Julia Lesel
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Wildlife Blog

Articles on experience as a volunteer abroad, doing wildlife conservation projects (animals!), and to get Involved in Wildlife and Nature Conservation, Specific Resources Abroad and Los Angeles. And sharing stories of what it was like / my own experiences.

In future to include: more detailed / specific funny travel adventure stories.

How to join a Wildlife Conservation Program: Options and Red Flags

How to join a Wildlife Conservation Program: Options and Red Flags

In the form of Q-and-A

Q: 

It’s hard for me to always know which organizations are reputable and legitimate (though I am getting a bit better at that). But also, most organizations I’ve found that do seem like great organizations do require some payment. I understand I probably won't be paid and will probably have to pay for a flight, but is it too much to expect housing and food expenses to be covered? The eco-tourism distinction hasn't been easy.

A:

Www.conbio.org is a great website with nature jobs at different levels, all over the world- some pay a stipend, others are volunteer (can sometimes grow into more). Many are unpaid but covers food, housing, local transport, etc. www.Conbio.org. “The society for conservation biology is a global community of conservation professionals dedicated to advancing the science and practice of conserving earth's biological diversity.” The best ones I found were through one of those 2 places. I did a bat research project by reaching out to a professor at UCLA directly (just found his lab info online). Basically, I asked him what projects were going on, who needed an assistant. You can tap into your local universities like that, in whatever city you want to work in.


Q:  

But those are more in a city, right? So, if I am looking to travel and do work elsewhere, my best bet is to look at those websites rather than contacting universities?

A: 

I know with UCLA, there are labs that do a lot of international research, like this monkey lab where they go to Costa Rica and watch the monkeys / take notes. But I’m not sure how much a volunteer would have to do at the university before they are allowed to do international stuff.

Con-Bio job site though is great for finding international stuff though. Sometimes there are voluntourism ones on there though, but you need to read the fine print to see what they offer. What I like about that website is that it also has tons of stipend and paid stuff.


Q: 

I know that without much previous experience it'll be hard to find an international opportunity but is it impossible? 

A: 

One surprising thing I learned from a biologist friend of mine, was that with 0 experience you can also still get value and job even, from a voluntourism program. If you pay for a 2-week international thing for example, and when you go, start talking to the people who work there, and do a great job and take on extra roles, etc., you set yourself apart from the others and can even get a real paid job there. 

For example, when I did a 3-week project in the Peru Amazon rainforest, I saw that another girl who really loved it was willing to stay on and they hired her, paying her, to stay on for a year. She would help organize/help incoming volunteers too. Also, that project was legit difficult! They were established and wanted hardcore volunteers (resume plus 3 references)


Q: 

Do you have any tips for determining what’s voluntourism versus what’s not? Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell... Is it usually that if they make you pay for accommodation then that’s a red flag? 

A: 

Yeah for eco-tourism vs a real program tips-- a real program will ask for your resume/cv, and references, and under "cost" they will pay for some things rather than voluntourism says working like "you will pay 2000$ for two weeks" and for those you usually can just sign up and book it, without references or resume (though I’m not sure if some do, I haven't checked their requirements in a long time)

But I should solve that by looking at their websites, doing some research... Like if you google "work/volunteer with animals" all the top choices are paid ones.

For Peru Amazon project, and I had to pay 40$ / day for housing and food because they were underfunded, but it was a legit project and team at Texas A&M University (biggest veterinary research school in the USA). Rather than an easy tourist type of attraction. So, it’s hard to say where the line is sometimes.


Q: 

What kinds of questions should you ask in the interview stages before committing to a volunteer project?

A: 

You really want to know and ask about particulars. Not to be stuck someplace and have an awful experience. Ask about the level of privacy, and level of physically demanding, what kinds of other people you will be interacting with, level of isolation, like internet access. 

On Peru again, like, I don't recommend that project to anyone, even though I see them advertise on con-bio for volunteers still, because it was so physically and mentally demanding, not to mention the harsh environment, isolation (almost no internet) and basic lack of privacy.


Q: 

What is the main value of voluntourism? Are there benefits to the paid programs?

A:

I think one positive thing voluntourism does (though I haven't done one so I can't really say) is that it's supposedly an easier taste of that life. And it can be easier or harder depending on your choice, to ease into it. I have no clue what the accommodations and work schedule is like though.

It also could be considered a first step item for your resume if you want to continue in that field. 


Q: 

How do you tap into the local university? 

A: 

Local universities might be a good choice, too. Like, I think it was on con-bio where I found the monkey project in Germany. That was just some Uni grad student looking for an assistant, no relevant experience required. To them it was local, to me, it was exotic international. I was the only volunteer coming from abroad actually.

But one problem is projects can also suck-- grad students can be a good boss or a condescending jerk. You never really know. I interviewed for that on Skype, with a nice girl but then when I arrived, she was totally insane and two-faced. That whole project turned out to be one impossible situation. Humans fighting and unable to reach respectful common ground. Monkeys aside, I was supposed to stay 3 months but everyone quit after ~2 weeks. I basically ended up backpacking in Europe after that. Not part of the plan...

On the bat project, with UCLA grad student, it was pretty exotic once we got outside la. Also, she was nice to work with. Biology projects require people to live in close personal space with each other, it's so important to have good working relationship chemistry. Mutual respect. That's #1-- more important than where, or what animal. You can be miserable and trapped in a remote location without the first thing.


Q:

Is local university only for here, or also international?

A: 

Expand your thinking regarding universities. If you want to work on an international project, maybe find the lab website of a Uni in that country. E.g. I know there's a Uni in Italy, doing a project to study dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea. Could get in touch directly with them. Or unis in Australia, dig up the name of a bio prof and see what his grad students are up to. 

On my very first project, I did 3 months in Australia with a friend during her master’s degree. Helping with her protect, worked out a deal to live with her for free. Just small-time deals outside an organizational box. It’s not like I paid anyone, I just flew over and we got to work/live like that. Was great!
 That was luck. To know her, but it’s the same idea. Starting a conversation with someone and arranging a deal. Also, while I was there, I found a listing for a 1-week behavior project in the outback with kangaroos, so I went there for a week. i.e. Plugging into the local community, abroad.

And there were a ton like that... Actually, I think they have a website now... Let me find that link. Grad students from UQ looking (unfortunately they don't all use it; my friend was getting the opportunities from her grad student email inside list. But like, why not email someone on that list and ask if they know anyone else's project)

Anyway, my point is, it's really all about finding and reaching out to the people in the science networks. They are always happy for someone interested! To them "local”, to you abroad, universities at wherever in the world you want to go.


Q: 

Additional unique resources to finding interesting, legit programs worldwide:

A: 

One place you can also find opportunities is on science podcasts, where they interview researchers and sometimes they let you reach out to them. It’s about also learning to be less shy and going for it.

For example, there’s a podcast called Oologies. I also literally found one researcher woman because of a documentary I watched. Scientists, though sometimes on television, unlike celebrities, are usually pretty humble and introverted, so they are easy to contact! Because 99% of the time, nobody cares about their research passion. They are happy when you reach out!

Q: 

The language barrier. Forgetting in touch with local universities, would it be a huge deal that I only speak English? I guess I could also look into Australia or other English-speaking countries too.

A: 

For language, English is the most important research language anyways, the other languages are mostly for social stuff after the project hours. Like, knowing Spanish would have been helpful esp. for getting perks and making friends, but the research was all in English. And in Germany the same thing.

These are great! And that’s really good to know about language. Obviously, wherever I end up I’d love to start learning the basics before I get there through duo lingo or something but there’s only so far that'll take me

Q:

how early before I want to leave should I start contacting people? Graduation isn't until the end of June, and I’m still debating if I want to stay here through the summer and work to save up for these types of travels.

If I’m hoping to start mid-late August, when should I start emailing folks?

A:

I would say start looking and emailing about 3 months before

With local stuff, I emailed professors and within about 2 weeks I was meeting the grad students (3 months for international). Could easily do as low as 2 months (for Peru macaws I think it was that much).


Julia Lesel