Responsible wildlife volunteering

I recently attended the SAYTC Youth Tourism conference in Port Elizabeth and was part of their panel discussion on Responsible Voluntourism, Animal Interactions and Captivity.

Captive animal and wildlife interactions is an emotive topic that is discussed extensively within the tourism industry on national and international levels.

In July 2015, when Blood Lions lifted the lid of the canned lion hunting industry in South Africa, the voluntourism sector came under huge scrutiny, as paying international volunteers play an important role in its economic value chain through lion cub petting and walking activities. Ignorant volunteers, who believe they contribute to lion conservation projects, often pay up to R20,000 per week for the privilege to volunteer at a breeding farm or related wildlife facility.

Bottle feeding lion cubs by volunteers

It comes as no surprise that ethical and responsible volunteering has become a bit of a buzz word and hence I tend to be rather skeptical when wildlife volunteering projects are described as such. One only has to visit the Volunteers in Africa Beware (VIAB) Facebook page to realise that unethical wildlife volunteering projects in Southern Africa are still rife.

So my interest was peaked when WorkingAbroad Projects, a UK-based volunteer organisation, recently took a stance to remove any volunteering project from their database that:

  • Offers predator interaction, such as cub petting or walks with predators,
  • Is involved in predator breeding, or
  • Offers elephant rides or has camps that are involved with working elephants for tourists.

I caught up with Vicky McNeil, founder and director of WorkingAbroad Projects, to better understand what is involved in such a decision, which can hopefully serve as inspiration and lessons learned for others, who want to follow in their footsteps.

WorkingAbroad: Desert Elephants Project in Namibia with Vicky McNeil on the right. Photo credit: Vicky Kornevall

WorkingAbroad: Desert Elephants project in Namibia with Vicky McNeil on the right. Photo credit: Vicky Kornevall

QWhat made you decide in 2015 to remove certain projects from your volunteer database?

A – The volunteer gap year sector has become a major contributor to local communities around the developing world. However, this sector is largely unregulated and is not held accountable by the public. Therefore, many questions have arisen about the unethical practices that are now developing alongside voluntourism and volunteering abroad, especially from projects that are working with wild animals.

We have been operating for over 20 years now. It is our responsibility to inform the public and potential volunteers/interns about what is happening and to do our best to support and encourage ethical conservation and community programmes.

So, in 2015, we joined the Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH), signed the Born to Live Wild Pledge, and decided to go through our entire database (approx. 2,000 projects) to remove any project that offered predator breeding, predator interaction, walks with predators and elephant riding.

Since then, we have removed 50-100 projects worldwide, including an elephant park and lion breeding park in South Africa.

QHow do you vet a wildlife project against your ethical volunteering policy?

A – We research each wildlife project using the above criteria and read up on their background, mission statement, directors, contact ex-volunteers, and also liaise with CACH and VIAB to double check our references. These organisations have proven invaluable in ensuring that our projects have no (in-)direct links to canned hunting.

However, any project with photos of volunteers handling cubs or other predators and riding elephants is a big give-away. Sadly, volunteer agencies use these photos as a selling tool to attract volunteers!

WorkingAbroad: Elephant Sanctuary project in Thailand. Photo credit: Emily McWilliam

WorkingAbroad: Elephant Sanctuary project in Thailand. Photo credit: Emily McWilliam

Q – What has the general response been from the actual projects, the wider industry, as well as your customers?

A – Our customers are very pleased to hear we are taking this stance and many were completely unaware of the situation. For many, it has opened their eyes to what is actually happening.

From our project partners, we received a lot of support and praise that included responses like:

Volunteering is a wonderful way to change the world and make an impact! It is a great opportunity to learn and share knowledge and talent. Make sure you do it with the right organization, one that is actually pushing for the right thing.

For obvious reasons, organisations we were forced to remove from our website, were not so kind and continue justifying their projects.

Q – What were the biggest hurdles in the process of getting to where you are now?

A – The most time consuming and difficult task was the actual fact checking of the 2,000+ projects on our database, as some projects were not entirely transparent about their activities.

Another issue we encountered was that at the time we contacted organisations with our request to end their partnerships with unethical programmes, many had already paid to advertise as a featured listing on our website. This prompted some very strong responses and we actually had to reimburse some organisations, as they preferred to be taken off our website rather than end unethical activities.

We probably have also lost some income, as we no longer list any programmes on our database that may have previously attracted volunteers to our website, such as cub petting.

WorkingAbroad volunteers enjoying wildlife at Shamwari Game Reserve. Photo credit: Vicky Kornevall

WorkingAbroad volunteers enjoying wildlife at Shamwari Game Reserve. Photo credit: Vicky Kornevall

Q – If you could give other volunteering organisations, who would like to follow in your footsteps, any advice what would that be? 

A – Volunteer organisations should be questioning the conservation objectives and values of each partner that they work with before even considering sending out volunteers, and thus making sure that their volunteers have a sustainable impact on the programme and on the community they join.

The word “sanctuary” and “responsible” sieves through the volunteering industry and it is used as a bait, but doesn’t necessarily reflect the true work involved. So organisations need to adhere to ethical principles, and when done correctly, this can give people significant beneficial experience, both educational and practical, and at the same time feel reassured that they have contributed positively to local projects in a constructive and ethical way.

Don’t fall for the programmes with award listings and “the best of the best” lists in terms of participant reviews and ratings, as a reason to choose a project, but do more research yourself first. These lists send a message of populism: people want to do cub petting, predator walks and/or elephant rides, therefore, if these programmes get high ratings or great reviews, they must be the best operators, regardless of the welfare of the animals involved. We have found that several projects on these lists are considered unethical, such as predator interaction and breeding, for example, one of them is even called “Hands-On Lion Conservation project” in Zimbabwe!

If organisations are already partnering with programmes that are unethical, we would urge them to take the steps to end their partnerships, by being transparent and open about their position – this I see, is the only way forward to try to put an end to this.

Taking bold steps, like WorkingAbroad Projects did, takes courage and I applaud them for putting ethics before economics. For doing the right thing. I hope their experience will inspire you to take a similar stance and say NO to all unacceptable wildlife practices.


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