Once I started compiling my list of non-RV types of travel and places I wanted to visit outside the US, I realized my list wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t include some of the international volunteering I hope to do someday.

Travel is purely for pleasure. But traveling in order to volunteer is a little different. You still get to experience the pleasure of the place but by volunteering you are giving back a little to the world. And, as I’ve learned from the volunteering I’ve done in RV life, there is tremendous satisfaction that comes from giving your time and talent.

While I’d heard of the word ecotourism (defined by Oxford Dictionary as “tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, intended to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife”), it is only in researching organizations I’d like to volunteer with that I came upon the word volunteer tourism. Turns out there are actually companies that put together volunteer packages around the world.  It’s kind of great because you know your full itinerary before you even leave home plus they take care of the details.

I’m not going to talk about those volunteer tourism companies in depth. But, for those interested, I wanted to pass along a couple of resources. This doesn’t mean there aren’t a bunch more or that these are the best (though they get positive reviews on Google). These are simply the ones I’ve come across and like what I see when I review their website. First, there is The Great Projects. On their site you can search by country, by type of volunteering or by area of interest. Second, there is GeoEco which also has search features and even includes a couple US projects (all in Miami).

International Volunteering: Big Picture

It would be easy to make a list as long as my arm, a list that included every where doing everything. But applying the principle that there is only so much time and money to go around, I will share with you the three I’ve watched the most videos about and have done the most research on. In other words, the ones that are at the top of the list. That said, I reserve the right to scramble my list should I discover new and different places and opportunities that tickle my fancy more.

Currently, I have a keen interest in volunteering in the following locations:

  • Africa
  • Indonesia
  • Thailand

And following is what I hope to do in each of those places.

International Volunteering: The Monkeys

Do you ever get sucked in to certain types videos on YouTube? I do. All the time. Nearly always, it’s about animals. Yes, the dog and cat videos that suck everyone in. But another big one for me is monkey videos. My favorite is actually also on television, a show called Jungle School. They post clips and a few full episodes in their entirety on the Smithsonian YouTube channel. If you have an hour, watch THIS. I promise it will make your heart happy and maybe a little sad that Jungle School has to exist at all but mostly happy.

Baby orangutan hanging from a branch in the forest.
Baby Jeni from Jungle School, learning how to climb.

After watching tons of these monkey videos, I got to wondering if you could visit the places that rescue, rehabilitate and release these monkeys. Then I went a step farther and wondered if a person could volunteer to help the monkeys.

The answers, in most cases, is a resounding yes.

All of the programs I’ve looked into, you pay to volunteer. However, in addition to the funds helping the organization (it’s possible, some portion of your fee could be tax-deductible), they cover the cost of your accommodations and food, making it a pretty good deal. Plus, you don’t have to hassle with figuring out where you’ll stay.

Most of the places serve vegan and vegetarian meals. Great for me. If I were to guess as to why this is, I’d say that the cost of meat is a factor. Plus, on a vegan diet, they wouldn’t have to make many additional dietary changes for people (except allergies).

Primarily the places on my list for volunteering for the monkeys are in Africa and Indonesia.

Monkeys in Africa

In Africa, I’m interested in volunteering with the Vervet Monkey Foundation in South Africa, Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone. In Kenya, there is the Colobus Conservation. They don’t work with a specific species but rather with six monkey species that live in the area of the beautiful beach town of Diani on the southern coast.

A vervet monkey sitting on a log in the jungle. It has a white body and a black face.
A vervet monkey.

A Chimpanzee Conservation Center in Guinea I was keen on (partly because at $160 per month, it was by far, the least costly place to volunteer) but it required conversation-level French which I do not possess. For five minutes I was also interested in the Jane Goodall Chimp Eden in South Africa but at $135 a day with no meals that one quickly was scratched off my list.

All of these, plus others in Africa make up a group called Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA). A total of 23 organizations spreading across 13 African countries all work to “securing a future for Africa’s primates and their habitat.” The great thing is they are all listed on a single website so it makes researching quite easy.

Wooden sign among jungle trees that reads: Tacugama Chimps Welcome You.

A Soap Box Moment

Indonesia is a country in between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and is made up of 17,000 islands. Yes, that’s 17,000. One of those islands is Borneo. Borneo’s forests are being decimated to make way for mono-cultural plantations (the trees needed for making palm oil…you might remember I mentioned that palm oil is responsible for 8% of world-wide deforestation in one of my vegan products posts). Orangutans live in those trees. Adults are killed and some starve as their forests are mowed down, leaving babies (who stay with their mothers until the age of eight) orphaned. Their conservation status is now considered “critically endangered” as the population continues to dwindle.

Okay, let me jump off my little soap box.

Monkeys in Indonesia

The Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation has two locations on Borneo. The Central Kalimantan Orangutan Reintroduction Program at Nyaru Menteng is where they film the Jungle School television program that I fell in love with. But, as near as I can tell, at this location they neither allow visitors nor do they utilize volunteers. 

Lucky for me they also run the East Kalimantan Orangutan Reintroduction Program at Samboja Lestari. Now, Samboja Lestari doesn’t have a volunteer program either. However, one of their ventures is the Somboja Lodge which is a nice place to stay (and has air conditioning) for about $15 a day which includes breakfast.

A hotel in the middle of a dense forest that looks like a giant tree house.
Somboja Lodge.

As part of your stay, you get a boat ride to see orangutans on one of their man-made islands. These are for those monkeys who are not releasable but still allows them to live a reasonably wild life with workers making daily food drops to the islands.

You can also take a tour to visit the sun bears that they’ve rescued. Sun bears, in case you are wondering, are the small species of bear and they live in rainforests. Here is a 3-minute super cute video with 14 fun facts about the sun bear. Plus, Somboja Lodge offers additional tour packages.

This one isn’t technically volunteering and yet they show pictures of people planting trees and somewhere I read you could also spend a few hours doing things like cutting fruit for the orangutan food drops.

For me, it’s kind of great. It balances a reasonable, even great, price point with getting up close to the animals without having to work 40 hours per week. Plus, the accommodations are quite nice. The place you stay looks like a big tree house in the forest.

Mama orangutan walking through the jungle with a baby clinging to her back.
As seen on one of the man-made islands.

Another YouTube Video

Let’s revisit YouTube videos for a moment. Have you seen the ones where a guy plays piano for elephants in the jungle? They make their way around Facebook with some regularity so I’m guessing most people have seen one or two. Those elephants lived a hard life as laborers or ride givers, often inadequately fed or cared for, prior to arriving at the sanctuary. The guy who runs the sanctuary had an idea that the elephants might like music so asked his wife for a piano for his birthday one year. The rest is YouTube history.

Elephants in Thailand

These videos are, in fact, where it all started for me. After seeing it, I was intrigued enough to wonder if international animal sanctuaries included volunteer opportunities.

Group of elephants in the jungle.
How cool would this be to see up close and personal?

Ironically, there are “best practices” many organizations consider a must if you want to visit or volunteer at the best, most ethical sanctuaries. Obviously, things like not chaining or using bull hooks are on the list. But the two “musts” cited everywhere is that a place mustn’t allow visitors to bath with the elephants or give rides. The reason? Neither are natural behaviors for elephants. Bathing, of course, is but bathing with people is not. So, the irony is that the sanctuary that makes the videos of the man playing piano while the happy elephants sway is not on anyone’s top places to volunteer because they allow volunteers to bath with the pachyderms.

I was a little sad when I discovered this. But—good news—there are plenty of places that meet the best practices standards. Elephant sanctuaries are throughout Asian and African countries but I honed in on being an international volunteer in Thailand.

Like the monkey places, these elephant places charge volunteers but the experience includes food and lodging. The ones I’ve looked into run about $500 per week. Currently I have three places on my list.

Phuket is considered a gold standard sanctuary. They are leading the way when it comes to the ethical treatment of retired/rescued elephants. Not only do elephants roam free but they also bathe freely too with the only tourist/elephant interaction allowed at feeding time.

Old elephant scratching herself between two tree trunks. Dense greenery all around.
Sixty-nine year old Madee was the first elephant rescued and brought to live at Pluket Elephant Sanctuary.

International Volunteering Thoughts

So those are the international volunteering ideas that have been running around my head in recent months. What about you? Have you ever volunteered internationally? Or looked into it? Would love to hear other people’s experiences and ideas.

Photos

Since I haven’t been to any of these places, I had to borrow photos for this post. Thanks to Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Samui Elephant Haven, BOS, including the Somoja Lodge and PASA.

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