How to choose a wildlife volunteer project

Would you like to do a wildlife volunteer project? I decided I would do it in my gap year. Turns out, choosing a project isn’t that easy. During my research I found many projects that looked amazing, but a lot of them didn’t feel right. Although selfishly I would have loved to cuddle with lions, I knew there was something wrong with these projects. I ended up volunteering in a nature reserve where we would track endangered animals daily. It was the most wonderful experience of my life. I want everyone to have a great experience so here I share how you find out if a project is legit. 

What’s wrong with wildlife sanctuaries?

Nothing of course, if they are genuine sanctuaries. Unfortunately a lot of sanctuaries in Africa breed lions so tourist will pay to pet the cubs. Once they become too big they are sold to canned hunting parks, where someone will shoot the tame lions.

A lot of people jump at the opportunity to interact with lions. Because it is marketed as conservation you feel like you are contributing. The harsh truth is that they are bred for the bullet.

lions running

What to look for

There are just a few honest and authentic sanctuaries in South Africa. None of these breed or trade animals and you definitely won’t be allowed to pet them. If a sanctuary has a lot of cubs, this should be a warning sign. There could be one or two unfortunate cubs they had to take in, but any probably means they breed them.

What questions to ask

  1. Make sure you know the exact name of the organization you will be visiting. Do an extensive google search on them!
  2. Do they allow petting?
  3. Does the organization trade in Animals?
  4. Are life long homes provided for the animals?
  5. Do they release animals back into the wild. If yes, where and when?

If you’d like to know more or contribute, check out: Blood lions.

Wildlife volunteer Projects I recommend

(I’ll add projects to this list whenever I find them)


This one is for the penguin lovers among us. I haven’t done this project myself, but I have visited the organization. It’s a seabird sanctuary where you get to nurse penguins and other seabirds back to health. The highlight is of course setting them free! It is situated in Cape Town and it’s a lot of hands on interaction with the birds. Must warn you though that some of the birds bite!

pinguïns at sancob

Wildlife Act

I volunteered with them back in 2011. It still is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It is real conservation in real wildlife reserves. You’ll be working with professionals who care about nature and wildlife. They’ll get just as excited about a dung beetle as about an elephant. It’s hard work. Getting up at 4 in the morning and looking for endangered wild dogs that you might not even find is part of the daily schedule.