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Animal Voluntourism

by Belinda Recio

Make your vacation a transformative journey by helping animals

Most of us plan our vacations with the hope of getting away from it all, and discovering something new about the world and maybe even ourselves. But sometimes we feel let down or unfulfilled when we return from our travels. Perhaps it’s the crowds, or predictable itineraries that leave us feeling a bit flat. It’s not that Caribbean resorts and Parisian cafes don’t have their charm (they do) but there are times when we long for something bigger—a transformative journey filled with serendipitous discoveries that connect us to the world and to our own potential, too.

If you are looking for this kind of transformative vacation, consider voluntourism—a vacation trend that combines volunteering with travel. Voluntourism opportunities range from working on archaeological digs and ecosystem restoration projects to supporting human rights efforts. People who have taken these kinds of vacations often report that not only did they learn more about the world, they also discovered hidden interests, talents and passions in themselves. They returned home with a more expansive, and sometimes life-changing, sense of who they are.

Although there are many kinds of voluntourism, to stay true to this column’s mission, I put together a sampling of opportunities involving animals. The satisfaction that comes from spending time in nature, helping animals and knowing that you made a difference is likely to send you home seeing the world—and yourself—through new eyes.

Auditing Sharks in South Africa (one to two weeks)


Here’s your chance to help research shysharks, catsharks, pajama sharks (yes—there really are types of sharks known by these names) and other small shark species, some of which live nowhere else in the world. To better protect them, scientists need to determine where they hang out so that they know which habitats and areas need protected status. As part of the audit team you will catch sharks, record the environment where they are caught, measure them, photograph them, tag them and safely release them. Your team may also setup underwater video cameras and analyze the footage you capture.

Borneo Orangutan Protection (one to three months)


Orangutans use tools, teach one another, plan ahead, engage in deception and are capable of learning human sign language. Who wouldn’t want a chance to learn about these fascinating orange apes? This voluntourism opportunity allows you to participate in an orangutan rehabilitation project located in the same jungle where the BBC television series Orangutan Diary is filmed. You will help construct rope bridges, hides and viewing structures, as well as participate in tracking.

Sea Turtle Conservation in Sri Lanka (one week)


This turtle conservation program—in collaboration with Sri Lanka’s Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance—works to rehabilitate and protect several species of sea turtles. As a volunteer, you will provide hands-on assistance with local conservationists and help out with beach cleanups, daily maintenance of the turtle hatchery, care and feeding of turtles, safeguarding hatching eggs and releasing turtles into the wild.

Conserving Koala Country (10 days)


During this 10-day expedition in the Great Otway National Park in Victoria, Australia, volunteers work closely with koalas and are involved in all aspects of the research, including capturing and handling koalas (under supervision of staff), radio tracking, habitat assessment, operating camera traps and night tracking.

South Africa Wild Cat Sanctuary (two weeks)


This is a permanent sanctuary for African wildlife that cannot be released back into the wild, as well as a rehabilitation center for animals who are able to return to their natural habitat. As a volunteer, you will be working with a variety of animals, including cheetahs, lions, leopards, caracals, foxes, jackals, meerkats and monkeys. Your volunteer tasks may include food prep and feeding, building, repairing and cleaning enclosures, providing enrichment activities for the animals, and giving tours to visitors.

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