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Volunteers in conservation

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This topic is an offshoot of another topic found HERE.

 

Volunteering wildlife is an odd thing. It's popular, as wildlife, and working with wildlife, is popular. Yet, funding for conservation is scarce. Quite a few organisations have jumped on this, and started attracting paying volunteers to run help their conservation organisation.

 

I think everybody knows about voluntourism, often in some kind of aid project. There's a growing amount of critism on this. Here's an interesting blog about that: http://matadornetwork.com/life/dear-volunteers-africa-please-dont-come-help-youve-asked-four-questions/

 

The focus of this topic is at volunteers in wildlife conservation, but the questions raised in the above linked blog are often applicable to volunteering in wildlife conservation too. These questions are:

1) Would you volunteer abroad if you had no cameras with you?

2) Does the agency have the same intentions and values that you do?

3) Are you going to do more harm than good?

4) Would you trust yourself enough to do this job in your own country?

 

I don't think question 1 is really an issue, so I'll leave it out in the rest of this post.

 

Question 2 is often not clear for the well-intended volunteer as the organisations intentions and values aren't always clear. Quite a few organisations taking short-term volunteers have come under scrutiny the last few years. Both from an ethical perspective (mainly those in the cub petting business, who pretend to do conservation) as from a scientific perspective (few have contributed to conservation knowledge beyond the area they work in, and their work within their area is sometimes questionable with respect to having a positive influence on the wildlife in that area).

 

Question 3 is a tricky one.

 

Here's a quote from the other topic:

 

 

I agree that every person should be allowed and encouraged to make a difference. But I disagree that this should be applicable to any volunteering. Just because you do something, and think it's ethical, doesn't mean you do good. This is best seen in teacher volunteers who teach for a few weeks. Who in the western world would send his kids to a school with different, unqualified, volunteer teachers every few weeks? You can argue that it's unethical to do such a thing in volunteer 'job', but the people actually volunteering would argue it is ethical because they're 'helping'. Is a volunteer a qualified person to judge on this?

How can you know that you're doing more harm than good? Especially if you have no applicable background, and thus little knowledge how to answer this question properly. Protecting sea turtle nests and carrying hatchlings to the ocean sounds great, and many people happily pay to do that. Does it help? Probably, it reduces the mortality to the shoreline. Does it help considerably/effectively? Most likely not. But changing hooks in long-line fishing has a much much bigger impact on seaturtle populations. But it's much harder to find funding to push that agenda.

So overall it's a good question to ask, but can be a difficult one to answer.

 

Question 4 might not be so applicable when it comes to volunteering with African wildlife, as there is no African wildlife in the countries most volunteers come from. Many volunteers have also been involved with conservation work in their home countries, many others have not.

 

 

I think a distinction should be made between 2 types of volunteering (in wildlife conservation).

Short-term volunteering and long-term volunteering.

 

Short-term volunteering is often paid (ie, you have to pay to volunteer), many projects who take up short-term volunteers are mainly funded by those volunteers. People usually don't need any applicable (to the job) qualifications for these positions.

Long-term volunteering is often free, and sometimes with a small stipend (ie airfare gets covered after completing of a certain period). People often need some kind of applicable qualification for these positions.

 

I personally think that volunteering in wildlife has it's place as long as it's overseen by professionals. Many jobs within conservation work, can be done without an applicable background, as long as there is oversight from professionals. I would wish there were more options for those who do have an applicable background. There is enough to do, but this is largely constrained by funding. But slowly the world is realizing the actual value of intact ecosystems, so hopefully funding will increase over the years to come.

Additionally to that I think organizations offering volunteer positions should be clear on their goals and their ethical standards. Their work should also be assessed by either government or international agencies (or a certifying organisation) with regards to their contribution in conservation, both locally and beyond their own little patch. Likewise the contribution and impact of volunteers on the work of the organisations should be evaluated too.

 

So why wouldn't organisations use paying volunteers? Many organisations don't, and these are mostly ones with a serious scientific side. If you collect data in a way it can be scientifically analyzed (for conservation purposes!) you need to train people how to collect the data. Often, these are long-term researchers with an established study population. The volunteer would need to learn the animals within this study population. The volunteer would need to learn the area, the roads, where he/she can or can't drive off-road, when he/she can or can't drive off-road, how to approach the animals, learn the people in the area, how to fix the car when it breaks down etc etc. At this point it becomes clear that a short-term paying volunteers aren't much benefit. They bring in a few hundred dollars, but cost considerable time too. Time which can be spend on writing a grant proposal for a considerable larger amount.

 

@@Game Warden Not sure which the most applicable sub-forum was to put this.

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What a great topic!

 

 

"I personally think that volunteering in wildlife has it's place as long as it's overseen by professionals." That's the only kind I have done. Like you mention, the short-term opportunities were all paid for by me and I was happy to do it.

 

1. No cameras was a rule for bears in US and pandas in China. Though each of those also offered some time for photography.

2. Yes--same values

3. Because of the pros overseeing me, I think the 4 occasions when I volunteered, I did much more good than harm.

4. One stint was in my own country. One was in Africa.

 

You've cited a good reason why this may not be more widespread: They (volunteers) bring in a few hundred dollars, but cost considerable time too. Time which can be spend on writing a grant proposal for a considerable larger amount.

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I remember very well that due to my interest in wild dogs I wanted to volunteer in for a month in Zimbabwe in the SAVE concession. I had be in touch with a researcher,and had contributed

$350 to her project; i was also planning to donate more. She said that normally that they don't take volunteers but in my case that they would make an exception. I wanted to teach about conservation in the local school,and said that I had no intention of working with the dogs because I lacked training and experience.

 

She came to give a speech at the Brookfield Zoo about her project with wild dogs. Interesting enough she failed to ask the audience to sign a petition which she was circulating on her website to end the mistreatment of wild dogs in zoos in China. At the end of her speech I ran up to her to ask her why she failed to circulate the petition,only to find myself handcuffed by a policeman who worked for the Brookfield Zoo!!! She simply had no sincerity about my offer to do volunteer work. I was released after she left because the policeman saw that i had no malicious intent nor of course any criminal record. He saw that I was a perfect gentleman. It's a shame that often when you sincerely want to help people they aren't interested because of their own self interest.

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@@optig ... me thinks you were arrested because a perfect gentleman would have removed his pith before rushing up to a lady... you uncouth Kenya hand you. As a member of the revered Order of the Pith one would have thought one would know such things!

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Posted (edited)

@@ZaminOz I love your sense of humor!!! No,I wasn't arrested only subjected to the indignity of being handcuffed when all I wanted to do was help a lady with her conservation project saving wild dogs. Please keep in mind that I haven't made it yet to the order of the pith.

 

I also think that the researcher didn't appreciate the fact that I was far better informed than the other 299 people in the audience. They were asking questions for example about wild dogs attacking people. I was one of only 2 people in the audience who had seen one in the wild.

Edited by optig
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I have been a volunteer on several research projects over the years. Of course this has included making a financial contribution etc.

 

I have actually thoroughly enjoyed them and spending 4 weeks in remote areas of the bush, feeling you may be doing something useful, was amazing.

 

What to me was disappointing was that on 2 of these I was allegedly contributing data to a research project but I think this was misleading.

 

On one we were taking photographs of bull elephants and matriarchs to identify individuals by their ear notches etc. All great fun and I loved every minute of it BUT what concerned me was that when I got there the new Guide (RSA trained) had to build a new data base for us to create the ID packages. Surely if this was an ongoing project this should already have been in existence?

 

We were also asked to complete lengthy written reports on to include predators, prey numbers etc and general sightings

 

I was told that the information was all being sent to a SA University for collation but if data is collected and recorded in different ways in cannot by easily collated. My guess? Nothing was done with the information we gathered.

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Posted (edited)

1) Yes, and I have. I also worked with pandas for a week in China like @@Atravelynn mentions. We could not have cameras on us while we were working, but it allowed us extraordinary access to the bears (hand feeding, inside enclosures) while working that I wouldn't have had anywhere else. I didn't do much other than muck cages and chop panda bread up, but if it helped the keepers free up to do other things, it was worth it. Lunchtime and after our shifts were done, we could roam and photograph as we wanted, but not from within the "special access" areas. I had to "pay to play" though, this wasn't free.

 

2) This was a panda breeding facility and the only goal at the time was to breed captive pandas. Since then, they have started a reintroduction program, whereby captive pandas give birth to semi-wild cubs who never are exposed to humans and are then released to the wild. So yes, my goal of increasing panda numbers in the wild is/was in line with theirs.

 

3) I don't think we did harm because the pandas we worked with will never be introduced back into the wild. Keeping them clean and healthy and fed is part of keeping them breeding. If we were exposed to pandas that were headed for the wild, I might have balked.

 

4) I would trust myself to do this at home, but the US is so litigious it would never, ever happen. No zoo or animal facility in their right mind would let me into a panda's cage to sweep it up, or hand feed the bears, for fear of me suing them later.

 

I'd love to be a part of research, but understand that my inability to commit more than 2 weeks due to employment restrictions might not make me a great (productive) team member, but it'd be more rewarding than shoveling poop.

Edited by amybatt
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Yes I did- one 2 week stint at Ol Pejeta actually.

1) There was never any rule about cameras but we were so busy with the chores that I wouldn't have been able to take many pictures anyway.

2) I certainly hope so

3) It appeared that we were adding data to an already existing data base. The group I was with was actually pretty energetic so we got a lot done in the time we were there. And it wasn't hard- no rocket science stuff so I certainly don't think we did any harm.

4) Absolutely. We didn't do anything that was dangerous or scary. It was pretty dry scientific stuff.

 

I think the most disappointing thing about that experience was that not enough of what we had to pay for this experience actually went to the research project which I didn't find out about until afterwards.

 

But, I had a blast and I'm still in touch with someone I met on that trip.

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She came to give a speech at the Brookfield Zoo about her project with wild dogs. Interesting enough she failed to ask the audience to sign a petition which she was circulating on her website to end the mistreatment of wild dogs in zoos in China. At the end of her speech I ran up to her to ask her why she failed to circulate the petition,only to find myself handcuffed by a policeman who worked for the Brookfield Zoo!!!

Pith tipping or not, that seems a little excessive.

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Well she is just how she treated me. I was stunned by her reaction,especially as there are so many organizations dedicated to preserving wild dogs.

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Posted (edited)

I myself have volunteered a few times in Africa, all allowing cameras and welcolming photography so long as you didn't publish the rhino ones for obvious reasons.
In a lot of them the funding came from volunteers so you did make a difference, and there was a permanent monitor overseeing everything so genuine contributions could be made.

One, however, Earthwatch, was very expensive and seemed quite profit based. The actual people were great, but the company as a whole not as much.
I've been with Wildlife ACT twice and can't recommend them enough. A group that make great contributions to local conservations of wild dog and rhino in KZN.

Would I trust myself to do it in my own country? Sure, but it's hard to envision it working...no game reserves over here!

Edited by Big_Dog
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