How to Volunteer Abroad with Animals

by Laura Jelich

Animals come in all shapes and sizes, yet they all somehow manage to steal our hearts in one way or another. Whether it’s your chosen career to work with animals or simply a personal passion, volunteering abroad with animals is a decision that will change not only your life, but the lives of the animals you choose to help.

So how do you choose what type of animal volunteer work is for you? Start by taking a look at the following top ten ways to volunteer abroad with animals!

Sea turtle on a beach

Sea turtle on a beach. Photo by Ian Delgado

1. Sea Turtle Conservation & Research

All seven species of sea turtles in the world are declining at an alarming rate, the majority of which are already classified as endangered. Sea turtles face slim odds at an early age, with only one in 5,000 ever reaching adulthood. Those lucky few that do make it, reproduce extremely slowly and must deal with habitat destruction, entanglement in fishing gear, and being poached for their eggs, meat, skin, and shells.

Although nearly any country with a coastline and a turtle population will have some type of sea turtle conservation effort, Costa Rica is the most common country for sea turtle conservation volunteering abroad. Since eating and selling turtle parts is very much ingrained culturally and economically in the lives of locals, conservation efforts grant a lot of focus to creating sustainable solutions that are mutually beneficial for both the human and turtle populations in Costa Rica. Collecting data for research, rehabilitating injured adults, operating hatcheries, and assisting hatchlings on their journey to sea are all important duties volunteers can expect to perform as well.

2. Elephant Conservation & Care

There are two species of elephant, African and Asian, each with several subspecies. Over the course of the 20th century, the populations of both elephant species have experience dramatic declines as a result of poaching, conflict, and habitat destruction. With an estimated 30,000 to 38,000 elephants poached for their ivory each year, Asian elephants are now considered an endangered species and their African cousins are in a likewise vulnerable state.

With less than 2,000 wild elephants believed to be left roaming in Thailand, this Asian country is the most popular location for elephant conservation volunteering abroad. Wild elephants are not the only ones in trouble in paradise, however. Countless elephants that were previously domesticated to work in the now-banned logging industry have either been abandoned to roam the streets dangerously or used inhumanely as tourist attractions. Elephant sanctuaries in Thailand work to rescue and ensure the proper care of these gentle giants, so a large part of a volunteer’s workload will consist of washing, feeding, walking, and cleaning up after them.

African Elephants

African Elephants

The African elephant is part of the wildlife group known as “The Big Five” in Africa. South Africa is especially common for volunteering abroad with elephants in Africa, and many programs place volunteers on big game reserves that allow interaction with the remaining Big Five: lions, leopards, rhinos, and buffalo. Research, including data collection and behavior monitoring, is an especially important task for those who volunteer with elephants in South Africa. It is worth noting that volunteers should be extremely wary of any organization that allows riding the elephants, as this popular tourist activity is actually detrimental to the elephant’s spines.

3. Dog Rescue

Feral and stray dog populations continue to be an issue in many areas of the world, so volunteers with varying degrees of experience can find numerous opportunities to help man’s best friend abroad. Additionally, street dogs pose a health threat to humans by carrying and transmitting diseases and often do not receive the proper care and treatment they need, so this specific population of dogs is a common focus of dog rescue projects abroad.

Nepal and Central America, most especially Guatemala and Mexico, provide an abundance of projects that involve volunteering with dogs. Spay or neuter, vaccinate, and release programs are important and popular efforts that offer veterinary professionals and animal-lovers alike the chance to make a tangible difference for dog populations. Additional volunteer efforts abroad include: humane management of street dogs, educational campaigns, basic animal-care in rescue centers, or simply showing love to abandoned and abused dogs.

4. Primate Conservation

Hundreds of different species and subspecies of primates exist throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas today. But most volunteer programs are primarily focused extensively on orangutans, monkeys, and chimpanzees, all of which are on the endangered species list.

Africa, Thailand, and Guatemala all offer the greatest number of placements for volunteering in primate conservation abroad, however orangutans are found almost solely in Indonesia. Both Sumatran and Bornean Orangutans face probable extinction in the next ten years, as a result of deforestation by human industrialization, making them an especially important area of primate conservation work. Habitat protection, rehabilitation, and raising awareness are vital in determining the fate of orangutans, and volunteers can make a real difference by volunteering abroad with these intelligent and patient relatives. Possible duties include a range of activities, from filming and studying orangutan activities to posting updates and clips on facebook and organization websites.

Yawning lion

Yawning lion - Photo by Skeeze

5. Lion Conservation & Rehabilitation

While lions used to exist throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe, this magnificent species now lives naturally in Africa alone, and numbers continue to dwindle even there. Habitat loss and conflict with humans have contributed to their classification as a “vulnerable” population, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Volunteering abroad with lions is typically focused on re-growing the lion population and then rehabilitating them to be released back into the wild. Volunteer duties may include: assisting park rangers, researching lion behavior, rearing lion cubs, completing projects on the reserve, performing educational programs in schools, and conducting community outreach.

South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Zambia make-up the most popular African countries for lion conservation volunteering abroad, with exceptionally high numbers of placements in each. Antelope Park and Victoria Falls are world famous (and breathtakingly beautiful) national parks in Zimbabwe that offer incomparable locations for volunteering abroad with lions, and other African wildlife.

6. Marine Conservation

Unsustainable, destructive fishing practices and pollution, via oil spills, sewage, plastic, and chemical and agricultural waste continue to cause significant damage to marine ecosystems and species. With over 70 percent of the world covered by ocean waters and only 0.6 percent of those oceans standing protected, volunteers are being a vital resource needed for success in marine conservation efforts. Beach bums passionate about marine species will especially love learning new skills while contributing to the conservation of marine wildlife populations.

Volunteers may choose from a variety of marine conservation volunteer programs abroad, including joining dive teams working to protect Madagascar’s marine ecosystems or sailing with dolphins to collect data off the coast of Italy. Some marine conservation volunteer programs even offer Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) certification or allow volunteers to live on research boats during their stint abroad. The island country of Fiji is the soft coral capital of the world and one of the most popular locations for marine conservation volunteering abroad. Volunteers will have the opportunity to experience some of the Pacific’s best and most accessible dives while mapping the reefs and recording organism feeding and behavior habits.

7. General Wildlife Conservation

While many projects focus specifically on the protection, conservation, or care of one specific species, there are so many incredible animals around the globe that sometimes it’s impossible to pick just one! Have no fear; there are also volunteer programs available that offer the chance for volunteers to work with numerous of the native wildlife. The most common locations for wildlife conservation volunteering abroad are at wildlife reserves, parks, and zoos, and volunteers often have additional activities and adventure options available to them outside their placement.

Australia is an especially exciting location for a wildlife experience. Volunteers can help care for injured and orphaned animals in Sydney ranging from kangaroos to cockatoos, or join a team of zookeepers at one of the world’s most celebrated wildlife parks, such as Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo.

Africa is another extremely popular location for volunteering abroad with animals. Options in Africa include a wide range of animal populations for volunteer to choose from, including: The Big Five, large predators, big cats, endangered species, and much more.

8. Equestrian

The bond between humans and horses is already one-of-a-kind, but when combined with volunteer work it is sure to be an experience that won’t soon be forgotten. Equestrian volunteering abroad may include training or research, but most often involve either equine-assisted therapy or the care and rehabilitation of abused and neglected horses. 

South Africa and Argentina are two of the most common locations for equine volunteering abroad, where duties may include cleaning, feeding, grooming, and general care of horses. When working with mistreated horses, simply showing extra love and affection is also an equally important task. Volunteers placed on equine therapy projects may also get to assist in preparing for lessons and interacting with patients.

Wildebeests in the wild

Wildebeests in the wild

9. Wildlife Photography

Though it may not involve as much poop-scooping or physical labor as other volunteer work with animals, wildlife photography is not easy! Volunteers will push their photography boundaries and develop their portfolio while getting up close and personal with some of the world’s most incredible species. Not to mention, wildlife photographers can often use their material to aid researchers or raise community or global awareness.

Africa is an especially thrilling location for wildlife photography volunteering abroad, particularly South Africa and Zimbabwe. Home of the famous Big Five, volunteers may have the chance to live among lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalo on wildlife reserves while participating in photography workshops during their wildlife photography volunteer program abroad.

10. Veterinary Work

Many animal volunteering programs abroad can be tailored based on individual skill sets, while other programs exist specifically for those with certain areas of expertise. Veterinary students looking to gain hands-on learning and boost their resume can find opportunities for veterinary volunteering abroad, ranging from rehabilitating wildlife to performing domestic animal medical care. Seasoned professionals can likewise find fitting opportunities to volunteer abroad with animals, which allow them to put their experience to use, in ways that may not be available in the country otherwise.

Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central America are all ideal locations for volunteers looking to gain medical experience volunteering abroad with animals. Placements in local veterinary clinics or street animal programs are especially common in Southeast Asia, while Africa offers countless well-respected veterinary volunteering programs for volunteers with varying education levels and skills. Although eco-friendly practices are stressed worldwide, Central America is known for being especially focused on the protection, conservation, and rehabilitation of their vulnerable species.

General Characteristics of Volunteering Abroad with Animals

The majority of opportunities to volunteer abroad with animals require a minimum commitment of two weeks and offer a maximum of multiple months. Nearly all volunteering abroad with animals will include some level of community outreach and education, as local customs extensively impact the way animals are often treated and viewed and education is a key component to the sustainability of any animal protection or conservation program.

Regardless of where and what species you choose to work with, you will no doubt have the experience of a lifetime while making a lasting difference in the lives of animals around the globe!