Have you ever considered combining your vacation with volunteering? It has crossed my mind, but wasn’t sure what I’d like to do. A lot of these volunteer projects involve a lot of hard work, so I’d want to go somewhere where I could spend a week or so volunteering, then at least a few days relaxing, so the destination would have to interest me beyond the project.
I recently read an article about Wildlife Volunteer Vacations and some of these really appeal to me. You will work if you volunteer for one of these organizations, but the chance to really immerse yourself in a culture, learn something new and work hands-on with exotic animals would really be worth the effort. There are programs around the world for these types of opportunities, but here are a few that I found interesting.
Costa Rica – Sea Turtles. Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge relies on volunteers to help protect the endangered leatherneck turtle nests, patrolling the beaches at night to keep poachers away and ensure that the hatchlings reach the sea. This is very hands-on work involving close contact with the turtles. You will often be working at night when the turtles lay their eggs, as well as during the day when the temperatures soar. I think watching hundreds of baby turtles make their way to the ocean could be a life changing experience. Lodging and board is either at the research station or through local home stays. The program is $310 for one week, or $930 for 4 weeks, July – December.
Thailand – Elephants. The Elephant Nature Park is located in northern Thailand near Chiang Mai. This is one of the few places in the country where elephants can live free. Volunteers feed, bathe and nurse distressed or wounded elephants. When they are healed, they are transferred to Elephant Haven, a 2,000 acre retirement home for elephants. One of the highlights is the weekly overnight hike through the jungle with the gentle giants to the mountain-top retreat. Volunteers camp beneath the stars, while the elephants enjoy their night of freedom. Volunteers will also travel around the countryside by a variety of modes, experiencing the local lifestyles and culture and local Thai hospitality. A weeks stay in rustic huts with hot showers, 3 vegetarian meals a day and transfers is $370.
Kenya – Black Rhino. Earthwatch has a 2 week program at the Sweetwaters Research Centre where volunteers measure the condition of the plants that the black rhino and other herbivores in the area depend on for sustenance. The center is set in the savannah of the 113,000 acre Ol Pejeta Conservancy between Mount Kenya and the Aberdare mountains. Volunteers also observe the behavior of captive rhino and have the opportunity to spot other wildlife such as lions, zebras, impala, baboons and hippos. It is somewhat like being on safari, but much more intense. This program is available to only 3 volunteers at a time, January to October, priced around $2850 including accommodations in traditional thatched huts and meals.
There are other programs as well working with seabirds in Greece, big cats and monkeys in Bolivia, Giant Pandas in China, Iguanas in Honduras and more. If you prefer to stay closer to home you can work with wild horses right here in the USA. Return to Freedom is a 300 acre ranch in northern Santa Barbara County. It is a private sanctuary where horses can roam freely together, forming natural families. Most volunteer work-study projects are for 2 weeks, but can be extended for up to a month. Volunteers groom, medicate and clean the 200 wild horses and burros living on the ranch. It is hard, dirty work, but there is the rich reward of nurturing these beautiful animals. Return to Freedom offers free lodging for up to 3 volunteers at a time. Meals are not included, but there are cooking facilities on-site.
There are tons of other voluntourism programs available as well, with opportunities to work with children, conservation, community development, even teaching English as a Foreign Language.
If you decide to join one of these types of projects, I would suggest looking into travel insurance, make sure that you plan far enough in advance to get any inoculations and visas that you might need. You might want to consult your travel agent for help with details that fall outside of the actual project.