Volunteer projects

Nowadays when we travel those of us who are conservation or animal welfare minded can choose to volunteer with animals or on conservation projects all over the globe. Volunteer projects can be an opportunity for good people to donate their time and money to help with the conservation and/or welfare of wildlife in need. However, sadly there are also many operations that market themselves as conservation or welfare projects that have no concern for either, but merely the hidden agenda of making money.

It can be difficult to distinguish between the projects with genuine conservation and welfare goals and those that exploit animals for profit. One of the most important filters to use when accessing the ethics or validity of a project with wildlife is to ascertain whether there is physical contact between volunteer and wild animal (please see our No Contact Policy for a closer look at these issues)Sepilok

Physical contact or observation at close range between wildlife and humans can be detrimental to wildlife for two main reasons:

  • Habituation
  • Disease spread

Habituation occurs when wildlife is exposed to human contact or the presence of humans to the extent that they do not thrive in the wild. This usually occurs due to the association between humans and food. In the case of wildlife that has been hand reared or kept captive for a long period of time the association between human carers and food will be strong and this learned dependence on humans is one of the main reasons why it is so difficult to release wildlife back into the wild.

In the United States and Canada there is the mantra “a fed bear is a dead bear”. This describes the fact that even feeding wild animals can cause them to become so habituated to humans that they put themselves in danger by seeking out humans as they now draw an association between humans and food. Clearly it is not advantageous for wildlife to seek out human areas in search of food as any bear, lion or orangutan (for example) that wanders into human areas are usually met with fear and often fatal knee-jerk reactions on the part of humans.

When wild animals come into contact with humans they also risk being exposed to diseases or viruses which their immune systems have not evolved to combat. Because humans are primates we are able to transfer our human diseases to other primates. However, although other primates are able to catch human illness they respond differently to the illness, so something as trivial as a human cold could kill an orangutan, chimpanzee or gorilla. Human respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis and human meta-pneumo-virus can be transferred readily to other apes and this has occurred both at sanctuaries and when observing apes in the wild. The apes can then spread these illnesses to each other and the implications of such diseases spreading through wild populations has the potential to be catastrophic.

Humans are also able to spread diseases indirectly from domestic animals to wildlife. For example the feline parvoviruses are devastating to wild cat species, and can be readily spread from infected domestic cats to wild cats via contact with the same human.

In short if a project is claiming that they release animals back into the wild but they allow volunteers to have physical contact with those animals, then they are not doing the right thing by the animals in order to keep them healthy or prepare them adequately and responsibly for release.Namibia

If a volunteer programme allows contact with wildlife individuals that are sanctuary animals i.e. animals that can’t be released, then you should ask yourself is the contact having a negative emotional effect on them (for reasons described in our ‘selfie’ section above) or putting them at disease risk. If the answer is yes then the project does not have the best interests of the animals in mind.  You should also ask yourself, “is the contact absolutely necessary and does it benefit the animal in any way?”  If the answer to this question is yes, then it is preferable that an experienced member of staff administers the contact, as someone who is constant in that animal’s life, rather than transient volunteer. The best volunteer projects can utilise the money they receive from paying volunteers to employ such permanent staff as animal carers.

Some reputable sanctuaries do choose to allow their volunteers to have some contact with the animals. When this occurs there are five key issues to consider;

  1. Physical contact should only be with sanctuary animals (i.e. not wild or semi wild)
  2. Contact should not harm the animal physically or emotionally (such as allowing the animal to form a bond with someone who then disappears from their life).
  3. The contact should be a positive experience for the animal and not just for the volunteer.
  4. The contact should not present any risk of disease spread
  5. The contact should be safe for the volunteer.Gibbon

These five factors very rarely occur simultaneously.  The problem even with a reputable centre offering contact under these conditions is that it’s still contact, and this makes it very hard for well-meaning potential volunteers to distinguish between ethical and unethical volunteers projects.

The bottom line is that volunteers must research a volunteer project very carefully and thoroughly to ensure they are making an ethical choice. A lack of independent research can result in people taking things at face value and being misled by organisations or travel agents who are keen to book places on their project.  An example that illustrates this point well is projects that offer ‘hands on’ volunteering with lions.

Volunteering with lions

There are now a number of volunteer programmes and tourism opportunities that offer the experience to cuddle a cub or walk with juvenile lions. These experiences are peddled as conservation initiatives.  Volunteers and tourists are duped into thinking that the money they pay to engage in these activities will in some way assist the animals on their path to being released into the wild. Sadly, the reality could not be further from the truth.  Lions are indeed in decline due to habitat loss, disease and hunting. It is important to note that there are reputable sanctuaries that work to protect and conserve this species, but none of them offer volunteers or tourists any opportunity to pet, walk with, take pictures with or hunt these animals.

1. Caring for young cubs:

What volunteers are led to believe:

At many volunteer projects, volunteers help care for very young cubs by feeding them, bathing them and stimulating them to pass urine and feaces as the mother would usually do this for them at such a young age. Volunteers are often told that the cubs are orphaned or that they risked being attacked or eaten by other lions if they weren’t raised by humans. Volunteers are able to interact with cubs as young as few days old.

The reality:

In South Africa there are hundreds of breeders who are mass producing lion cubs. Cubs are taken from their mothers at a very young age, sometimes less than one week old. They are often supplied to tourist resorts and “volunteerism” programmes where they are handled and used as photo props all day long, or where they are ‘raised’ by volunteers. In some cases, in order to maximize profits, the same cubs raised by volunteers are also simultaneously being used as photo-props for paying tourists. These young cubs should be spending a large part of their days resting and sleeping.  Instead the exhausted animals are passed around day in, day out, so that everyone can get their perfect photo.Lion cubs

A lion cub would usually stay under the watchful eye of their mother until they are roughly two years of age. Whilst males leave at around 2-3 years of age, usually to join or form a coalition, the females stay with their pride for life. The lioness provides substantial parental care during this time and will go to great lengths to protect her cubs. How traumatizing then it must be for the lionesses in these situations, who are used as breeding machines and have each litter of cubs stolen from them often within hours or days of birth. The cubs are separated from their mother’s swiftly so that they get used to being handled by humans from a young age, and the lionesses will be able to become pregnant again sooner.

A wild lionesses shows the extent of a mother’s love as she risks her own life to save that of her cub who has fallen down a steep cliff

A wild lionesses shows the extent of a mother’s love as she risks her own life to save that of her cub who has fallen down a steep cliff

Not only do the lionesses suffer emotionally and physically as a result of being constantly pregnant, their cubs suffer too. It takes time for cubs’ immune systems to develop. Their immune systems are not competent to fend off illness until they are at least 16 weeks of age. Stressors such as being torn from their mothers, having a nutrient deficient diet which lacks their mother’s milk, being transported and handled by hordes of different people further predisposes the cubs to disease which their compromised immune systems are unable to cope with. As a result many cubs are ill and show signs of illness and stress such as severe diarrhoea and clumps of missing fur.

Captive cub missing large patches of fur

Captive cub missing large patches of fur

2. Walking with juveniles

What volunteers are led to believe:

When cubs outgrow the cub petting stage they are often used in lion walks, and volunteers, as well as paying tourists, can walk alongside the lions. The lions are used in this way generally between the ages of 9 months to three years old. Again volunteers and tourists are told that these lions are pre-release and that the walks help with preparing these animals for release into the wild.

Walking lions

The reality:

Lions at this age are fully capable of mauling a human, when we think about it logically it doesn’t make any sense to be able to stand next to or walk alongside such a large predator. These juveniles are made to walk whenever a paying customer requires this of them. The notion that humans could teach a lion how to be wild by taking it for a walk is laughable, the very fact that they are so used to this human interaction makes them totally unsuitable for release into the wild. When not walking with tourists or volunteers the lions in this age category tend to live in relatively small barren enclosures. Lions are boisterous by nature but this obviously presents a safety risk for humans who want to interact with them, so they are often beaten into submission from a young age so that they can interact with people. Lions caged

3. Where do the lions end up?

What volunteers are led to believe:

Volunteers and tourists are led to believe that the cubs they cared for or had pictures with and the juveniles that they walked with will eventually be released happily ever after into the wild.

The reality:

Sadly this could not be further from the truth. When they reach an age where they can no longer be used for interactions with volunteers and tourists the animals are sold to private owners or into the canned hunting industry. In some cases the cubs are ‘on loan’ and when they can no longer be used for walks, they are returned to the breeders who keep them until they are of “huntable” size and then sold into the canned hunting industry.

Canned hunting is the hunting of wild animals within a fenced area from which they cannot escape. This legal industry is burgeoning in South Africa.  Lions are being mass-produced in captivity to supply the demand for a “trophy” animal.  As if this weren’t upsetting enough, the lions are so habituated to people that they do not show the appropriate fear response when they see their hunter, and in some cases they will actually approach only to be shot with a bow and arrow or a rifle. Only a lucky few are killed by the first blow.

Lions are routinely inbred in order to achieve the white colour morph which results from a recessive gene that causes leucism. Wild white lions have only ever been seen in the Timbavati Game Reserve. Because white lions are rare in nature they are popular in the canned hunting industry.  Sadly there is a perception that a ‘rare’ morph of a beautiful majestic animal is a suitable trophy.

The purposeful and intense inbreeding of individuals, who all ultimately descend from the same gene pool, has led to a number of health complications. According to Dr Pieter Kat of LionAid, intense inbreeding of white lions has been shown to lead to a number of disorders.  These include skeletal deformities, immune system deficiencies, digestive problems and neurological conditions. Therefore, the inbreeding of these animals has resulted in congenital disorders that have an impact on the animal’s health and welfare.Canned hunting