There are a lot of volunteering opportunities in Africa, some are real volunteer opportunities, where you might be able to actually earn a bit of money. These positions are very scarce though. Definitely in Africa, a lot (if not all) of the volunteer programs you have to pay for. Nonetheless, they are a great experience and are definitely worth considering.
A word of caution though, is they are usually quite expensive, and if you care about conservation and wildlife, you don’t want to support the wrong projects. It is strongly recommended that you do your research. There are a lot of review websites, but also don’t take everything for granted what you read online. I've volunteered several times now, and have written this article to help give you some guidance on what to look for. You will find some useful links at the end of this article. But first, here are five great reasons why I love volunteering with African wildlife.
Gain invaluable wildlife research experience
Most of the projects have a systematic approach and are collecting data over a long period of time. It feels great to be part of it. I enjoy camera trapping, as it shows you straight away the results on a picture. Nothing is better than coming home after a long day of fieldwork of collecting camera traps and sitting down to watch what you’ve ‘captured’. It's always exciting to see the last pictures and see how long ago the last animals passed by before you arrived. Sometimes you'll be amazed to see that a leopard passed by the same spot 30min before you picked up the camera! It's a rush.
I also got the opportunity to use aerial antenna while checking traps. We had to check all signals every three hours, even during the night. While it seems one of the coolest jobs, it’s definitely the most tiring as well.
See the wildife area through different eyes
While doing camera trap work or other fieldwork, you get the opportunity to visit the park in a different way. It’s not just a safari experience. You get to know the area and visit places normal tourists would never get to. Camera traps, for example, are usually placed at random points, which gives you the opportunity to go off trail and explore different parts of the study area. If you are staying longer in an area and getting to know the environment, you increase you chances of seeing some amazing wildlife as well.
You start to look at things differently. One of the things I found out about our camping spot in Botswana was that once every couple of nights, a leopard was just passing by on the sandy road not 20m from our tent. I found it as I was looking for tracks and signs, a method I learned for monitoring wildlife.
Experience Africa like a local
As you are spending a lot of time around a community, you get to opportunity to get in real contact with the local people. During my time in Botswana
, we had a great contact with some locals and we got invited to come and watch a match from the World Cup in Brazil. We joined in, and we were not alone… Apparently, there was just one guy in the village with a television, so every football-minded person was there. We all gathered in his living room, watching the game in combination with some good old commentary. Even more than in Europe, every single person had his opinion about the game and they all felt like they were the coach of the team. It was a great feeling getting close in contact with the community, and an experience you will rarely have if you are just passing by for a couple of days as a tourist.
Challenge your creativity
If you are used to the “Western world”, some volunteer projects might bring you back to basics and you need to adjust to some situations accordingly. In one of the projects I joined, our water supply was driven by the power of a windmill. There was a whole system of tubes and pipes providing us with water, but sometimes they need fixing… Quite often you don’t have the resources or pieces available you need, so it’s all about getting creative and find a way to fix these issues. HINT: Duct tape always comes in handy.
Get out of your comfort zone
I never thought I would get in a situation where we get a flat tire while watching lions. Well, it happened to our team mates. We had two research vehicles at the time and I was driving the other vehicle. One of the park staff joined us as well. It was the perfect situation, lions about 100m away, late afternoon, soon getting dark. We came up with a plan, I positioned my vehicle between the lions and the other vehicle and we were just going to watch the lions. I loved my ‘job’. While I was on guard, the others were starting the process of changing the tires. I could notice a bit more of a stressful atmosphere in the other vehicle. In the end, the tire got changed, lions didn’t even pay attention at us, and all went well. I never anticipated volunteering would give me such an exhilerating experience.
Another story comes from South Africa
. On a rainy day we decided to check on one of the farmers and talk a bit about our project. He was a friendly farmer, but let’s say he had his own thought about the world (who hasn’t). We got invited for some tea, so we went inside and took a seat in his living room. Shortly after, one by one we started noticing a skin on the table and looked at each other. You could read everybody’s thought ‘Is this real!?” There was a leopard skin on the table. Strangely my first thought was to ignore it, but soon enough I was checking the skin at its paws and claws and before I noticed I tried my best Afrikaans to figure out the story of the skin. It turned out to be a leopard shot by his dad. We continued talking about the eradication versus conservation of wildlife. At least we had a great conversation and hopefully I created a bit more understanding of the research projects and maybe it leads to even better cooperation between the project and this farmer.
Whether you see it as getting out of your comfort zone, or creating on open mindset, volunteering is great for this. At least I find it a great feeling when I get confronted with other lifestyles and talk about how they see the world. This been said, volunteering is a great way to get experience, get to know great people, learn about yourself, but it’s clear you have to get into this mindset of wanting the experience a different world than the one you are used to.
Sources and credits
Make sure to check this list from the Facebook group Volunteers in Africa Beware:
Some info you want to gather before joining on a volunteer program:
• What’s the project doing, are they really doing a good job and working on topics I highly value (helping local communities, environment, …)
• What’s the participants like (age, countries, ….)
• Skills you need prior to applying
• Look for some reviews
• If you are on a tight budget (and still studying), look for grant opportunities or ask for a discount.