Jamesborrell Africa002

Why Volunteering With Animals Does Nothing For Conservation


Lots of people want to give up their free time to help support conservation. By ‘lots’ I mean relatively – google shows 2,900 searches* for ‘conservation volunteering’ last month – but still, that’s pretty good. This is brilliant news of course, and should be wholeheartedly applauded.

Overall, this must add up to tens of thousands of hours of effort from volunteers every year, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations/fundraising to make it possible. With all this money and effort, conservation could really go places. I should leave it there and chalk it up as a success story. There are lots of ways to support conservation, but truth be told every time someone comes up to me after a talk and says they want to help conservation so are heading off to A) An elephant orphanage, B) A primate sanctuary or C) To work with big cats, my heart sinks.

There is nothing more dispiriting that people who think they are helping, but aren’t.

That probably sounds unnecessarily harsh, but conservation is harsh. It’s unforgiving. It’s about choosing between a whole series of options that are far less than ideal.  So for me, saving individual animals should always come second to saving species, which in turn comes second to protecting habitats. Often, in fact, conservation strategies actually involve exterminating invasive species.

It might be killing lion fish in the Caribbean, poisoning dogs in Australia, shooting goats on the Galapagos or even massacring rats on a tropical island paradise. These are the most successful conservation projects around at the moment. If you really wanted to help conservation, perhaps this is the kind of volunteering you would book yourself on. Sounds horrible? It is of course so undesirable, that no conservation volunteering organisation has ever filled that niche.

On the other hand, a growing number of ‘animal sanctuaries’ are realising that well-meaning and eager volunteers can keep them in business, while indulging everyone’s passion for a cute baby/orphaned/injured animals in the process.

The Problem with Animal Sanctuaries

The problem with animals sanctuaries is that by and large, they do nothing to solve the root cause of the conservation problem. That is, the reason that the animals have found themselves there in the first place.

Keeping animals in captivity is expensive – that’s where all of your donations go. But, you do get to take that baby elephant down for a wash, you do get to move that baby orangutan around in a wheelbarrow and you do get to feel good about yourself. I am of course a hypocrite, because I would relish the chance to do those things (I want to be Sir David in this video), but reluctantly, I resist.

That money could do a great deal more good, if it were channeled towards managing protected areas. It’s infinitely less glamorous, but it is undoubtedly more worthwhile.

Are There Good Animal Sanctuaries?

There are of course exceptions to every rule, and I wouldn’t want to cast doubt on some of the fantastic projects that out there (it just requires a little research to find them). A cast around my facebook page and online found a handful here that seem to be a cut above the rest:

It is important to remember that a whole host of species are only alive because humanity took them into captive breeding programmes – this is the gold standard of ‘working with animals’. Many of these organisations (and many good zoos) fill this role. Yet where reintroduction is the key aim, this often means a hands-off approach from keepers and volunteers, less direct contact and more supporting work. This, unfortunately, is the opposite of what ‘sells’ volunteering opportunities, at least at the moment.


What questions should you ask a good wildlife sanctuary?

First and foremost, what is your long term plan? Are animals released into the wild wherever possible? If not, why not (no suitable habitat would be a good short term reason)? If there’s no sites for reintroduction, then what are you doing to rectify that? What outreach are you doing in the community to reduce the number of animals that come in in the first place? And of course, what sort of safety precautions do you have. Cheetah look cute and cuddly, but they are wild animals and can really do some damage.

Importantly, a good sanctuary will have good answers to those questions.


So who is at fault?

I’m my view, it’s definitely not the well meaning volunteers. I believe the onus should should lie with conservation organisations, who have a responsibility to educate volunteers about what to look for (and not pander to the market for ‘cute and cuddly’ experiences).

We can help by supporting those organisations, and showing that whilst proper conservation might not always be cuddly and furry, it does make a difference.


The story of (cute) black-footed ferrets

After all that negativity, I thought I should finish on something positive. This is what happens when you take a species thought to be extinct, and bring them back. It’s cute, but has it’s harsh side (if you’re a prarie dog). It’s hands on, but also knows when to step back. This, is the dream.

*Just for the sake of comparison, here’s a few other things people searched for. ‘Fake tan’ = 14,800, ‘pet chimps’ = 1000 and ‘gap year’ = 49,500.

More on this topic:

8 Reasons that Zoos are Critically Important for Conservation

The 12 Types of Conservation Career (and how to choose which one is for you)

Are Wildlife Sanctuaries Good for Animals?

How Animal ‘Sanctuaries’ Aren’t Always What They Seem

Note: This article was originally published over on Wildlife Articles

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  1. dee

    James,the first recommended place in this article is under investigation.they captured cheetahs from the wild and are corrupt,according to a knowledgeable SA citizan. That being said,I agree with you!

    • James_Borrell

      Thanks for the comment, I’ll add a note in the article encouraging folks to read your comment. This is partly my point, it’s hard – even as someone who is involved in conservation – to tell good worthwhile organisations apart from the less worthwhile ones. It’s bound to be even harder if it’s your first ever taste of conservation.

    • Frank

      I’m afraid I have to agree that listing this organisation as a cut above the rest was ill-advised. E.g. their cheetah breeding programme is focussed on breeding melanistic ‘king cheetah’ mutants which cannot survive in the wild because they overheat (but fetch high prices on the zoo/canned hunting market). The spin on their website is that they breed cheetahs to maintain genetic diversity that can be bred into wild populations but this is clearly nonsense and there is no programme in place to achieve that goal.

  2. Ian Bickerstaff
    Ian Bickerstaff09-03-2016

    “There is nothing more dispiriting that people who think they are helping, but aren’t.”


    More dispiriting than the horrific numbers of elephants that are slaughtered every day for their ivory? More dispiriting than the clear-felling of tropical rainforests for the production of palm oil or livestock? More dispiriting than the fact that polar bears are starving to death because of the effects of climate change? I can’t help but feel like you’ve taken a cheap swing at people who choose to volunteer their time or money to help save the refugees of humankind’s war on wildlife, and then heaped on a dollop of hyperbole for good measure.

    I’ve been one of the people who cause your spirits to wane for more than 10 years now, by wasting my time volunteering at a sanctuary, and whilst I have found it to be a fulfilling experience I have also learned that sanctuaries definitely aren’t ‘the solution’ to the threats that face wild populations of animals that end up in their care. But then again, I wonder how many of them are trying to be that? Is it not possible that sanctuaries are a necessary element of an overall conservation strategy? That they support both the work done by frontline conservation projects, who are trying to protect habitat, and the enforcement of governmental wildlife protection laws, by providing a home for individuals confiscated from traffickers – your alternative to this being euthanasia, I presume, since you make the argument that species trumps individuals.

    Sanctuaries aren’t perfect, but all of those that I’ve had contact with have active education and community outreach programs, provide employment opportunities for the communities within which they operate and are run on shoestring budgets. These are not organisations that con people into keeping them ‘in business’.

    I find it ironic that a month after posting a blog entitled “8 Reasons that Zoos are Critically Important for Conservation” you are found taking such a contrary position when it comes to sanctuaries. Zoos, which are first and foremost businesses and occasionally donate a sliver of their income towards conservation = good; sanctuaries, which are first and foremost refuges and would be lucky to break even year on year = bad. I find that hard to reconcile.

    You also make an argument in the zoo post that can very ably be applied to sanctuaries: “For species whose survival in the wild looks in doubt, zoos often set up ‘insurance’ populations.” The sanctuary I most often visit in Cameroon is home to more than 100 chimpanzees and given the alarming rate at which their wild relatives are being slaughtered, the individuals there are, sad to say, looking more and more like an insurance population with each year that passes.

    I know what this article is trying to say, but I think that they arguments you’ve put forward are not fully developed and contradictory in places. I find it disappointing that someone with a platform like you have would take a swipe at sanctuaries, just because you seem to have come to the conclusion than that they are little more than petting zoos for misguided do-gooders who want to hug a cute baby animal.

    • Robin Huffman
      Robin Huffman04-23-2017

      I agree with Ian’s comments, and am very pleased to see that he weighed in. I, too, have spent significant time at sanctuaries, including the one Ian refers to. James, I feel your blog conclusions are off the mark and overly simplified, not adequately reporting on dsanctuaries which are actually supporting conservation efforts.

      • Jane Heart (@JungleJaneHeart)
        Jane Heart (@JungleJaneHeart)12-29-2017

        I don’t personally find it dispiriting if the volunteering is having a small positive effect (or even a neutral effect). The problem is that many ‘sanctuaries’ are actually doing harm and I don’t see any evidence that they are in the minority- that is dispiriting. When it comes to charismatic terrestrial species, I’d like to see some data on how many could be consider to be good sanctuaries. Of course there ARE good sanctuaries but an article like this only makes people more likely to search them out and put some deeper thought into where they go and what they want to achieve.

        A good example is lions – It doesn’t take much searching into the problem with lion petting and canned hunting in South African (similar sort of scams with tigers, elephants etc occur in other parts of the world too) to show that there are many many questionable sanctuaries. I know lots of well meaning people that have gone to these places and spent money volunteering thinking they are helping when they are actually doing the opposite. And people are very unwilling to admit they have been had. In the case of lions, I have lost count of the many people that insist that these lions “WILL be returned to the wild”…despite there never having been a successful release of captive lions ever and in the case of the bad places hundreds or even thousands of cubs are being produced each year…not going to the wild…so where are they? I can see why seeing the constant flow of people and money to these types of sanctuaries would be dispiriting. On the other hand It can be uplifting when you manage to convince someone to head to a good place and/or improve even further on a good place (there is a pretty decent list of good and bad places in Africa here if anyone is interested ).

        I would have liked to see more discussion on whether captive populations of large species like big cats,chimps etc can ever be an insurance population that could be returned to the wild. It is a matter of debate. Even the good places often stray into using this line of argument without much evidence.

  3. Hayley

    James – I salute you, I 100% agree! I’ve said the same thing over and over

  4. kerrie ellison
    kerrie ellison09-03-2016

    Hi James,

    I totally agree with you. but how dose one find such projects like the killing lion fish in the Caribbean and the others you listed.

  5. Jason Peckover
    Jason Peckover09-04-2016

    Human spirit and compassion might not be the most logical form of expression we have but it means a lot. People also learn a lot from these experiences, they learn about things that change their world and in turn that person becomes more community engineered or wholesome.

  6. Juan

    Thanks Ian Bickerstaff and the rest of pple how reply to James Borrell. Obviously in a blog we can read opinions. That’s the coolest thing in our time. But, these opinions could be dangerous. James Borrrel I rather recommend you to be more careful with your words. Looks like you have the ultimate criteria, but no. Just to clarify, sanctuaries are not only for conservation. In fact is not their mainly goal. I will be glad to show you the potential of these places.

  7. Ken K
    Ken K09-06-2016

    Saying that volunteering does nothing for conservation is extremely misleading. You are correct by saying that there are things that may do more for conservation, but your examples are far too limited. Awareness campaigns (apparently your forte), consumer decisions, national and local policy decisions, enforcement, building community prosperity and engagement with government are all examples of things that are good for conservation. There are lots of volunteer opportunities that are less productive and many that are more productive. Blanket statements bringing down the entire effort only hurts the good ones. Why are you trying to bring down good conservation programmes? Whats in it for you?

    • James_Borrell

      Hi Ken, thanks for commenting.

      If you read the title you’ll see that I’ve been quite a bit more specific than giving a blanket statement saying ‘volunteering is bad’. In fact the vast majority of my work in conservation has been volunteering based. I’ve tried to strike a balance between calling out the problem, and highlighting some of the things we can do instead. Do have a look at some of the other posts on this site to get a better idea, I think you’ll find we probably agree on most things.

      Thanks, James

  8. Zandri Benade
    Zandri Benade09-10-2016

    Dear James,

    I recently found your amazing blog. I see that you have written a few articles about volunteering in conservation. I would like to share some of my thoughts with you and would appreciate your opinion on it.

    As a South African my fellow conservation graduates and I are finding it hard to volunteer in our own country due to conservation “voluntourism” – a booming business in our region. Thus gaining experience can be quite problematic as 99% of us simply cannot afford to “pay to work” and almost all of these organisations do not accommodate South Africans in terms of reasonable discounts at least.

    I recently wrote a short blog about this for Africa Geographic which you might want to check out –

    I feel that the effects of “voluntourism” reaches far beyond just conservation graduates seeking experience but might also be affecting uneducated youth in my country.

    Furthermore, I feel the ease of entry of any foreigner rich enough to spend time around rare and endangered game such as Rhino can possibly be a source of “inside info” to Rhino poachers beyond the borders of protected areas and possibly our country. Not to say that foreign volunteers might have sinister intentions – but not saying that the possibility might not exist either. The reason I feel this way is because volunteers often spend a fair amount of time sort of “behind the scenes” in game reserves in our country, unlike guests that simply go on safari. So it might be quite easy to gauge where what is on a reserve or how things are done in terms of security after a few weeks, thus criminal organisations might be placing volunteers to gain real time insight?

    Perhaps I am being cynical, but just a thought.

    Keep up the good work!

    I look forward to hearing from you!

    Kind regards,

  9. wanderingeverywhereblog

    Hi James, this is a really interesting article, and one that I agree with for the most part! I’ve been the eco-tourist a few times in the past, and have been exposed to a range of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sanctuaries. I was wondering what you thought of the benefits of education of these programs? I volunteered at an elephant sanctuary for a week a couple of summers ago, and whilst I didn’t think that what I was doing there was useful for conservation, it was an eye-opening experience, as I hadn’t previously realized the poor treatment these animals receive in the tourism industry.

    I’d also like to add another to your list of recommended sanctuaries! ARCAS in Guatemala is a small non-profit that works on rehabilitating animals that have been intercepted from the illegal pet trade back into the wild. Whilst their focus is at the species level, their work includes many rare endemic species, and they also have a large education focus, with outreach programs to local Guatemalan schools. Their most recent large-scale release was a flock of macaws, a species that is incredibly rare in Guatemala now. You can find out more about their project here 🙂

  10. John

    I find your notion about what constitutes conservation a bit narrow. Habitat protection, education, the development of alternative economic systems, and captive breeding programs (in rare cases) are essential pieces of the puzzle. But so is the enforcement of anti-poaching laws. Where do you expect those animals to go when they are seized? And what do you think will happen to enforcement efforts if law enforcement knows that they can’t seize animals because there are no sanctuaries to send them to?

    Beyond that, it might be good to take a step back and realize that not everything revolves around conservation. People care about individuals too. We don’t criticize aid workers at refugee camps for not dealing with the root cause of the refugee crisis. I expect that the world community should help refugees and work to prevent political and economic destabilization at the same time. Should we close drug treatment centers so that we can spend that money on stopping drugs at the border? Shut down all humane society shelters so that we can put that money toward spay-neuter programs? Does it have to be a binary choice?

    It’s always dispiriting when the balance of charitable work and entertainment leans too far towards the latter. But I think you sell most volunteers short if that’s all you see. I know at least dozen people who have volunteered at African sanctuaries and not a single one of them thought that their sole purpose in doing so was to conserve species.

    Thinking critically about where we spend our charitable and government resources is a great idea and we desperately need more if it, but this kind of zero-sum thinking is just as dangerous as the volunteer tourism that you warn about.

  11. Kate in Malawi
    Kate in Malawi04-25-2017

    Hi James – your headline ‘Why Volunteering With Animals Does Nothing For Conservation’ popped up on my Facebook feed from a friend. It is a well-known social media behaviour that individuals may choose not to click through to the article as I did and simply assume the headline is a fact. Whilst I appreciate that a controversial lead is sometimes what is needed to spark discussion, I feel that this is one step too far. I would also question some of rationale within the article questionable.

    I have worked for Lilongwe Wildlife Trust ( for the past 8 years, and our projects include Malawi’s only wildlife sanctuary, Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, and so I write with some bias but 100% confidence in our position: that volunteering at (the right) sanctuaries can help wider conservation efforts. Here are just a few reasons why:

    – Sanctuaries can play an important role in supporting efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade, which stands as the greatest threat to the survival of endangered species, and the second greatest threat to the survival of all wildlife, after habitat destruction. Here in Malawi, our sanctuary plays a vital support role for the authorities combatting the illegal bush-meat and pet trades because they need a facility to take any confiscated live animals. Should they be forced to deal with the ani

    – Many sanctuaries have excellent education and community outreach programmes which play a critical role in engaging communities and changing attitudes and behaviours. Our own education programme nationwide reaches over 45,000 individuals per year. Topics covered include wildlife welfare and conservation, wildlife crime, deforestation and the protection of biodiversity, and the sanctuary has been a focal point and a springboard for the wider programme.

    – There are many very good sanctuaries out there that do not promote ‘monkey hugging’ but rather responsible rehabilitation with hands off policies outside of orphan care, and also rely on volunteers for both financial donations and resource. Many also release animals back into the wild wherever they can (a contribution to species survival in the wild, the impact obviously differing between countries and species, but a contribution nonetheless.

    – Finally, wildlife welfare should not be seen as divorced from conservation (see compassionate conservation e.g.

    You do seem to acknowledge the point that some sanctuaries are better than others, and there are certainly some very questionable projects out there exploiting the goodwill of volunteers in return for profit. Therefore perhaps a more appropriate headline would be “Why Volunteering With Animals Does Not Always Support Conservation.”

    At least the Facebook post I clicked through from gave me a chance to read more of your blogs, some of which are very informative. Although I am perplexed at how you feel that supporting zoos is good (…a whole other topic for debate!) but volunteering at sanctuaries is not. Perhaps your next blog should be a re-write of your position on the role of sanctuaries based on a little more research?

  12. terraeducation

    Hi James – I totally hear that underlying nuanced message of what you’re saying.

    But just to echo what some of the other comments, there’s a great educational value to volunteer conservation tourism. The paper by Rattan, Eagles and Mair in the Journal of Ecotourism concluded that “educating non-volunteer tourists about conservation issues in an environment where they can have a hands-on experience with the species can ensure success when imparting the message of conservation.” – and that’s just one piece of research.

    Maybe another post down the road about how beneficial volunteer conservation tours have the potential (if done right) to educate people on a mass scale and spark a passion for conservation in a deep and meaningful way?


  13. Diana Rodriguez-Zimmerer
    Diana Rodriguez-Zimmerer04-25-2017

    So are you against wildlife rehabilitation centers in which the volunteers are specifically instructed not to speak touch or otherwise interact with the wildlife except for cleaning, feeding and care? Rehabilitation centers that follow the specific laws about care and release?

  14. georgina

    Hi! I loved reading this and I’m actually writing my dissertation on this issue… do you know of any literature surrounding this topic? I’m struggling to find much on volunteerism slowing the progress of conservation 🙁

  15. Carin

    Hi James

    This is an old post but I feel I need to comment (I have just come across your website). As a school girl I worked in a sanctuary where we released the first troop of rehabilitated baboons into the wild (it made a great documentary). Of course, working as a conservation official in the South African government, I completely agree that sanctuaries (such as those I volunteered to work for many years ago) often serve little conservation purpose. Working at the coalface of conservation in South Africa – we get many applications from members of the public to open sanctuaries and I often get this sinking feeling when a well intended person tried to sell us on the idea. There are of course some great sanctuaries in South Africa such as who we work really well with. I think sanctuaries can be divided into two categories: those with a clear conservation purpose such as karoocats and those intended to “rescue” animals for animal welfare reasons (and sometimes personal reasons). Just as cycads in gardens have absolutely no conservation value, we are called to come and rescue cycads in distress if they are looking particularly poorly around town – there is this perception that they have some great conservation value.

    PS. Conservation authorities often don’t have access to euthanasia services so when that baby monkey gets confiscated from an evil owner (we had one case where the monkey was kept on a short chain and all his teeth had been pulled) its always good to know that there are people out there willing to look after it properly 🙂

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