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Beat the charlatans with Biosphere Expeditions' top ten tips on choosing a wildlife volunteering experience

These days it is hard to find a worthwhile volunteering experience that achieves tangible benefits. The market is full of profit-driven, unscrupulous operators, which do little for local wildlife at best and are harmful to it, and local communities, at worst.

In October 2011 a group of experts in volunteering, wildlife conservation and protection, and tourism got together to discuss what pointers could be given to people who were looking for a wildlife volunteering experience. The pointers needed to be easy to understand and provide practical help to those looking to choose a holiday or gap year experience that was going to be beneficial not only for themselves, but also for the wildlife and communities that they would encounter.

The Top Ten Tips

1. Reputation, reputation, reputation: has the organisation won awards or accolades, who are they associated with, what is their philosophy, do they write & publish their results and what’s their safety record.

2. Qualified staff: work should be led by qualified & proven experts, group leaders should be well qualified and all staff should be well briefed on risks and safety issues.

3. Where does your money go:
good organisations will always publish clear information that shows how your money is spent.

4. Proper follow-through: a good organisation will, through updates and reports, keep you informed about how the project progresses even after you’ve left.

5. What will you get out of it: be clear about what you want to get out of the experience - training, self-development, an adventure - then check whether the organisation is clear in communicating what’s on offer for you.

6. Community involvement and benefit: understand a project’s relationship to the local community and make sure that the organisation is properly embedded with locals efforts and people – does the community benefit, have they given consent for work to be carried out, how have they been involved. Is there training for locals, scholarships, capacity-building, education, etc.

7. Your fellow participants: understand the profile of the people that will share your trip by checking the organisation’s website and social media sites.

8. In the field: check that the organisation is clear & transparent about what will be happening day to day, the accommodation, food and other logistics, and also what is expected of you.

9. Captive animals: if the experience involves captive animals, be very clear on the purpose of the captive facility, where the animals come from and whether it is part of a reputable programme.

10. Handling animals: steer clear of organisations that encourage handling of captive wild animals for anything other than essential veterinary or neo-natal surrogate care. If wild animals are handled, it should only be for essential research & conservation work and following strict animal welfare guidelines.

More on the subject

German version of Top Ten Tips

More tips by Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder & executive director of Biosphere Expeditions as published in Tourism Review > more

Bad news for genuine conservation efforts > more

Voluntourism is lambasted, but Biosphere Expeditions praised > more

Voluntourism is criticised, but Biosphere Expeditions selected as an ethical experience > more 

Stamp collecting: Voluntourism, volunteering, citizen science and wildlife conservation & research - can laypeople really be of help to serious research & conservation projects? > more 

Collection of articles on how citizen science can work in wildlife conservation from Biosphere Expeditions Magazine > more 

Against the tide of bogus voluntourism > more

The expert panel who created the tips

The group of experts came from the organisations below

Biosphere Expeditions

Dr. Matthias Hammer founded Biosphere Expeditions in 1999 and is now its executive director. Born in Germany, he went to school there, before joining the Army at 18, and serving for several years amongst other units with the German Parachute Regiment. After active service he came to the UK and was educated at St Andrews, Oxford and Cambridge. During his time at university he organised and was involved in the running of several expeditions, some of which were conservation expeditions (for example to the Brazil Amazon and Madagascar), whilst others were mountaineering/climbing expeditions (for example to the Russian Caucasus, the Alps or the Rocky Mountains). With Biosphere Expeditions he has led teams all over the globe. He is a qualified wilderness medical officer, ski instructor, mountain leader, divemaster and survival skills instructor. Once a rower on the international circuit, he is now an amateur marathon runner and Ironman triathlete.

Born Free Foundation

Chris Wright is Senior Programmes Officer a the Born Free Foundation. Since starting his conservation career in the volunteer sector, Chris now coordinates Born Free’s project budgets and helps to manage a range of field conservation activities, including the Satpuda Landscape Tiger Programme in India and the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre in Malawi. From 2005-2010 he was part of the Technical Support Team for the UN-led Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP) and has coordinated logistics for the rescue and international relocation of 16 lions and leopards from zoos and circuses to more suitable sanctuary care. Chris has a MRes with distinction in Environment & Development Studies from Lancaster University, and in what he used to call his spare time, he is a Trustee of CERCOPAN - a Nigerian primate conservation NGO - and an award-winning wildlife artist.

The Born Free Foundation  is a dynamic international wildlife charity, devoted to compassionate conservation and animal welfare. Born Free regularly receives requests from the general public for information and advice on volunteering opportunities overseas. To encourage people with the desire and motivation to make a positive contribution to conservation, Born Free promotes volunteer schemes offered by a few of the projects it sponsors. It also offers more general advice to help volunteers ensure they invest their goodwill, time and effort on projects that have real benefits for conservation, whilst encouraging them to steer clear of those that can actually have negative welfare impacts for many animals.

UBrighton

Dr. Angela Benson is a Principal Lecturer in Tourism at the University of Brighton where she has been since January 2004 having previously held the position of Senior Lecturer at the Southampton SOLENT University (1995 – 2004).  Prior to her career as an academic, she worked for 13 years in leisure and recreation, managing a range of facilities and events and was responsible for working with sporting volunteers. Her doctoral research strategically reviewed the research volunteer tourism sector from the supply (the providing organisations) and demand (the volunteers) perspectives, enabling the dynamics of the sector to be determined. This research led to working with local communities in Indonesia via a scientific conservation organisation in order to promote sustainable practices.  Fieldwork for the thesis was also undertaken in Malaysia and Madagascar.  This research and previous research has led to a number of publications in the areas of Research Tourism, Best Value, Sustainability and Research Methods. Angela has been a reviewer for a number of international journals and a member of various scientific committees: ATLAS (2008), European Conference on Research Methods in Business and Management (5 years service) and Sustainable Tourism (2004 and 2006). She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 2007 and is a member of the editorial board for the Journal of International Volunteer Tourism and Social Development. She has given several keynote addresses on volunteer tourism and is the Founding Chair for Tourism and Leisure Education (ATLAS) Volunteer Tourism Research Group.

Operation Wallacea

Alex Tozer, Director of Operations for Operation Wallacea, an organisation that takes paying volunteers to work on conservation programmes around the world. Operation Wallacea is a network of academics from European and North American universities, who design and implement biodiversity and conservation management research programmes. Research is supported by students who join the programme to strengthen their CV or resume, gain course credit, or collect data for a dissertation or thesis. Academics benefit from funding for high quality fieldwork enabling them to publish papers in peer reviewed journals. This model enables the collection of large temporal and spatial datasets used for assessing the effectiveness of conservation management interventions.

Alex has been working with Operation Wallacea since 2004, and has overseen the set-up and management of hundreds of volunteer projects. He is an officer on the board of the EPA (Expedition Provider’s Association) and was on the consultancy panel tasked with development of the BS8848 standards of health, safety, and quality for overseas projects. He has an MSc with distinction in Psychology from Nottingham University, has professional qualifications in Occupational Testing and speaks bad South American Spanish with heavy English overtones.

 Tourism Concern

Tricia Barnett has been Director of Tourism Concern since 1991, working initially from an office hosted by Roehampton Institute in South West London. Tricia developed the new organisation into a globally respected campaigning and education body, heading a team of staff and volunteers that has been based since 1998 at the London Metropolitan University on Holloway Road. Tourism Concern has been working on a standard for Gap Year and International Volunteering, talking to many players in the industry and working through a respected advisory group. 

Tourism Concern fights exploitation in tourism and is an independent, non-industry based, UK charity. They have a membership of almost 900 and work with partners in over 20 destination countries to ensure that tourism always benefits local people. They are the only organisation in Europe actively campaigning on tourism and human rights issues. They work tirelessly to expose and challenge tourism's exploitative practices.  Tourism Concern takes a solution driven approach and has played a crucial role in promoting forms of tourism that provide meaningful benefits to people in destination communities.