My first experience of ethical volunteering abroad back in 2018 utterly changed my life. The friends I met, the ability to immerse myself in a different culture and finding my independence all contributed to a newfound appreciation for the natural world around me. I fell in love with travelling and discovering new countries and I had a burning desire to continue to volunteer within the conservation field.
Where have I been?
I am a Zoology student so most of my volunteering experience has naturally involved wildlife and conservation, and has primarily focused on sea turtle conservation. My first turtle trip was to Sri Lanka in 2018 where I spent six weeks on a conservation project. My second was to the Playa Tortuga Conservation Project in Costa Rica, a turtle conservation project which I organised through WorkingAbroad – I spent six weeks here as a research intern.
I look back with fond memories of all of my travelling and volunteering experience. I am extremely lucky to have had the opportunities I have been presented with and look forward to my future career as a conservationist. In hindsight, however, I have discovered the importance of researching a project before arrival, understanding its aims, and, above all, how the animals at the centre of it will benefit from the presence of volunteers.
What have I learned?
My experiences in Sri Lanka and Costa Rica couldn’t have been more different; the care the animals received, the level of education and the practices used in Costa Rica were of a much higher standard than that of Sri Lanka. It became evident that the turtles in Sri Lanka were a huge moneymaker for the centre and attracted large numbers of tourists desperate to take pictures with the newborns. Although it’s important to involve tourists in conservation efforts, perhaps inviting tourists to pick up and pose for photos with baby turtles is not the way to do this.
I remember feeling deeply uncomfortable about this, and it taught me a valuable lesson when I realised that not everyone who works in conservation has the same goal in mind. Playa Tortuga was exceptional at involving locals and tourists in events that educated the public about the importance of conservation without exploiting animals for profit, such as beach cleans.
How will you know if a project is ethical?
If this experience taught me anything, it’s that I know what I want to achieve from volunteering. I know exactly what I want from a project, the questions I should be asking and how to gauge the project’s moral and ethical values before I commit to spending time there. With this in mind, I have included some questions that I think are important to ask; the answers may help you to decide whether your chosen project is responsible and ethical. Asking these questions paired with your own thorough research can help to ensure you end up at the perfect project for you and get the most out of your volunteering experience.
1. What are the main aims of the project?
This is a great question to start with and gives you an insight into what is really important to the organisers of the project. It can give you an incline toward the type of people you will meet and be working with/for.
2. How do you educate and involve the community about your project?
Answers you want to hear should include how they are educating through school programmes, involving the community in activities not directly related to animals such as beach cleans or cleaning equipment, and giving back to the local community where possible.
3. How will my volunteering fees be spent?
Most overseas volunteering incurs some sort of monetary charge, whether this is for accommodation, food or simply for the experience of volunteering with animals. Nevertheless, this is your money and you are completely entitled to ask how it will be spent! Depending on the price you are paying, answers to this question can vary. It is up to you to decide how you are happy for your money to be spent – for me, this would be food, accommodation, staff wages and any equipment that is needed to better the project and the wellbeing of its animals.
4. What can I expect from a day in the life of a volunteer?
This is a question I wish I’d asked before my trip to Sri Lanka where I only spent a maximum of two hours volunteering five days a week. If I am paying to go and volunteer somewhere, I want this to be worthwhile especially as a Zoology student. Not only does it give you a great understanding of what your average day will look like, but this can also be a tell-tale sign of whether or not the project actually needs the help of volunteers or just the revenue that comes with it. If the answer involves a busy schedule then that means you will be appreciated as a volunteer and the project genuinely needs extra pairs of hands to help them with whatever work they are doing!
5. Are there any ongoing research projects taking place at the establishment?
Even if you are not going to be directly involved with research, it’s great to know whether or not research is actually taking place. For example, at the Playa Tortuga conservation project extensive ongoing research contributes towards turtle conservation projects and scientific knowledge all over Costa Rica and the importance of this is evident amongst the staff.
It is worth touching upon one of the largest animal exploitation industries in South East Asia; elephant ‘sanctuaries’ often claim to be a refuge for elephants rescued from the elephant riding trade. For travellers in South East Asia, visiting an elephant sanctuary is often an experience to tick off the bucket list but it is so important to understand that you may be giving money to projects that are abusing their animals.
Anywhere that allows you to get into the water to bathe and pose for pictures with elephants is almost certainly unethical. These elephants have been ‘rescued’ from being ridden by tourists daily and propelled into another tourism trade which is arguably just as harmful! Tourists that visit these centres are often fed lies about how happy the elephants are and that they enjoy human interaction and contact when the sad reality is that this is not the case.
Experiences in Cambodia and Costa Rica
I was lucky enough to visit the incredible Elephant Sanctuary Project in Cambodia, where working elephants were rescued and taught how to be elephants again in the freedom of the Cambodian jungle. They were allowed to roam and behave normally without the interruption of constant human interaction from tourists. They were able to trek through the jungle, learning how to behave, eat and socialise with other elephants.
Being able to witness this from a distance was a privilege. Although these elephants will never be able to be released into the wild, it was truly wonderful to know they will live the rest of their days free from chains and in the jungle where they belong.
If you are looking for a truly humbling, educational and ethical encounters with endangered animals, then I cannot recommend both the Elephant Sanctuary Project and Playa Tortuga conservation project enough, which can be organised through WorkingAbroad. These are great blueprints for how all conservation centres should operate, and I certainly felt a sense of accomplishment as I had really contributed to the fight for the conservation of endangered species.
Photos and written by a previous volunteer, Lucy O’Reilly