5 wildlife volunteering experiences where you can really make a difference

From tending lions and leopards in Namibia to rescuing fruit bats in Australia – introducing some of the best wildlife volunteering experiences

3 mins

Mother and baby elephant in Thai forest (Shutterstock.com)Mother and baby elephant in Thai forest (Shutterstock.com)

1. Elephants, Chiang Mai, Thailand

On the edge of a rain forest, Elephant Nature Park shelters rescued elephants

Feed, bathe and nurse sick, wounded or distressed elephants, along with looking after the resident warthogs, water buffalo, cats and dogs. Created by Lek Chailert, a young woman named on Time magazine’s list of conservation heroes, it allows elephants to live free of the brutality of tourist trekking camps and circuses. 

After they heal, Lek transfers the elephants to her Elephant Haven, a 2,000-acre retirement home. One of the highlights is the weekly overnight hike through the jungle with these gentle giants to the mountaintop retreat. You camp under the stars on a wooden escarpment on cliff face while the elephants enjoy their night of freedom. It’s pretty primitive and you have to bring along all your food and water, and use a hole-in-the-earth toilet. 

Sitting around a fire, the Karen caretakers will tell you about Thai history and how they mistreated them. As you lay tucked in your sleeping bag, all you can hear are the sounds of night creatures and the elephants’ cowbells as they roam around.

Like this? Don't miss Walking With Elephants – a volunteer's experience of Elephant Nature Park

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Wild horses near Bridgeport, California (Shutterstock.com)Wild horses near Bridgeport, California (Shutterstock.com)

2. Wild horses,  Lompoc, California, USA 

Return to Freedom provides a safe haven for rescued wild horses

Set in the wine region where Sideways was filmed outside of Los Angeles, the 300-acre ranch is among a few private preserves that let stallions, mares and foals roam freely and form natural family bands. (Most American mustangs are being rounded up by the thousands and shipped to slaughterhouses or shoved into long-term holding pens). 

The work can be hard and grubby, from throwing hay off a pick-up truck every morning to mending fences, but there’s the joyful aspect of tending the rescues and socialising motherless foals with the aim of finding them loving homes. With the wilder and shyer ones, at first you worry about be kicked or trampled but the gentleness of the horses is calming.

Like humans, they crave companionship. When they stare back at you with soulful eyes or wander over for a chin scratch, the feeling can be pretty overwhelming. Volunteers stay in charming little log cabins. In your downtime, you can explore the local vineyards and swim or surf at the nearby beach.

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Close-up of cheetah in Harnas (Shutterstock.com)Close-up of cheetah in Harnas (Shutterstock.com)

3. Big cats and baboons, Gobabis, Namibia

A remote family-run refuge where you can do rare hands-on work with exotic orphans

An oasis in the stark, wild beauty of the Kalahari Desert, Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary is home to over 600 animals. All the rescues have names and are treated as family by the staff and volunteers, who regularly share their beds with lion cubs or baby baboons and bottle-feed infant giraffes. 

One of the biggest thrills is taking groups of baboons out for their afternoon walks across the desert and playing ball with cheetahs. As Namibia has an abundance of wildlife, lions, leopards, cheetahs and baboons – considered a nuisance by farmers – are often shot leaving orphans. 

After 38 years of struggles and small miracles, Harnas has evolved into southern Africa’s largest wildlife orphanage and attracts volunteers from all over the world. You can sleep in the communal lodges or private luxury cottages, which for over-30s is essential. 

Another unexpected thrill: some of the resident dogs and roaming 60-odd moggies will share the bed with you so it feels like a home-away-from home.

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Fruit bat hanging upside down (Shutterstock.com)Fruit bat hanging upside down (Shutterstock.com)

4. Fruit bats, Queensland, Australia

The Tolga Bat Hospital rescues and rehabilitates injured and orphaned bats  

Deep in the dense tropical landscape of Queensland, this little piece of paradise saves thousands of bats, mostly juveniles and babies. The hospital, featured in various TV shows on the BBC and Animal Planet, saves the cute spectacled flying foxes and fruit bats orphaned by an insect-spread disease that is killing bat mothers or from barbed wire injuries and torn wings. 

Volunteers get their own quarters with cosy beds and a kitchenette in lovely lush gardens edging a forest. The daily tasks include helping prepare large quantities of food and fruit smoothies and stringing apples for the adults and milk for the babies; cleaning, bottle-feeding and swaddling the orphans into tiny blankets and tucking them into bed. 

Listening to the tiny chirps and the occasional flap of wings is calming. The bats are really sweet and loveable, particularly the little ones who’ll quickly get attached to you clinging upside onto your shirt or sweater like brooches. 

There are trips to the rainforest to capture the sick or injured; and releasing the rehabilitated bats back into wild colonies is priceless and quite an emotional experience.

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Puma amongst leaves (Shutterstock.com)Puma amongst leaves (Shutterstock.com)

5. Monkeys, pumas and parrots, Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Tending exotic animals in a rainforest

A community project in the tropical heart of Bolivia in Park Manchia, Inti Wara Yassi rehabilitates victims of Bolivia’s black-market trade in exotic pets. Sitting amid a lush rainforest sheltering jewel-bright lizards and birds and various unique critters, the refuge is a shoestring operation run entirely by volunteers who feed and care for animals that arrive malnourished and mistreated. 

The sanctuary funding desperately relies on volunteers and visitors. Work is incredibly varied and absorbing and as hands-on as it gets: nursing orphaned and rescued capuchin, spider and howler monkeys, lemurs, raccoons, turtles, tortoises, parrots and wild turkeys; letting the monkeys and birds out of their cages to roam a little; and preparing healed and rehabilitated birds for their release. 

The most exciting task is taking pumas and ocelots and troops of monkeys for their daily walks in the mangrove forests. The staff and those who come to stay are big-hearted and passionate animal lovers. There are cold beers after a long, hard day’s work. It’s a life-changing experience and some of the volunteers end up staying for months.

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Britt Collins is a freelance journalist who has written for The Guardian, Sunday Times, Condé Nast Traveller and Harper’s Bazaar and was the editor of Voyager, the inflight magazine for BMI.

Main image: Wildlife volunteer (Shutterstock.com)

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