini ecosystem of around 10,000 acres where they can feed themselves and breed. The new cubs can then be raised naturally (with no human contact) in a pride and later released into National Parks and game reserves.
The scope of this long-term project is huge and is currently at a very exciting stage. Last year the first pride of lions were released into a 500-acre piece of land where they are living as a pride and hunting for themselves. Volunteers are largely involved in the first stage, where lions aged between two and eighteen months are observed adjusting to the wild. Your duties include bottle-feeding young cubs, walking with the lions through the reserve as they learn to stalk prey, cleaning enclosures, food preparation, boundary patrols on horseback and lion behaviour research, as well as looking after orphaned elephants who regularly swim in the river!
This project costs £1,545 for three weeks or £1,895 for four weeks, and the fee includes all meals, accommodation, laundry services and airport transfers. As usual, flights, visas and vaccinations are not included, nor are telephone or internet use.
Gemma Whitehouse at Amanzi Travel said, “This is a unique opportunity to spend time up close with lions on a beautiful African game reserve. If there are recently born cubs whilst the volunteer is there they get to bottle-feed them – an unforgettable experience, as the cubs are so beautiful!”
Evenings on the project can be very social, as up to 25 people can volunteer at Gweru at a time. Canoeing, swimming and exploring the game reserve takes up any spare time, and volunteers can join an optional excursion to Victoria Falls.
According to Gemma, the best things about this project are watching elephants swimming in the lake at sunset, doing a horseback boundary patrol and walking with lions in the game reserve. The worst bit is going home! Gemma said, “Many people choose to extend their stay and many go back year after year to see how their favourite lions are doing!”
Anyone considering a career in veterinary care or animal conservation could use voluntary work to boost their CV and get a better understanding of the day-to-day challenges such jobs present: it will give you something to wax lyrical about at interviews. If you would like to find work on a game reserve in Africa, Amanzi Travel offers a 28-day and yearlong field guide course in the Kruger National Park, which will provide the participant with a recognised qualification. Gemma said, “For those wanting to find a job in Africa, volunteering can be a great way to find out about local work opportunities, some volunteers have even been invited to stay and help out on the volunteer projects themselves.”
The global economic uncertainty over the last year has potentially damaging effects on voluntary work. Paying to work for free seems a ridiculous idea when money is tight, but volunteer organisations need help more than ever in these circumstances. All the companies mentioned in this article stressed their need for more volunteers and the decline in numbers has affected their ability to help projects they have previously supported.
However, money should not be a hindrance to volunteering with animals – it is possible to book voluntary projects months in advance and fundraise some of the necessary cash along the way. It would be a sad thing if volunteering suffered for such a materialistic reason! So book your ticket, grab a bucket and hit the streets – you’ll raise enough before you know it and can jet abroad to work with some fantastic animals that desperately need your help!
ANIMAL JOB WEBSITES:
For Real Gap’s Giant Panda Conservation project visit their website.
For GVI projects (i.e., marine conservation) go to their website.
For Twin Work & Volunteer Abroad’s Penguin Rescue South Africa project visit their website.
For Amanzi Travel’s Lion Breeding and Release project go to their website.
For Amanzi Travel’s South Africa Field Guide Course visit their website.