'Voluntourists': Helping Animals Worldwide

Kelsey Ochsendorf wants to save the world--one animal at time. In the past year, Ochsendorf traveled to Sri Lanka, volunteering her time releasing endangered olive ridley and green sea turtle hatchlings into the ocean. At a South African nature preserve, she tracked and fed giraffes and helped socialize rare white lion cubs by engaging them in games of tug of war. In Malaysia, she brokered a truce with a band of monkeys that were pushing their territory a bit too far into the turf of their human neighbors.

The hours were long and the work was often difficult, but Ochsendorf, 24, who calls herself an "animal-loving greenie," wouldn't spend her vacation any other way. "Going to Cancun and drinking tequila shots doesn't do it for me," she says. "When the planet is in peril, we all need to do something that matters. To me, animals matter."

Thirty years ago, the rallying cry of a few intrepid wildlife conservationists was "Save the Whales." Today, the cry might as well be Save the Australian flying fox bats or the Andean bears. It's no secret that habitat loss, climate change and illegal poaching are taking a toll on indigenous animals around the globe. Fortunately, wildlife conservation is no longer the domain of just a few. Today, more folks than ever are spending their vacations helping furry, feathered and finned creatures by booking wildlife and conservation treks. These trips aren't cheap, starting at around $2,000 per person. But price doesn't seem to factor into the equation. In its annual forecast poll, Travelocity, an online travel service, found that nearly 40 percent of some 1,000 respondents plan to volunteer during their vacations in 2008, up from 11 percent last year. And of those vacationers, 33 percent said they considered conservation and the environment as personal causes.

There are some concerns that the growth of eco-tourism actually does more damage than good, by disturbing wildlife and destroying what is left of natural habitats. Not to mention those greenhouse gases emitted after flying to faraway places. These eco-friendly wildlife volunteers, however, are under direct supervision of resident wildlife experts, such as scientists or naturalists who have set up shop to help a specific species.

"There is no one demographic; our volunteers are everyone and anyone," says Rosie Plummer, a travel adviser with i-to-i, a U.K.-based company that pairs vacationers with humanitarian and wildlife conservation volunteer projects in Asia, Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa. The group has seen its wildlife and conservation tours grow from a measly 45 people eight years ago to nearly 1,000 last year. Voluntourists, as industry insiders call them, can work in nature preserves, get down and dirty assisting scientists in the field, or simply observe animals in their natural habitat, learning about what is being done to help preserve specific species. "We don't want people doing something they aren't comfortable with," says Plummer. "The trips are really about the animals and making sure people enjoy themselves and learn from the experience. We want people to feel as if they've done something good."

And it seems these wanna-be wildlife specialists are doing some good. Peter Brothers, a wildlife vet and South African tour guide, runs several trips a year that allow guests to get up-close and personal with lions, rhinos and elephants during what he dubs the "immobilization" safari. Though the animals are drugged, the safari experience is more than a glorified petting zoo. If they want, participants can assist veterinary staff with blood sampling, radio collaring and other tasks that help experts monitor health. "It's important that people realize we don't [run these trips just to] entertain guests," says Brothers. "All this work actually needs doing." Most participants are up to the challenge, except on the rare occasions when a drugged lion lets loose with a snore, says Brothers. "It sounds like a low growl."

The Earthwatch Institute credits much of its successes to its volunteers. The 37-year-old nonprofit sent some 3,800 volunteers out on 120 field projects last year to work directly with scientists around the world. Among the group's recent success stories was the release of 2,000 hand-reared African penguin chicks that were orphaned after an oil spill. The best news: the animals are successfully breeding in the wild of South Africa's Robben and Dassen Islands.
But you don't have to go as far as South Africa to find an animal in need. When Louise Craig of Rochester, N.Y., was looking to take a trip last year, she chose to go on an Earthwatch expedition in neighboring New Jersey to help save the diamondback terrapin turtle, which makes its home in the brackish waters of Barnegat Bay.

For nearly two weeks, she and her son Albert, then 10, monitored nesting sites, collected vegetation samples and tracked the turtles, whose numbers are being depleted due to land development. "These are some of the coolest creatures on earth," Craig says. "We could have gone to Disneyland, but I know that this was more important. Maybe in our own small way we helped these turtles, and that would be just wonderful."
Fortunately, when it comes to animals, cute, cuddly and cool is in the eye of vacationer.

"There really isn't an animal that doesn't get some attention," says Lisa Rooney, director of outbound programs for Volunteer Adventures in Denver. About half of their programs are geared toward wildlife and conservation, and even somewhat stigmatized animals, like bats, have their vacationing advocates.

"People come back from these trips and say they are more aware that the world is really a very small place," Rooney says, "and every creature deserve a safe place on our planet. I'm hopeful about the future."