How to Make a Difference Through Conservation Volunteering in South Africa

by Galen Schultz

It should be obvious to any person on the planet that nature and wildlife conservation is a worthy cause worth supporting, and yet, there is an enormous need for more assistance in the realm of conservation around the globe, and most especially in South Africa. 









Tracking animals at sunset in South Africa

Radio telemetry is used to track the animals twice a day: early morning and late afternoon.

There is the very real risk of iconic animals in South Africa becoming extinct and ending up in the history books for future generations.

Almost all of South Africa’s endangered wildlife is found in rural areas, which poses a real threat for both the wildlife and the local people.

The type interaction between humans and wildlife can be the key determinant of whether or not the species will survive or disappear. For example, while regulated hunting is allowed in South Africa, snaring is illegal and poses a major threat to endangered wildlife. Many conservation volunteering programs in South Africa revolve around rescuing animals from snares and implementing anti-snare measures, such as equipping animals with anti-snare collars. However, these measures alone cannot save an entire species from extinction.

It’s easy to be left in despair and lose hope when you look at the statistics of animals that have been killed due to illegal forms of hunting over the last few decades.

The alarming numbers of rhino being poached in South Africa each year, for example, makes it hard to imagine that this species can be saved. But one should consider the fact that there were only around 50 white rhinos left in the world just a few decades ago. Through conservation efforts, including conservation volunteering in South Africa, these numbers are now around 22,000. The white rhino is a good example of how we can collectively save a species from extinction through targeted, strategic conservation programs. 

It’s important to know that rhinos are not the only species in trouble in South Africa. Conservation volunteer programs in South Africa also need to bring attention cheetahs, elephants, leopards, and vultures, for example, four other important species that are under serious threat in South Africa.









Wild dogs and their pups in South Africa

So glad to have been with Wildlife ACT while it was wild dog puppy season!

Though much less well-known, the second most endangered canid species on the African continent is the African Wild Dog. Conservation volunteers who work specifically to conserve this species will quickly learn just how special and susceptible African Wild Dogs really are. The social bonds these highly-intelligent animals exhibit will move you to tears and help you realize how vulnerable they are to extinction. There are just over 400 wild dogs left in South Africa to date, and as with white rhinos, their only hope for survival is conservation programs.

Conservation volunteering in South Africa entails some very important considerations.

Not every organisation that says they host conservation volunteer projects conduct their programs ethically. There are unfortunately many organisations operating under the guise of “conservation volunteering” that are not contributing in the slightest toward preserving natural habitats and protecting endangered wildlife populations. Rather, these organizations are perpetuating and promoting the unethical side of the volunteer industry. The onus is on you to do your homework, conduct a background check, and decide which conservation organization is involved in the type of genuine conservation efforts you’d like to be a part of. 

Ask yourself the following questions before you choose an organisation to volunteer with in South Africa: 

Is the conservation organisation supported by an internationally respected conservation body, such as WWF? If it is, you can rest assured in your decision, but if it isn’t, you’ll need to continue to more in-depth research.

How many volunteers are allowed per project? Remember, the more volunteers there are on a project, the less you will be able to individually contribute. Also, large conservation volunteer groups run the risk of your experience becoming a glorified safari.









People enjoying the view in South Africa

The views from the Wildlife ACT camps are spectacular to behold.

Does the volunteer organisation allow direct interaction with animals, such as walking with lions and cub petting? It’s imperative to know that as soon as you touch an animal, that animal is compromised and will find it difficult to re-enter into a wild existence, so conservation volunteer programs that offer this opportunity should be avoided, for the sake of the wildlife.

Do you want to contribute to animal welfare or conservation? Helping to care for animals that were once wild may be highly appealing, but also realize that these animals will no longer contribute to the population growth of their species. If you want to ensure a longer lifespan for endangered wildlife species, you should rather put your time, effort, and money toward the bigger conservation picture.

Where will you work? Is it on smaller, privately-owned and managed game reserves and parks or will you work on large, nationally proclaimed wildlife reserves? You’ll make a far greater difference participating in conservation volunteering on smaller reserves, but large wildlife reserves have their benefits too. The decision is yours.

Once you decide to volunteer with an organisation that genuinely supports real conservation programs, it is equally important to understand the societal complexity that affects conservation efforts in South Africa. There are very challenging negotiations involved in conducting conservation work, between conservation organizations and government entities. Urbanization and the nation’s ever-growing population is a major issue, which leads to shrinking natural habitats that can fuel the human-wildlife conflict over land and resources.









Man putting a tracking collar on a cheetah in South Africa

Cheetahs are one of the many animals that get collared and tracked by Wildlife ACT.

Conservation volunteering in South Africa can be tough, but the rewards are worth it.

You may get dirty hair or find a scorpion in your shoes, but something very amazing happens when you immerse yourself in nature. You will feel a genuine connectedness to something that has always existed deep within you. Emotions will run high, but you will also experience a supreme sense of peace and awe when you surrender yourself to nature. 

It so easy to forget about old Africa, the cradle of life from which we all originate, and to distance yourself from the many problems that we face, but I can’t encourage you enough to participate in conservation volunteering in South Africa with an accredited organisation, and to experience truly being a part of something bigger than yourself.