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The TOP 5 Volunteer Projects in Big Cat Conservation

October 16th 2023

Efforts to protect big cats in the wild are an ongoing battle, and conservationists deserve to be celebrated for the great lengths they go to around the world to conserve wild cats and their habitats. Without conservation efforts, many species face the threat of extinction within decades, if not a few years. For example, lions are classed as vulnerable by the IUCN, and the West African lion as critically endangered – there are fewer than 400 left in the wild.

With this in mind, big cat conservation has never been more important and time-sensitive. And volunteering is one of the most effective ways for people to help in the effort.

Below, we have compiled our Top 5 Volunteer Projects in Big Cat Conservation so you can easily view more about these ethical projects, whose work makes a real difference for big cat populations.  First, here is some vital information about big cat conservation you should know.

Canned Hunting: the dark secret behind lion cub sanctuaries

All over South Africa, self-professed lion cub ‘sanctuaries’ have been springing up in recent years, offering volunteers the chance to hand-rear supposedly abandoned cubs, who they claim will later be released into the wild. But hand-reared lions can never be released into the wild – and what’s more, most of them aren’t even orphans. In South Africa, there are over 300 entirely legal lion farms, where cubs are intentionally bred to be separated from their mothers. From here they enter into a lifetime of exploitation. Lions miss out on vital life lessons at cub sanctuaries, such as how to hunt – meaning that they can never be released into the wild. Approaching adulthood, they are sold on to meet their final fate; to be killed and exported for use in traditional medicines, or shot in a canned hunt. A canned hunt is an unfair – and totally legal – hunt, in which big cats are kept on fenced-in estates, where hunters pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot them. There is zero chance of escape. There are three times as many canned lions as wild lions in South Africa today.

Volunteer ‘conservation’ programmes that allow physical contact with lion cubs are often part of a chain of exploitation breeding them for slaughter. These programmes exploit cubs, and they exploit you; often charging well-meaning volunteers thousands of pounds to unknowingly contribute to the problem they think they are fighting against. Make sure to check out our previous blog posts on canned hunting for more information.

How can I find an ethical Big Cat Conservation Volunteer Programme?

Unlike some other organisations, WorkingAbroad goes to great lengths to make sure our partner organisations are completely transparent with volunteers, and that funds are going exactly where they claim them to be. We assess whether the work of volunteers is making a sustainable impact at all; if this is not the case, we do not partner with them. You can read more about our ethical stance here. Without further ado, read on for our top 5 big cat conservation volunteer projects!

1.Shamwari Big Five Game Reserve Volunteer Programme, South Africa

Volunteers collecting data on lions at ShamwariShamwari Game Reserve | Big Five Wildlife Volunteer | Working AbroadThe Shamwari Game Reserve carefully monitors the ecological balance between predators and herbivores to preserve lions, leopards, rhinos and elephants for the next generation. As part of this programme, volunteers assist with a variety of projects, such as telemetry tracking, helping at the rehabilitation centre and with research projects into lesser-known species, such as the Brown Hyena. Not only this, but the programme gives volunteers the opportunity to volunteer at the nearby Born Free Big Cat Sanctuary. The project runs throughout the year, taking volunteers for a minimum of 2 weeks up to 3 months. Make sure to read some of the many five star reviews left by former volunteers;

“Even though I have been here for two months the weekly routine has varied enough to make each day a little different and interesting.” – Ben

2. Big Cat Sanctuary Volunteering Project, South Africa

Big cat White lions at sanctuary in South AfricaBig Cat Volunteer | South Africa Wildlife | Working AbroadThe Big Cat Sanctuary faces the problem of canned hunting head-on, by giving captive-bred animals a safe environment in which to live, and by striving to spread awareness about the ethical horrors of cub petting sanctuaries. Not only this, but they strive to become the first big cat sanctuary in South Africa run entirely on solar energy! This volunteer project allows you to build bonds with the cats not through cub petting, but by supplying them with enrichment activities, maintaining their enclosures and preparing their food. The Big Cat Sanctuary receives volunteers all year round, from 2 up to 12 weeks.

“You can genuinely see the happiness radiating from the animals there, and the treatment of the animals is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” – Celine

3. Wildlife Conservation and San Bushmen Community Project, Namibia

Taking care of orphaned cheetah cubs in NamibiaVolunteer with Big Cats | Volunteer Namibia | Working AbroadThe Wildlife Conservation and San Bushmen Community project offers you the chance to combine work caring for injured animals at their Wildlife Sanctuary with the opportunity to contribute to researching lions and leopards at the TimBila research site. The award-winning project stands out for its many sub-projects, which you can mix-and-match across your stay. Volunteer responsibilities in the Sanctuary include preparing food for orphaned and injured wildlif – making sure there is no harmful hands-on contact with predators. As part of the research team, you can make a real difference by collecting data on carnivores such as leopards and spotted hyena! The project accepts volunteers throughout the entire year, from 2 weeks to 3 months.

“Each day I did something different. Whether it was preparing food for the animals or cleaning enclosures, riding out into the veldt on horseback… Getting involved in the research behind the human wildlife conflict, which is ultimately why all the animals in the sanctuary are there.” – Sarah

4. Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme, Peru

jungle catVolunteer in Peru | WorkingAbroadBig Cat conservation in the Amazon rainforest is an epic challenge! As part of the Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme, you can help to protect and rescue many vulnerable species in Peru, in one of the most unspoilt areas of rainforests in the world. The team brings diverse specialisations and interns will work alongside and learn from these passionate professionals.  You can choose between an Amazon Ecology internship or a Wildlife Rehabilitation Internship. The centre is surrounded by lush primary rainforest typical of the lowland Amazon, home to a vast abundance of wildlife throughout the reserves’ unique ecosystems, which is great for research opportunities and important for conservation. If you aren’t already inspired to get involved, make sure to check out what past volunteers have to say;

“The technical skills I gained from this internship were invaluable but the experience was so much more for me than that. I felt like I had my own little jungle family by the time I left. I would highly recommend this opportunity to anyone with a passion for wildlife and conservation. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be dying to return as soon as you leave.” – Kiara

5. Wildlife Reserve Volunteer Programme, South Africa

Caracals cleaning each otherBig Cat Volunteer | South Africa Wildlife | Working AbroadAt this 4,700 hectare wildlife reserve in northwestern South Africa, volunteers have the chance to gain experience managing no less than 50 species of large mammal, including brown hyena, caracals, servals and leopards. Hands-on responsibilities include camera trapping, anti-poaching patrols and large mammal transects, but volunteers will also be given the chance to take part in scientific research, as well as to assist students enrolled in the reserve’s ecology courses. Volunteers are welcome to join the programme all year round, from 2 to 12 weeks. What are you waiting for? To quote one of our previous participants;

“This volunteer programme has been one of the best things I have ever done. It not only showed me that conservation was what I wanted to spend my life working on at the young age of 17, but it is also where I have met some of the most inspirational, beautiful, kind, strong and down-right sensational people in my life.” – Anna

Article By WorkingAbroad Intern Ellie Harkness

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Blog articles about our volunteer projects, the wider world and from volunteers in the field are shared here for everyone to get inspired and learn more about wildlife conservation topics, volunteering abroad and much more.