Conservation volunteering (Alex Kendall)
List Words : Alex Kendall | 07 June

Conservation volunteering: know before you go

Thinking of signing up for a conservation trip? Before you give your time (and possibly money), make sure you've followed these insider tips

1. There are more opportunities than you can possibly imagine

Conservation is a global effort, so look around and see what inspires you. Yes there are opportunities to travel to exotic countries and work with endangered animals, but you may be surprised by the work going on near to where you live. Conservation organisations have everything from work weeks and one-off conservation days to long-term internships. If you are keen to travel abroad, be prepared to spend a lot of time looking at different options.

2. Decide what you want to achieve

It is important to be passionate about a project, so make a list of exactly why you want to do conservation, and what you want to achieve. If you decide you just want a holiday, then perhaps a conservation project isn't for you. Dedicating your time to a greater objective is why people get involved in conservation; the chance to see new places is obviously exciting, but should come second.

3. Read up on the organisation

There are hundreds of different conservation organisations out there, and you should make sure you investigate an organisation's history. What are their aims? Have they influenced local or national policy? What species or environments have they protected? What is the evidence that they have been successful? And have there been any scientific papers published from the work they have done? It is important for you to determine whether the project you are signing up to is a genuine scientific conservation project rather than 'conservation tourism'.

4. Find out where the money goes

Will you have to pay to take part? And if so where does the money go? Make sure you do your research on this one, especially to determine if the organisation is a not-for-profit or a charity, and whether some of your payment stays in the country rather than it all going back to a central office. There's nothing wrong with paying for what are often very expensive projects to run, but there is a big difference between covering your costs and supporting a profit-making conservation company.

This large insect was Alex's room-mate in Borneo for two months. Luckily, he was prepared for basic living conditions...

5. Be prepared for some hardship! 

Doing real science is not going to be a trip to the petting zoo, and scientists and conservation workers are not going to be spending the budget on expensive accommodation. Find out how you will be living and what you will be eating; decide for yourself if you can handle the conditions before you apply. Remember to keep an open mind about this: the harder the work, the more you will have contributed – hopefully!

6. Talk to previous volunteers

Follow up your communication with the organisation by chatting to someone who has been on the project before. Find out what their expectations were and what they did. Would they recommend the project and did they get out of it what they expected? Did they feel they genuinely contributed to a conservation effort? Be concerned if the picture they paint is different from what the organisation has said.

7. Find out what training you'll be given

One of the huge benefits of volunteering, other than contributing to important projects and gaining experience, is learning new skills. Many projects will offer you some kind of tuition in skills needed before you start and during the project, so make sure you find out what this tuition will be and what you can learn.

8. What skills are you expected to have?

Some projects or volunteering opportunities require you to already have relevant skills or qualifications. If these are required then make sure you can fulfil the criteria before you apply, or find out how long it would take to get qualified and then apply.

9. Ask questions

Will there be a range of tasks or will you be doing the same thing every day for a month? Don't be afraid to call up the organisation and ask lots of questions. If you can, talk to those who will be leading you on the ground. Remember, you are giving your time and sometimes your money to contribute to their work, so you have every right to question. The last thing you want is to turn up and find that things are different from what you imagined, just because you didn't ask.

10. Read up on the ecosystem

Do your background work on the animals and plants you are going to see, and a bit about the history of the region. It's amazing how your interest in a place can be fuelled by reading, and it will give you a greater experience, as well as giving you a head start when you arrive.

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