Travel companies and operators have, for the last years, been exposed and held accountable for offering tour packages and other activities that offer unethical interactions with wildlife. Whether it is a dolphinarium with orcas or dolphins jumping for entertainment, tiger selfies or riding elephants, these practices are considered unethical and should not be part of a “responsible travel” package. Trip Advisor, Thomas Cook, and most recently Expedia are planning to stop selling any tickets to any “entertainment” involving wild animals. This change in outlook has been largely due to a more informed public and the effect of successful documentaries such as Black Fish, who revealed the reality of wild orcas kept in swimming pools and Blood Lions, who unveiled to the public the cruel-blooded heart of trophy hunting, where lion cubs are hand raised to be “bred for the bullet.”
WorkingAbroad.com started when “Voluntourism” was not yet a catchword. In the early days, it was travellers helping NGOs with their everyday tasks, a grassroots approach that enabled volunteers to learn new skills and practices and the NGOs were driving the demand and welcoming them. Volunteers were mostly self-funded, which meant they organised their own financing for these trips – it was a fair exchange between the organisations and the volunteers. Many volunteers saw this as another educational investment, just the same as going to University.
However, it all changed rapidly when tens of thousands of volunteers joined small grassroots programmes worldwide, suddenly they required airport pick-ups, advice, and personalised guides. These logistics required accompanying structures and a new sector was born, commonly called: “Voluntourism.” Today it is an industry with an estimated worth of approximately $173 billion annually.
It is clearly no longer just a few backpackers mending fences for local NGOs.
The volunteer gap year sector has become a major contributor, for better or worse, to local communities around the developing world. This sector is largely unregulated and not held accountable by the public. Therefore, many questions have arisen about the unethical practices that are now developing alongside Voluntourism, especially from projects that are working with wild animals.
There are several different types of volunteer projects that are considered unethical according to WorkingAbroad’s Ethical Policy, which include: predator interaction (cub handling, predator petting/walking and the like), and being engaged with facilities and camps that force elephants to work for the sake of tourist’s entertainment, at the expense of elephant welfare.
Volunteering websites provide lists for what they term, the “best volunteering organisations” or the “top rated volunteer programmes” that we would presume to fall into the ethical categories and fortunately, there are some ethical and responsible companies on those lists. Yet on one such list, it is dismaying to see how a company that is offering a volunteer programme at an elephant camp in Chiang Mai can be considered among the best?
Let’s be clear: these elephants have been trained to work simply for entertainment.
On a similar list, there are at least five volunteer companies that offer elephant rides or predator interaction projects/activities. Presumably, there are no ethical criteria to be included on this list?
A large number of volunteer companies collaborate with local partner organisations abroad that offer lion cub petting. The given company will not hide the fact that this is taking place as cub handling draws uninformed volunteers to the project in the first place. The companies will often justify this by saying that once the cubs are grown they will be released – but released to where you might ask? No handheld lion can ever be released into the wild. Therefore they are sold off to zoos, other farms, or to canned hunting facilities. There the lions are hunted or shot and even become part of the lion bone trade, which is still legal in South Africa.
The film, Blood Lions, is something everyone should watch before considering volunteering with predators in Africa. A reliable source of information is the “Campaign Against Canned Hunting”website, where there are volunteer companies and tour operators listed that adhere to an ethical policy. Unfortunately, this British volunteer discovered the truth about one of the biggest lion breeding farms in South Africa after she had signed up.
“When large predators cannot be released, their only chance is to stay at a ‘true’ wildlife sanctuary. Here their needs are taken care of, and they do not need to work for their stay. A true sanctuary would never continue the breeding, because why would you continue the circle?” – says one of the founders of Panthera, an ethical wildlife sanctuary in South Africa.
What is the conservation value of volunteers petting a lion cub? The answer is none. Too few animal welfare organisations are putting pressure on volunteer companies to end this practice. Another point is the safety of volunteers – how do you guarantee the reactions that predators will have to humans getting close to them. There are numerous reports of attacks by “tame” predators, such as cheetahs and lions, at safari parks which can result in the animal being put down. The fact that this unethical practice stands unchecked sends a wrong message to young people, as many are choosing to volunteer for all the right reasons but are being misinformed.
Here are some examples:
When looking at numerous volunteer lists which have titles such as “Top Rated Organisations & Programmes”, they make big statements, such as “These are the ‘Best of the Best’ in terms of participant reviews and ratings, so we’ve basically done your trip planning for you.” In other words, it sends the 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 conditions of the animals themselves. We have found that several projects on these lists are considered unethical, such as predator interaction and breeding, for example, one of them is called “Hands-On Lion Conservation project” in Zimbabwe!
To exacerbate the issue further is the fact that these same companies are “awarded” for their efforts, which is preposterous. Not only are they ending up on lists that tell people that these are the best organisations to volunteer with: they are also awarded by established youth travel organisations. How can a volunteer company that is directly involved with predator interactions and breeding, still be nominated and WIN awards and recognition such as an “outstanding volunteer” project?
On another ethical travel guide list, volunteer companies score on community well-being, local prosperity and social equity, environmental protection and visitor fulfilment. On their list, we have found that elephant rides and predator interaction projects are featured, the latter which can also be found under the Volunteers in Africa Beware page. Another page has a blog on “Sustainable Voluntourism,” and again we find companies directly involved in these types of projects.
WorkingAbroad took the “Born to Live Wild” pledge, which means that we will never directly or indirectly support organisations and companies that are engaged with predator breeding, interaction and canned hunting. On top of that, we believe that the elephant tourism industry around the world needs to end.
We have done extensive research on all of our own volunteer project partners, and also our volunteer database which lists over 2,000 projects, and the volunteer companies that were advertising on our website. In the latter case, we advised these organisations that we could no longer allow them to advertise on our website or have their projects included on our database if they did not end their links to harmful wildlife volunteer projects. None of the organisations, except for one, chose this option but preferred to keep offering their unethical project(s) to volunteers on their websites (and obtaining the associated income they bring), at the expense of animal welfare.
The NSPCA of South Africa is specialised in the field of animal welfare and daily protect animals from abuse and neglect. They caution “against supporting facilities that keep wild animals in captivity, and advises people to rather support facilities that allow wild animals to remain in the wild, or bona fide sanctuaries that provide safe havens and refuges to the victims of the captive wildlife industry. Supporting facilities that promote interactions with wild animals inadvertently compromises their welfare”. This reinforces that it is not just our policy that being ethical means “no predator interactions or riding on elephants.”
A volunteer company cannot be considered ethical or responsible if it is not adhering to very basic principles of human and non-human welfare.
Today we live in a society where information from around the world is readily available at our fingertips. The word “sanctuary” and “responsible” sieves through the volunteering industry and it is used as a bait: it does not necessarily reflect the true work involved.
There is no doubt; as long as we adhere to ethical principles, Voluntourism and volunteering when done correctly, can give people significant beneficial experience, both educational and practical, which they will treasure for life, and at the same time feel reassured that they have contributed positively to local projects in a constructive and ethical way. This is a fair exchange which people should be encouraged to invest in.
It is time we hold the volunteering sector accountable.
Photo by Nick Roux from Wikimedia