Not sure where to go for your next vacation? Why not combine a visit to an exotic locale with helping needy animals? There are plenty of great volunteer programs throughout the world to help feed, protect or provide medical care to animals or to assist with scientific projects related to tracking migration patterns or counting diminishing populations.
1. Conserve Shark Populations in Belize
The Earthwatch Institute offers dozens of fascinating expeditions that not only provide volunteers with a once in a lifetime travel experience, but also allow them to participate in ongoing long-term projects that have significant positive impact on the planet’s endangered animal life. In the Shark Conservation project, volunteers work side by side with scientists on research boats counting sharks, catching and tagging various shark species and positioning underwater cameras to get a better look at shark life. On land, volunteers gather information about local and tourist attitudes toward shark fishing.
2. Preserve Loggerhead Turtle Nesting Areas in Greece
Global Vision International, an organization dedicated to supporting international charities through volunteer programs, internships and raising funds, sponsors numerous opportunities for travelers to help stop the decimation of endangered animals. The Turtle Conservation Volunteer Program, located in the turtle nesting area of Lakonikos Bay in the Mediterranean Sea, asks volunteers to record the nesting activity of loggerhead turtles, protect the turtles’ nests and provide information on the importance of maintaining the turtle population to both locals and visiting tourists. The project is located near the charming fishing town of Gythio, in the southern Peloponnese.
3. Restore the Habitat of Pelicans in Florida
Sponsored by the Sierra Club, the Service at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge excursion is a combination of an educational trip and a volunteering opportunity. Travelers help to restore pelican habitat at Central Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, which continues to be adversely affected by pollution, development, invasion by exotic plant and animal species, and lack of funding. According to the Sierra Club, besides pelicans, the refuge is home to “2,200 animal species and 2,100 plant species, including 700 species of fish, 310 species of birds, and 36 endangered species, one-third of the nation’s manatee population and east coast mangrove forests and salt marshes.” When not restoring the island habitats, volunteers can attend nature talks, swim or go bird-watching.
4. Track Leopards in South Africa
In another Earthwatch Institute project, Conserving South Africa’s Mammals, scientists and volunteers work together to track endangered populations in the spectacularly beautiful Soutpansberg Mountains, an area of “breathtaking mountain vistas, pristine wilderness, and a remarkable diversity of plants and animals.” The project involves collecting data, analyzing GPS tracking information and studying the behavior of leopards, baboons, monkeys and other mammals under threat.
5. Bottle-Feed Orphaned Lion Cubs in Namibia
Noah’s Ark Wildlife Sanctuary in Gobabis, Namibia is a family-run rescue and rehabilitation center for Africa’s abandoned, abused and exploited wild animals. The shelter never turns an animal away and is consequently in constant need of help and funding to provide food, shelter and medical care so that animals may return to their natural habitat as soon as possible. Animals temporarily housed and rehabilitated at the sanctuary include lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, meerkats, baboons and antelopes. Volunteers feed the animals, bottle-feed and care for infant animals (which may include surrogate parenthood), cleaning and assisting at the animal clinic or general repair and maintenance of the sanctuary.
6. Save stray dogs in Bali
Despite being only 2,000 square miles in size, the Indonesian island of Bali has a population of over 600,000 unwanted, and often abused, stray dogs. According the Change.org, the dogs are often rabid and such a problem that Indonesian governmental authorities have resorted to brutal methods such as strychnine poisoning and shooting to cull the dog population. Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA), a non-profit animal welfare organization, promotes volunteer vacations to help manage the problem in a more humane way through a program of sterilization and vaccines. The group’s goal is to “relieve the suffering, control the population, and improve the health of Bali‘s street dogs through medical care, spay/neutering, street-feeding, puppy adoption, and education of school children.” BAWA Volunteers are asked to help by walking dogs, assisting in the veterinary clinic, cleaning, feeding the dogs and socializing puppies and kittens.
7. Provide Elephant Care in Thailand
Globe Aware, a non-profit group that organizes volunteer travel, offers the excursion Helping Elephants in Lampang, Thailand. Elephants in Southeast Asia are often mishandled, exploited or abused by their owners by putting them to work for tourists as circus performers or on safaris or by removing their tusks to sell as ivory. The National Elephant Institute of Thailand is working hard to save these majestic and intelligent animals and is in need of volunteers to bathe and feed baby animals, provide health care, lead elephants to favorite spots for the night or assisting the mahouts (elephant handlers) and learning their skills.
8. Protect Pandas in Xi’an, China
One of the most endangered animals on the planet, the Giant Panda’s population is currently hovering at only 1,000 worldwide, mostly located in China. The Chinese conservation center located in the wilderness of Xi’an offers volunteers a chance to work with researchers and conservation workers, helping them improve their English, caring for and monitoring the pandas, and helping to increase tourist awareness of the center. The adventure travel company i-to-i helps to organize trips on behalf of the center.
9. Participate in the Annual Christmas Bird Count, The Americas
For over a hundred years, from December 14 to January 5, The National Audubon Society has sponsored an annual Christmas Bird Count throughout the Americas. Volunteers get up early to help the society conduct the yearly bird census along with scientists and fellow amateur birders. No experience is necessary to participate; according to the NAS, “The count takes place within ‘Count Circles’, which focus on specific geographical areas. Each circle is led by a Count Compiler. Therefore, if you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher.” Volunteers may choose to stay close to home or travel to any of the areas within the Americas needing extra assistance. The information gathered each year is crucial in updating and monitoring bird populations and migration patterns and mobilizes large groups of citizens to report on current environmental changes to bird habitats.
10. Monitor Humpback Whales in Australia
Pender Bay, on the Western coast of Australia, is an important resting, breeding, stagging and calving ground for migrating humpback whales. Volunteers monitor, count and record whale populations and behaviors from the cliffs overlooking the bay, assist with raw data entry, site maintenance and kitchen and gardening duties. The Pender Bay Whale Research project, supported by Conservation Volunteers of Australia was founded by aboriginal leaders and continues to provide invaluable and updated information to researchers.