Whether you’re an enthusiastic animal lover or simply keen to give back to Mother Nature while you’re off gallivanting around the globe, there are loads of wildlife conservation projects across the world ideal for backpackers.
Travel is a passion and a priority for so many of us. However, while it’s opened up a world of opportunities for exploring new places and immersing ourselves in fascinating cultures, it’s undeniably started to impact the environment too. You might be focused on snapping the perfect shot of a tiger in Sri Lanka or swimming with turtles in the Indian Ocean, but it’s important to remember that many of the beautiful creatures we share this planet with are under serious threat. For those who are keen to help preserve and protect the world’s wonderful wildlife, there are numerous life-changing conservation projects out there to get involved with while you explore.
Why not incorporate a one-week stay at a sanctuary into your backpacking itinerary, or get stuck in with a two-month placement? Any amount of time spent aiding animals in need is awesome! You’ll get to see a different side to a destination, meet other fun people with the same interests AND spend your days surrounded by cute creatures. What’s not to love?!
Here are seven wonderful wildlife conservation projects to get you started.
1. Join the fight against poaching in Lilongwe, Malawi
If there’s one place on the planet where there’s no shortage of amazing animals, it’s the vast and beautiful plains of Africa. There are plenty of wildlife conservation projects on the continent which get you up close and personal with the Big Five and other incredible creatures, including various programmes organised by the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust in Malawi.
The Trust not only coordinates life-saving field research on endangered species, but it also runs projects out of the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre – Malawi’s only wildlife sanctuary – and the Kuti Nature Reserve next to Lake Malawi. Typical tasks involve caring for rescued species threatened by illegal poaching, educating local communities about animal welfare and assisting the resident vets with rehabilitating orphaned animals.
Lilongwe Wildlife Trust take up to 15 volunteers at a time and allow you to tailor your experience. Spend the whole time in the sanctuary itself or split it between the centre and completing field research out in the wild. Wondering how you’ll spend your downtime? On days off, you’ll be able to explore the surrounding areas and enjoy some epic nights out with other volunteers in Lilongwe.
Duration: Two to twelve weeks.
Cost: £1370+ (includes accommodation, meals six days a week, work related transport, training, airport transfer and a local sim card).
Where to stay: Explore another area of this stunning country before or after your placement by heading to Cape Maclear on the shores of Lake Malawi. Soak up natural attractions by day and spend your nights at the sociable Funky Cichlid hostel nestled right on the waterfront. Expect sunset beers around the campfire, paddle boarding and booze cruises. Hey, you deserve to let your hair down after all that hard work!
2. Run wild with the horses in California, USA
Mad about horses? Craving a trip to the American West? This is the wildlife conservation project for you! If you’ve ever watched the Disney Film Spirit, you’ll know that California was once home to hundreds of herds of wild horses. These numbers are now critically low. Thankfully, the Return to Freedom ranch provide a safe haven for endangered wild horse species and teach local communities about their historic significance and the need for protection.
Their 1500 acre ranch is located near Lompoc (less than three hours by car from Los Angeles and only an hour from Santa Barbara) and it’s every bit as atmospheric as it sounds. Resident volunteers stay in a cosy barn apartment on-site and spend all day, every day loving, caring for and monitoring the herds in the sanctuary. You might also get the chance to help run educational projects and kids’ programmes for both the local community and visitors.
Only passing through the region? Return to Freedom run Volunteer Days on the last weekend of every month, with large groups of volunteers typically tackling big projects around the ranch. It’s free to attend, but you’ll need to email in advance to get your name on the list.
Duration: One-month minimum stay for resident volunteers (note, you may need to obtain a temporary work visa).
Cost: Free for day volunteers, fee involved for resident volunteers – contact them for details.
Where to stay: If you like the sound of the monthly volunteer day, why not stay at the amazing Wayfarer Hostel in nearby Santa Barbara? As well as seeing wild horses roaming around the ranch, you’ll be within easy reach of beautiful beaches and slap-bang on the Urban Wine Trail. It’s got ridiculously glamorous dorms and private rooms, plus an outdoor pool for basking in the Cali sun.
3. Protect endangered turtles in Kyparissia, Greece
If the balmy Mediterranean paradise of Greece has been on your bucket list for a while, this volunteering project is the perfect pick. The Bay of Kyparissia (approximately 50km from Kalamata) is one of the few areas in the region where endangered loggerhead turtles still nest. The tiny seaside village of Giannitsochori is a particularly crucial spot, so it’s where you’ll be based if you volunteer with GVI to help with turtle conservation.
From monitoring nesting activity along the beaches to helping protect hatching turtles from predators and rough waves, this placement gives you hands-on experience with wildlife conservation in a truly jaw-dropping setting. Camp out under clear skies every night and spend your free time swimming in the crystal-clear Mediterranean Sea or embracing the local culture. Prepare to head home with a serious olive oil addiction!
This once-in-a-lifetime experience in Greece is run throughout the year and is partnered with a local organisation who have been protecting the turtles and conducting critical research for over 70 years. Depending on how turtle-crazy you are and your time limitations, you can choose to help these beautiful creatures out for just a couple of weeks or even stay for a few months!
Duration: Two to twelve weeks.
Cost: £1295+ (includes accommodation, meals, airport pick up, 24-hour support and relevant training).
Where to stay: After a few rewarding weeks of al-fresco sleeping, why not treat yourself to some home comforts at a luxurious hostel in ancient Athens? Check into the Athens Quinta Hostel, set in a historic building in the heart of the city with spacious, air-conditioned rooms, cool vintage furnishings and, most importantly, free coffee.
4. Wasgamuwa National Park, Sri Lanka
If seeing elephants in the wild is something you’ve always dreamed about, the volunteering opportunities run by the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society at the Wasgamuwa National Park are unbeatable. The nature reserve in the heart of Sri Lanka has been hosting volunteers for nearly two decades and is always after newbies to help with park conservation and community projects.
As well as being a home for these gentle giants, Wasgamunwa is also a hotspot for other amazing wildlife – think fearsome cats like leopards, as well as sleepy sloth bears! If you’re keen to volunteer in this beautiful corner of the world, expect your day to day schedule to include observing wild elephants in their natural habitats, supporting resident researchers and travelling to nearby villages to get locals passionate about wildlife conservation.
You’ll stay with other SLWCS volunteers and full-time staff at the Pussellayaya Fieldhouse near the park and make amazing some connections – with both people and the animals!
Duration: One to four weeks, but it’s possible to extend
Where to stay: Explore more of Sri Lanka before or after your amazing wildlife conservation experience, including the historic city of Dambulla an hour away from Wasgamunwa. There are loads of great hostels in this lush area, such as the Dambulla Shan Inn that’s surrounded by stunning forest.
5. Rehabilitate Tasmanian devils in Tasmania, Australia
Oz has long been a hotspot for backpackers after sunshine and adventure, plus it has no shortage of quirky critters. But now more than ever, the nation is in desperate need of visitors following its devastating bushfires. Along with damaging the economy, the fires also tragically displaced many already vulnerable species and destroyed their natural habitats. The Australian government has responded by extending their working holiday visa, allowing backpackers to work in the same spot for 12 months instead of 6 if they commit to helping areas worst affected by the fires.
As well as numerous animal welfare projects which have been set up to help rehabilitate koalas, wallabies and kangaroos after the bushfires, you’ll also discover programmes which run all year round. One such project takes place in Tasmania and involves the island’s most famous resident – the Tasmanian devil!
The Tasmanian devil has been listed as critically endangered for years due to an as-yet incurable disease that’s spread to most of the population. But there is still a chance to make a difference, and it involves getting up close and personal with these adorable fuzzies. Volunteer through Fronteering at a rescue centre in South Tasmania, where you’ll help care for Tasmanian devils, support the centre’s vital breeding programme and assist with releasing healthy animals back into the wild.
Duration: One to eight weeks.
Cost: From £925 (includes accommodation, training, airport transfer and bike hire).
Where to stay: While you’ll be provided with accommodation during your volunteering stint, why not spend a few days exploring Hobart beforehand and stay at the cosy, family-run Montacute Boutique Bunkhouse in the historic Battery Point neighbourhood? They’ve got friendly family dogs and a garden with mountain views where they host BBQs for all their guests.
6. Become an underwater scientist on the Cayman Islands
If you’re an experienced diver who can’t get enough of being underwater, the conservation projects organised by the Central Caribbean Marine Institute will have you living your dream. Their main research centre is based on the idyllic island of Little Cayman, the smallest of the Cayman Islands, where they take on what they call ‘Citizen Scientists’ during the summer months.
As well as daily dives to collect data and assisting the resident marine scientists with coral restoration, the project involves helping out with beach clean ups and protecting against the invasive lionfish population. In your free time, why not take a kayak out on the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea or sun yourself beneath a palm tree?
Duration: One week
Cost: £1950 (includes accommodation, meals, training and equipment)
7. Escape to the wilderness in Sweden
Sweden’s stylish cities are on many people’s backpacking bucket lists – but how about heading out into the beautiful Scandinavian wilderness? Run by the Scandinavian Conservation Volunteers, this project will see you trekking out deep into the forests of central Sweden to help monitor local wildlife.
Spot and observe species like brown bears, arctic foxes and golden eagles while you learn how to use expert field equipment, track animals and collect DNA. You’ll stay in both wooden cabins and tents, getting to swot up on your basic wilderness skills – think fire starting and setting up a campsite from scratch. This work helps keep track of the wildlife levels in the region and raises any problems the animals could be facing.
Duration: Three weeks
Cost: £950 (includes accommodation, camping equipment, meals, pick up and drop off from Stockholm and training)
Where to stay: Have some respite after your journey into the wild by spending a few days in trendy Stockholm. Stay right in the heart of the city at the amazing STF Youth Hostel af Chapman that’s housed on a cool sailing ship.
Wildlife conservation suddenly high on your agenda? There are dozens more projects on offer around the world which allow you to work with animals and make your travels that little bit more meaningful. If you’re planning a trip in September – whether it’s a staycation somewhere by the sea or a trip to a tropical island – why not consider taking part in the International Coastal Clean Up project?
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About the author:
I’m Jemima, a full time travel writer and part time explorer who feels most at home in sunnier climes ☀️ Besides from gallivanting around the globe, you’ll usually find me with my head in a book, drinking tea or plotting my breakthrough into fiction writing.