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Things to consider when doing conservation work

This page is to help people use this website but more importantly help you as a prospective volunteer be aware of things you should consider before embarking on a conservation project. Before we go into choosing a project you need to decide what kind of project you want to do, you can search through these on our volunteer project page. However, using this site and choosing a project in particular should take some more thinking than just an attractive picture on the internet! I will split this into 4 sections:

  1. Which way to volunteer with the project. Some conservation projects have multiple ways of volunteering. The first choice to make is what you want to do on the project, projects have lots of ways you can contribute so decide which is best for you! Secondly you want to decide through which agency or company you want to book. You can volunteer directly through the project or alternatively, you could volunteer through ‘volunteer agencies’ these are usually a lot more expensive but give you more security and support during your trip.

  2. The efficacy (effectiveness) of the project. How successfully do the projects achieve their conservation goals? Try and find out the noteworthy conservation activities they are involved with. How much do they help the local communities?

  3. How will you benefit from the project. Is there an opportunity to gain new skills? Will you work with animals you love? Will you be living in a new culture/explore a new country?

  4. The unpopular point… your impact. Balance out the impact of your getting there compared to your impact on the project. Consider the duration of your stay and the negative effects of your global travel to get to this location.

Which way to volunteer with the project

Many people do not realise that there are multiple ways to volunteer with an individual project. Let’s say you have a turtle conservation project in Panama, this project isn’t very big and can’t advertise itself or manage the volunteer’s whole journey and their preparation etc. You can volunteer directly with them and it would be very cheap! However, you probably would struggle to find this project online as they usually they don’t have the resources to advertise, and may not provide as much support as you would like if it is the first time going abroad. If you have the time and confidence, we believe this is a much better way of doing it as you have more of an adventure, save a lot of money and have a closer relationship with the project itself.

The other way this project receives volunteers is through large ‘gap year’ or ‘go overseas’ volunteer agencies, these companies have a relationship with the projects and send them volunteers. These companies will advertise “turtle experience in Panama” or something along these lines on their own website. You then can book directly through this volunteer agency; this will provide you with the resources and support of this large company throughout your travel and time on the project. This is good for a first-time traveller as they help you through the stages of booking and worries you may have, although they are a lot more expensive.

Generally, you will receive the same experience whether you book directly with the project or with one of the volunteer agencies. We have spoken to staff at one of these projects that accepts volunteers from both avenues and they confirmed that volunteers they were managing could sometimes be paying 4x as much for the same volunteer work if organised through an agency! The only difference on the project was that the volunteers from the conservation agency had more of an ‘conservation experience’ rather than ‘conservation work’, they tended to be treated more like guests and could opt out of activities more easily. From personal experience on projects, part of the fun of conservation fieldwork is the difficulties you face and overcome alongside doing valuable research. If you are more of a ‘guest’ from volunteering agencies it could detract from your genuine experience. Although this usually depends on your own attitude much more than whichever way you chose to volunteer.

We would recommend directly contacting the project if possible, you’ll find they are very friendly and passionate about their project and you could make a great relationship with them before even arriving! It is very cheap to do this; some projects are even free! The downside might be that if it is your first time travelling abroad you may not feel confident in a new country without the constant support of a volunteering agency. The project will very likely give you advice and details on how to get to the project, but they may not have the capacity to support you every step of the way. Our staff have had this experience where it became just turning up at the project, which was fine but may be unnerving for some new travellers!

Once decided on the project and how you want to book it, most projects have multiple options for volunteers. There is usually a ‘general volunteer’ position that don’t need much, if any, requirements where you will be introduced to new conservation ideas and research. This can be compared to the more in-depth internships or longer duration volunteering options that sometimes require degrees or can be used as credit towards your degree. These will be clearly indicated on the project’s website, so be aware which position you want to apply for.

The efficacy of the project.

A key point to be aware of is how effective the project is. This is difficult to ascertain before you get to the project and can see what they are doing on the ground. To get a better idea a good starting point is past volunteers and what they have said about the project. It is very unlikely you will have a bad experience at a project, they will always be a special unique experience for you and we would suggest trying to think slightly more about the project itself. Do they do research and contribute to the understanding of a species or ecosystem? You could answer this question by seeing if they publish work or peer-reviewed science. The Conservation Network does this for you and is displayed on each project page under ‘noteworthy conservation points’.

Conservation work is an on-going project, continually trying to maintain and sustain ecosystems that are being degraded from the inside and out. It is difficult to say whether a conservation project is achieving its goals but if it is taking data and monitoring trends over time it can be directing itself towards a better future. Be aware of projects that are just ‘experiences’ and don’t really improve anything locally for the environment but just act as an experience for yourself. This doesn’t mean they’re pointless, they should be educating you about the environment to some extent which is great for awareness, but try just to take this into account when choosing a project. If the activities on the projects’ page on The Conservation Network involve data collection/analysis, teaching and habitat restoration/management this indicates that they are actively preserving and monitoring their intended goals.

Also try and find out if the project helps the local community. Conservation projects are notoriously dependent on locals to be sustainable and help into the future. Many projects fail, don’t reach their targets or just fizzle out over time as they don’t recruit the local community into the project. It is a crucial part of conservation and protecting nature in remote locations.

How will you benefit from the project.

You probably think about the beautiful remote location that most of these projects are found. You probably think about seeing endangered animals or exploring off the beaten track. You probably think that this will look good on your CV. These are all true and very valid!

You should also think about more specifically what the project provides for you. Will you be doing data collection and field research skills? An even greater benefit for your CV and experience would be data/statistical skills. This is rare as many volunteers would not want to spend their time looking at datasheets and analysing the data. It could be possible if you ask on the project, if they take data and would let you join in the input and analysis (again if they do this). Perhaps you are more interested in working with animals in rehabilitation projects. Do these projects provide you with an animal handling qualification? Will this project be good experience for your future career in this area?

There is no right or wrong reason here! Just be aware of what you want to get out of the project, if you want to just get a great genuine conservation experience then don’t worry too much about what the benefits will bring for your CV. If this is the case, try to compare your impact (helping the project) to the impact of you travelling there. Also you should bear in mind, you aren’t just helping at the project by bringing your passion and time, it is also the money you bring to the project. This supports the whole project, the local community and the staff which in turn allows it to grow and continue to advocate nature into the future.

The unpopular point… your impact.

As mentioned in the last paragraph, you should also be aware of your impact. The main point to consider are your flights to and from the project, these usually incur large carbon footprints. For example, a return flight from London to Bali produces 5 tonnes of carbon, making your travel to and from a conservation project costly in terms of carbon emissions. You can easily offset these through various schemes online, usually the airline offers the option to offset your carbon footprint through afforestation, carbon capture or some other scheme.

We’re not here to make you feel guilty for air travel, but you should be aware that if you are concerned about the environment and our wildlife around the world, having a large carbon footprint will contribute to the growing threat of climate change. This will change and in some cases destroy ecosystems which support a lot of life around the world.

A lot of these projects are in remote places and therefore drinking water and a lot of food comes in single-use plastic. Wherever possible take your own water bottle and other reusable packages. This will help reduce your plastic waste in remote locations where they could get discarded directly into wilderness environments. For countries that do not have safe drinking water, chlorine tablets are a great way of reducing your plastic use.

As mentioned before, be aware of your impact on the habitat and wildlife you are volunteering to conserve. Is the centre practicing good ethical behaviour? Do they educate the public? Do they collect data and try to improve environmental policy? Hopefully from our site you will be able to determine these ideas. Although they are generalised to a certain extent you should always do your own research before volunteering with a project.

We hope that The Conservation Network can help you find a project you like and provide you with the information you need to make an informed decision on your volunteering choice! No matter which project you choose it will be a life changing experience!



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