baby yellow baboonType ‘wildlife volunteer’ into google and close to 50 million results come up. An overwhelming number. You can volunteer with elephants in Thailand, turtles in Costa Rica, lions in South Africa… the options are endless. But, with so much to choose from, how can you be sure that you have found a project that will actually be making a difference? Whilst there are many ethical and responsible volunteer projects out there, there are also many where their impact to animal welfare and conservation is questionable.

For animal lovers, the promise of close interactions with iconic species is a huge draw card to volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary. Peoples’ desire to cuddle baby monkeys, lion cubs or other cute animals is combined with the idea that they are giving their time and money to a good cause. Whilst this sounds like the perfect experience, it also has a darker side. In recent years there has been an explosion of organizations across Africa that offer interactive or close-encounter experiences with big cats. At many of these projects, volunteers get to cuddle and bottle feed tiny cubs whilst under the impression that the lions are being bred to ‘boost diminishing populations.’ In actual fact, these lions are being bred for volunteer purposes and then to fuel the “canned” lion hunting industry. Canned hunting involves captive-bred, often hand-reared lions that aren’t shy or scared of humans. These lions are released into small, private hunting reserves where trophy hunters are then guaranteed an easy target. These organisations are then not unlike orphanage scams in Asia, where non-orphaned children are used to make money off well-meaning volunteers.

Reputable sanctuaries will therefore have a minimal or no-contact approach to their wildlife. The main aim of wildlife sanctuaries should always be to rescue, rehabilitate and release as many animals as possible back into the wild. With animals continuing to reside in the sanctuary only when release is not an option. Humanized animals can almost never successfully be released as their lack of fear of humans places them at much greater risk to being poached and limits their chances for survival.

Additionally, it is important to check a sanctuary’s breeding policy. Projects where volunteers are allowed to interact with cubs or baby primates are problematic in the sense that they need a constant supply of cute babies in order to keep volunteers coming. It is often argued that captive breeding is important in order to boost endangered wildlife populations. However, breeding a few captive animals is not a viable option for creating large, genetically-diverse and healthy populations to live in the wild.

When choosing a wildlife volunteer placement, it is therefore very important to do your research. There could be nothing worse than arriving at your chosen sanctuary and realising that you have dedicated your time and money to an unworthy cause. The level of interaction with wild animals and the existence of breeding programs are two key points to consider, however there are many more factors which impact a sanctuary’s reputability. Ultimately, if a volunteer project raises ethical questions – it is in yours and the animals’ interests to find an alternative.

At our Lilongwe Wildlife Centre we operate a strict hands-off and no breeding policy. Contact is only permitted during orphan season, when some orphans require special attention and round the clock care to ensure that they have the best possible chance of survival and rehabilitation. Volunteers are then essential to carry out surrogacy work and provide all aspects of care during those early days. Whilst a hands-off policy may be off-putting to some, it is important to remember that the sense of achievement from being a part of a genuine rehabilitation process and helping animals on their journey back to the wild is far more rewarding than unnatural close contact. Please see our website if you are interested in more information about our volunteer programme or to read volunteer reviews.

If close contact with animals is still something you wish to experience, then perhaps it is best to consider volunteering at a shelter for domesticated animals such as cats and dogs. However, if you are determined to do your research and find an ethical wildlife sanctuary we have put together a few questions below to help you when making your choice:

  • Does the facility allow close contact with the animals?
  • Is there evidence of breeding?
  • Is the sanctuary supported by or affiliated with other reputable conservation organisations?
  • Does the sanctuary have any educational programmes promoting animal welfare and conservation?
  • Can the facility guarantee that the animals have been obtained legally and not taken from the wild?
  • Does the sanctuary make the animals carry out unnatural behaviours for public display?
  • What impact do volunteers have on the animal’s welfare?