Around the world, governments and conservation agencies struggle to ensure that regions of wilderness, forests and marine sanctuaries are safeguarded in perpetuity. Armies of international volunteers are deployed by national park authorities to carry out a range of tasks. These include keeping down invasive species, like the rampant rhododendrons of Killarney National Park in Ireland; restoring damaged habitats and planting trees, as with the New Zealand Department of Conservation; protecting rare plants species, like the orchids in Khao Phra Wihan on the Thai-Cambodian border; and researching endangered animal species, like the marine turtles that nest in Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park. The work often revolves around minimizing the harm done by local residents and visitors by building and maintaining trails and by tackling litter. Occasionally the volunteers’ role is to help defend protected areas from poachers.
In March 2010, the world witnessed the power of nature over humans when Iceland’s unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, grounding millions of air travellers. Within days of the eruption, a group of volunteers was dispatched to the affected area under the volcano by SEEDS, an Icelandic volunteer agency that cooperates with partners around the world. Volunteers, who responded in no time to help local farmers remove volcanic ash from the soil, described the warm reception they received, the beauty of the lava fields covered with moss and the pleasure of relaxing in hot geysers after their physical exertions.
The potential rewards for conservation volunteers are immense. They can take pride in making a measurable difference in the environment while enjoying a rare chance to spend time in a pristine landscape, often at very little cost. Charges for room and board, administration and compulsory donations vary, but they normally fall between $120 and $250 a week. For example, volunteers participating in the long-established ASVO scheme (Asociación de Voluntarios para el Servicio en Áreas Protegidas) in Costa Rica, spend a month or more constructing and maintaining trails, greeting visitors, cleaning beaches and assisting park rangers. Food and accommodation costs $17 a day in addition to a $30 registration fee.
It’s more usual to apply through a mediating agency—some are commercial, others non-profit— which typically results in higher but not prohibitive costs. For example, CADIP (the Canadian Alliance for Development Initiatives and Projects) offers a range of international volunteering opportunities including some in environmental protection. Their 15-day summer project in Portugal’s foremost national park, Peneda-Gerês, involves nothing more complicated than environmental cleanup, but a fee of $290 gives participants the chance to hike in the park, swim in the river and explore the magnificent remote region of Terras de Bouro.
Some placements are more open-ended, in which case the longer you stay the lower the weekly fee. It’s difficult to arrange an independent placement at one of the world’s most desirable destinations, the Galápagos National Park, but Ecuador-based LEAD Adventures runs volunteer programmes that combine conservation work with visiting local attractions. Fees for a three-week stay are $1,590. Paying to volunteer in exotic destinations (Global Vision International also offers a volunteer programme in the Galápagos and a giant tortoise project in the Seychelles) can be an economical way to experience some marvellous places that would otherwise be out of reach.
Do some research before committing to a project, particularly if you’re dealing directly with a privately-run enterprise. For example, some private game parks in South Africa charge large sums to wildlife tourists who think they’re going as environmental volunteers. Private schemes are sometimes run out of egotism or for profit, whereas volunteering in national parks tends to guarantee a measure of credibility.
Susan Griffith is a freelance editor and author of numerous articles and books about travel, including, Teaching English Abroad and Gap Years for Grownups.
For tips on finding the right volunteer project for you, see the Verge article, “How to Choose a Volunteer Programme”.
Resources for Volunteering in National Parks Worldwide:
Albanian National Trust
The Trust accepts international volunteers for conservation, archeology and other projects.
Conservation Volunteers Australia
Overseas volunteers may book a four-week or six-week package, which includes food, accommodation and all project-related transport at a cost of A$1,037 (C$927) and A$1,500 (C$1,341) respectively.
Asociación de Voluntarios para el Servicio en Áreas Protegidas (ASVO)
Association of Volunteers for Service in Protected Areas
Archelon (Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece)
Carries out research and conservation of loggerhead turtles on Zakynthos, Crete and the Peloponnese. A free campsite is provided for those who stay at least one month; volunteers will need at least €15 (C$19) per day for food plus a registration fee of €150 (C$194) or €250 (C$324); the lower fee is for those who arrive outside the peak summer period.
SEEDS Iceland (SEE BeyonD BorderS)
Short-term volunteer projects worldwide through the Service Civil International workcamp network. Applications for SEEDS projects including environmental work in Thórsmörk Nature Reserve should be submitted through the partner workcamp agency in the volunteer's home country (for example, sci-ivs.org and vfp.org in North America). SCI and VFP recruit volunteers for short-term volunteer projects worldwide.
Groundwork, Irish Wildlife Trust
Environmental organization dedicated to the preservation of Ireland's habitats with a primary focus on removing invasive rhododendrons from Killarney National Park in Kerry and Glenveagh National Park in Donegal. Residential one-week workcamps run from June through September and cost €35 (C$45) for one week and €50 (C$65) for two, including food and accommodation (subsidized by the National Parks and Wildlife Service). Groundwork volunteers stay in one of the park’s hostels on the shores of Lough Leane.
Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park,Centro Operativo Servizio Educazione
Volunteers carry out research and protection of flora and fauna in remote locations. Registration fee is €80 (C$104) for seven days and €140 (C$181) for 14 days.
New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC)
The DOC publishes a detailed calendar of volunteer opportunities. Most require a good level of fitness and a contribution to expenses, though not always. Other organizations in New Zealand are Conservation Volunteers New Zealand (conservationvolunteers.co.nz) and the New Zealand Trust for Conservation Volunteers (conservationvolunteers.org.nz).
St. Eustatius (Netherlands Antilles)
Runs a volunteer programme to maintain park trails and a botanical garden, plus participation in a marine turtle monitoring programme lasting one to six months. Volunteers from overseas should apply though the British-based workingabroad.com. The cost for two months is £990 (C$1,535).
An academic and cultural exchange organization with an office in Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand, and an eco-volunteering programme in Khao Phra Wihan National Park on the Cambodian border. Volunteers help with a range of problems including protection of wild orchids.
National Trust, Central Volunteering Team
A national charity that, in addition to protecting 350 historic houses, looks after forests, fens, coastal paths, moorland, islands and so on throughout the UK. They organize 400 working holidays where volunteers repair dry stone walls, clear overgrown ponds, undertake botanical surveys, archeological digs or maintain traditional woodland. Most summer projects cost £85 per week (C$132) or £65 (C$101) out of season.
International Organizations in North America:
Canadian Alliance for Development Initiatives and Projects (CADIP)
Summer environmental clean-up workcamps in Peneda-Gerês National Park in Portugal, among other volunteer projects worldwide.
Earth Island Institute
Partner organization assisting with the creation of the Great Baikal Trail (GBT) in Siberia. The GBT conducts summer camp projects in national parks and reserves where volunteers spend two weeks on the shores of the lake in pristine Siberian taiga. Volunteers pay a contribution of 13,900 roubles (approximately C$475).
Environmental charity that recruits thousands of self-funding volunteers every year for short expeditions to assist with scientific field research around the world.
Global Vision International (GVI)
Scores of volunteer projects to assist in environmental research and conservation in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. They also run internship schemes including one in South African National Parks to learn conservation skills for six or 12 months (C$5,195 or C$7,995).
International Student Volunteers, Inc.
Non-profit organization that offers two-week conservation projects followed by a two-week adventure tour in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and others.
International Organizations in the UK:
Wildlife research expeditions (17 or 28 days) with camping and trekking in Nyika National Park, Malawi to assist the Parks Authority with their wildlife surveys, biodiversity research and game protection.
Wildlife conservation research expeditions to many parts of the world. Volunteers with no research experience assist scientific experts on one- or two-week projects including jaguar and puma studies in Brazil, snow leopard projects in Central Asia and reef preservation in Honduras. Fees start at £1,130 (C$1,753) for two weeks (excluding airfares).
British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV)
Programme of two-week Conservation Holidays in a dozen countries including Iceland (e.g. building and repairing mountain trails in Vatnajökull National Park), France, Bulgaria and Cameroon. Sample price for Iceland is £375 (C$582) for 13 days plus airfare.
Coral Cay Conservation
Paying volunteers assist with marine conservation expeditions in the Philippines, Cambodia and Tobago. A sample six-week project for a dive trainee costs £1,950 (C$3,024).
Earth, Sea and Sky
An NGO that recruits volunteers to carry out wildlife research and to protect the nesting beaches of the loggerhead turtle in the National Marine Park of Zakynthos, an Ionian island of Greece. Sample prices: £220 (C$341) for two weeks, £1,779 (C$2,759) for 12 weeks.
Ecovolunteer acts as on online travel agent matching paying volunteers with short-term wildlife conservation projects worldwide.
Biological and conservation management research programmes that operate in remote locations in Honduras, Indonesia, Egypt, Cuba, South Africa, Peru, Mozambique and Madagascar. Dive training available in some locations.
Volunteers are based in remote locations in Indonesian Borneo to carry out manual labour, repairing infrastructure, cutting trails, constructing guard-posts and more.
A new volunteer recruitment agency that "specializes in providing serious and affordable volunteer and internship opportunities" including some in environmental conservation, such as in the Galápagos.
Chitwan National Park
In lowland Nepal, Chitwan houses a resort that needs volunteers to help with riding safaris, cooking and more. For details, see the Workaway website’s listing of potential work-for-keep volunteer vacancies. A subscription costs €18 (C$23) for two years.
International portals for environmental jobs and volunteering. Type “national park” into Stop Dodo’s search engine to find some interesting possibilities, including research volunteer positions in Paraguay's San Rafael National Park.