Animal Planet

Ten great wildlife volunteering vacations By: By Jim Calio
Animal Planet // (c) 2010
Animal Planet // (c) 2010

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Click here to read about our editors’ favorite wildlife experiences.

Wildlife volunteering offers a unique option for travelers who want the ultimate bragging rights. These trips combine the satisfaction of voluntourism, an unparalleled exposure to local culture, the enrichment of learning something new and hands-on work with exotic animals. These trips may not be for every client — and most do not offer agent commissions — but the travel agent who can combine these experiences with other, more general activities, might just win a client for life.

“An agent can help clients with air, ground and travel insurance — with an emphasis on travel insurance,” said Ilene Koening, a travel agent with Let’s Travel in Santa Monica,
Calif. “Our agency would probably charge a fee for assisting with this type of trip, but it also depends on what the client wants us to do. Plus, I might help the client even without a commission as my contribution to the volunteer effort.”

Koening also pointed out that helping clients with voluntourism — even with little or no commission — creates goodwill with clients for future business.

Seabirds, Greece
Travelers visiting the sun-drenched island of Paros, sometimes called the “jewel of the Greek Islands,” can volunteer at the Aegean Wildlife Hospital, set in the hilltop home of the facility’s director, Marios Fournaris. Established in 1995, this sanctuary is a resting place for exhausted or wounded migrating birds, as well as the island’s pelicans, herons and flamingos. Any animal unable to be released into its natural habitat is housed by the hospital in conditions that are secure, quiet and safe. The hospital’s no-kill policy, except in extreme cases, extends to the island’s population of stray dogs and cats, for which volunteers working through the Paros Animal Welfare Society help to find homes.

Volunteers willing to stay for a minimum of 15 days or longer can stay for free while they care for sick and injured birds and other native wildlife such as tortoises, hedgehogs and hares. Animals unable to survive in the wild live out their lives in specially designed enclosures. On days off, volunteers can hike, swim, explore the island’s sea caves and cliffs or visit the nearby vineyards.

The Aegean Wildlife Hospital has accommodations for only three volunteers at a time, so advance planning is a good idea. Otherwise, low-cost bed-and-breakfasts are available on the island. Meals are not included, but there is a kitchen for use on the premises.
30-22840-22931, 30-6944-741616

Big Cats and Monkeys, Bolivia
Bolivia’s notorious and tragic black market trade in exotic animals is the reason for the existence of the Initi Wara Yassi Community. This refuge, a shoestring operation in the tropical heart of the country, is run entirely by volunteers who feed and care for big cats, birds and other creatures that arrive having been abused and malnourished. Work is hard and varied: nursing orphaned and rescued capuchin and howler monkeys, lemurs and parrots; taking pumas, ocelots and jaguars for daily walks in mangrove forests; preparing birds for their release into the wild; and guiding visitors.

Volunteers are required to stay for a minimum of 15 days, some for longer, especially if you are working with cats. A volunteer’s time will be spent predominately with one animal so that it will become accustomed to them, keeping it relaxed and happy and giving it the best life possible in captivity. Work for everyone starts at 7 a.m. and finishes late in the afternoon — or sometimes into the evening. Volunteers share rooms in the facility’s two hostels.

Initi Wara Yassi Community offers 14-day programs, including accommodations and three meals a day, for about $215.

Wild Horses, U.S.
Return to Freedom, a 300-acre ranch about 2½ hours north of Los Angeles in northern Santa Barbara County, is among the few private sanctuaries that let stallions, mares and foals roam freely together, forming natural families. Recognizing that wild horses live in tightly bonded herds, it focuses on rescuing entire family groups. Most volunteer work-study programs involve two-week special projects, but programs can be extended for up to a month. The work mainly involves grooming, medicating and cleaning the 200 wild horses and burros that live on the ranch. It is hard and grubby, but there is also the rich reward of looking after the rescues and socializing motherless foals with the aim of finding them loving homes.

There are also special youth programs aimed at children, teens and youths at risk. Kids work during the day and then camp overnight at the wild horse sanctuary. While staying in rustic log cabins, volunteers can also take time out to swim and surf at the nearby beach or visit some of the local vineyards in the wine country where the movie “Sideways” was filmed.

“The experience that I had at Return to Freedom is like nothing else I have done,” said Kellie Jaros, a 2009 volunteer. “You have the opportunity to see how real wild horses interact with each other. It is also very educational because you learn about what a mustang is, the different types, where they come from, how they are important to this country and our history and the plight that they are facing right now. The experience was great, and I hope to get back there one day.”

Return to Freedom offers free lodging for up to three volunteers at a time with a two-week minimum stay or longer. Meals are not included, but there are cooking facilities on-site.

Black Rhino, Kenya
Teetering on the brink of extinction, the black rhino sustains itself through a strictly vegetarian diet. The condition of the plants that the black rhino and other large herbivores in the area depend on is measured by volunteers during this two-week program at the Sweetwaters Research Centre. The center is set in the savannah of the 113,000-acre Ol Pejeta Conservancy, on the Laikipia lava plateau, between Mount Kenya and the Aberdare mountains.

Volunteers observe the behavior of captive rhino and may also spot lions, leopards, zebras, buffalo, impala, baboons and hippos in the bush. It is almost like being on safari, but much more intensive. Volunteers are taught how to use a compass, a GPS unit, a handheld computer, a laser rangefinder and more. They are then briefed on how to avoid dangerous encounters with wild animals in the bush, although they are accompanied by armed guards for each trek.

Earthwatch has a 15-day program, with departures from January to October, priced around $2,850, including accommodations in rondavels (traditional thatched huts) and meals.

Giant Pandas, China
Volunteering as a panda keeper at Xian Panda Centre in the Chinese wilderness gets you close to these elusive and endangered bears. There are fewer than 1,000 of them left in the world, and about 300 are located in the reserves in the Shaanxi province outside Xian. Nestled at the foot of the Qingling Mountains, the center gives volunteers the chance to assist with babysitting cubs in the nursery and care for rescued and captive-bred animals as well as other native species, such as the smaller red pandas, black deer, golden monkeys and the sheep-like takin.

Related animal conservation experience is helpful but not required, and volunteers must be at least 21 years of age. Typical volunteer activities include participating in agriculture, biological research, clerical and office work, cutting wood, ecotourism and surveying wildlife. Volunteers are also encouraged to help the staff with their English so that they can attract more tourists and, thus, increase the project’s revenue. If you go during the summer breeding season, you may get to wander into the surrounding juniper forests to monitor pandas in the wild.

A 15-day visit at the Xian Panda Centre starts at $1,865, including accommodations, transfers and meals.

Sea Turtles, Costa Rica
The leatherback is the largest marine turtle in the world — weighing as much as 1,900 pounds and reaching nine feet in length. Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge relies on volunteers to help protect its turtle nests, patrol the beaches at night to keep poachers away and ensure hatchlings reach the sea. Leatherback turtles are critically endangered, with more than 80 percent of the population lost in the past decade after their nesting beaches around the Pacific coast were turned into resorts. The work is very hands on and involves close contact with the turtles.

The program is run by non-governmental organizations that employ biologists and arrange for volunteers that are supervised by trained personnel. Guests will often be required to work at night, when turtles lay their eggs, as well as during the day when temperatures soar. But watching 100 baby turtles on the shore and guarding them as they make their way to the ocean can be a life-changing experience.

Lodging and board is at the Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge research station or through local home-stays. Lodging is described as “basic local accommodation,” with local home-stays possible and tents available at the project center. The minimum stay is one month, with the total cost, including training and orientation, $2,081. Each additional week is $179. 

Elephants, Thailand
Located in northern Thailand near Chiang Mai, The Elephant Nature Park is one of the few places in the country where elephants can live free of the brutality of tourist trekking camps or circuses. It was created by Lek Chailert, a young woman named by the Asian edition of Time magazine as one of Asia’s Heroes of 2005 for her conservation work. Volunteers feed, bathe and nurse distressed or wounded elephants, as well as tend to the resident menagerie of warthogs, water buffalo, cats and dogs. After they heal, Chailert transfers the elephants to her Elephant Haven, a 2,000-acre retirement home.

One highlight is the weekly overnight hike through the jungle with these gentle giants to the mountain-top retreat. Volunteers camp beneath the stars, while the elephants enjoy their night of freedom. Traveling around the countryside in a variety of modes, from 4x4 trucks to bamboo rafts, volunteers will experience local lifestyles and culture along with traditional Thai hospitality. Volunteer positions for veterinarians are open, and everyone is required to help with household chores and with cooking.

“The elephants are loved, fed, watered and watched for any ills they may have,” said Rosemary Mill, a volunteer from Australia. “They have fabulous surroundings in the hills beside a river with plenty of space to roam. Plus, working with the elephants was more than working with those gentle giants; it was also about working with the friendly Thai people.”

Elephant Nature Park offers a week’s stay in rustic huts with hot showers, three vegetarian meals a day and transfers for $370.

Griffons, Croatia
We might call them vultures, but in Croatia, these birds are known as Eurasian griffons, and they are beautiful, but endangered, birds of prey. They inhabit the lovely Adriatic island of Cres — a serene, sunny isle with dense woodland sheltering golden eagles, wolves and bears. When conservationist Dr. Goran Susic set up his rescue center there 15 years ago, there were only 25 pairs of griffons on the island; now there are nearly 100.

Volunteers feed the baby griffons, check nests to make sure no chicks have fallen into the sea as well as tend to the more demanding, older birds. There is monthly monitoring of all nests and populations in two ornithological reserves on Cres. Volunteers also help ring the legs and tag the wings of the chicks, as some of the birds receive satellite transmitters to follow them on their migrations. In the volunteer’s downtime, he or she can explore the surrounding ruins and monasteries, swim and walk nature trails with dizzying sea views.

The volunteer program on Cres runs from March 1 to Oct. 31. A seven-day minimum stay or longer is required. On-site accommodations cost $200 for seven days (the cost goes down the longer you volunteer). Meals are an additional $73 for seven days.

Iguanas, Honduras
The tiny island of Utila, off the coast of Honduras, is known for its lush foliage, star fruit trees, orchids — and a distinct lack of tourists. Conservation Project Utila Iguana is a treasure trove of jewel-bright lizards, birds and other unique critters. It was set up to protect the nearly extinct Utila iguana and other endangered lizards threatened by the development of the mangroves and beaches where the females bury their eggs. Many species of tropical birds live on the island, as well as families of Congo and spider monkeys, whitetail deer, wild boars and raccoons.

Aside from feeding the animals and nursing orphans, volunteers do a variety of jobs such as clearing paths. Carpenters are needed to do renovation work on the station’s buildings and animal cages; mechanics fix generators; electricians install 220-volt outlets; and others provide environmental education in Utila’s schools.

Volunteers pay $75 per week to live at the station. The price goes down for volunteering commitments of three months or longer. Meals are not included.

Arabian Leopards, Oman
The Arabian leopard is fast disappearing, and one has to look hard to find traces of those few that remain: scratch marks, paw prints and the odd bit of dung are all clues to its whereabouts. Those leopards that remain prowl the remote desert mountains of the Dhofar region of Oman. Volunteers on this long-term research project are assisted by scientists from the Royal Omani Court and an international team, searching for evidence on foot, by camel or by Land Rover, setting up camera traps, looking for water holes and asking locals about recent sightings.

Clients stay in a field camp but may spend a couple of nights camping out in the bush. Fitness is a must: Volunteers should be able to walk up to 10 miles a day in often mountainous terrain and be able to tolerate high heat. The expedition base is a field camp made up of one- or two-person dome tents, a dining tent and a kitchen tent set in a spectacular mountain valley. Each volunteer has his or her own comfortable dome tent to sleep in and rest up for the strenuous 10-hour days in the field.

“This was my first expedition, and I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Brian Murphy, a volunteer from the U.K. “I was wanting the adventure of a lifetime, and I certainly got that and more. It was like I got to be Indiana Jones for two weeks.”

Twelve-night trips depart in January and February and cost from $1,864 for accommodations and all meals.

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