Voluntourism has been a growing, somewhat controversial topic in the tourism world in the last few decades, especially when it overlaps with concepts such as animal welfare and conservation. Though there are many undeniable positives, many critics claim that voluntourism often does more harm than good, and when it comes to dealing with local wildlife there are some specific problems that arise, and as volunteers, it’s essential that we are aware of them.
The Cons of Irresponsible Wildlife Voluntourism
When looking at the ethical considerations of volunteering abroad with wildlife conservation programs, 3 main problems become apparent. They are: attachment, domestication and dependency, and exploitation. These problems become exacerbated and perpetuated by 2 parties: Volunteers who are looking for attractive resume decorations, glamorous photo-ops or exotic petting zoos, and short-sighted companies and organizations that lack a well thought out animal welfare policy.
Oftentimes, animals will form attachments and bonds to temporary volunteers, only for them to be broken when said volunteers move on and leave. Animals who consistently interact with new people usually suffer long-term psychological damage and struggle to form relationships in the future, not only with people, but with other animals as well. Anti-social behavior, stress and various disorders are common in rescue animals, and are often made worse by having to adapt to unfamiliar elements, environments and people.
Domestication and Dependency
Another problem is that of domestication and dependency. Animal sanctuaries and wildlife shelters all over the world must always be cautious to not cross over from rehabilitating their animals to domesticating them. Of course, there will always be some circumstances in which an animal can not be rehabilitated or reintegrated back into the wild for some reason or another, but in order to avoid lifetimes of human dependency, the goal of wildlife sanctuaries should be to get animals ready to be released into their own environments again.
And lastly is the issue of animal exploitation. As uncomfortable as it is, we need to remind ourselves to be especially aware of our involvement with organizations that exploit wildlife, local populations and ecosystems under the guise of conservation, protection and service. Many of these organizations wave around trendy buzzwords like ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’. For example: in Thailand, just because an elephant camp may advertise a ‘no riding’ policy, that doesn’t necessarily mean the organization is ethical as a whole. Small victories are good, but not when they excuse even larger problems.
I urge you to not be contented or pacified by strategies like this, and to instead look for written animal welfare policies, ethical business practice, and of course, transparency. Do not be afraid to ask questions to assure that your energy is going to help (rather than harm) local causes.
Do Your Research
As travelers and volunteers, it is our responsibility to make sure our intentions are not misguided. It is of paramount importance that extensive research is done before you make any final decisions. When looking into whether a volunteer program or company is truly ethical or not, here are some of things you should look for or research yourself:
Look for written animal welfare and volunteer accountability policies
When looking into volunteer programs and organizations to see if they’re a good fit, it’s important that you familiarize yourself with their practices, and the best way to do that is through written policies. Thought out, written policies mean that an ethical volunteering company has both established a standard for praxis, and that they have also taken accountability in their field. As volunteers, it’s imperative that we choose to work with organizations like this that are leading by example.
Contact the organization and ask them questions directly
When working with volunteer programs, an enormous amount of trust is required from both the agency and the participant. If they’re reluctant to answer your questions or lack transparency with their volunteers, perhaps you should look to serve elsewhere.
Contact past volunteers of the program
If you aren’t getting the answers you’re looking for from the organization itself, you could contact past volunteers, as they are more likely to answer questions with much less bias, and give an honest account of their experience with the program.
Familiarize yourself with the project and its goals
How can you tell if something is harmful if you don’t know anything about it? Do some independent research on the methods and goals to see if they’re conducive to ecological preservation and the betterment of local environments.
Despite the previously mentioned pitfalls, I still believe that voluntourism has the potential to be a driving force for positive change, often providing the manpower, funding and international support that is needed to sustain long term environmental projects and efforts. Though it isn’t the solution to the problems at large, volunteer programs have the ability to provide relief much quicker than NGO’s or local government through (largely) ‘grassroots’ style approaches which should never be underestimated.
Again, voluntourism can have positive, lasting repercussions, but it is up to us as volunteers to align ourselves with the right causes and conduct ourselves in a respectful manner.
Thanks to responsible voluntourism, Orangutans in Borneo are provided much needed sanctuary after their natural habitats are destroyed from palm-oil plantations. Animals freed from illegal trade are rehabilitated in Peru, with the hope of one day seeing the wild again. It is the marriage of responsibility, service, ethics and awareness that make efforts like these possible.
As travelers and as volunteers, may we never lose sight of that.