If you can forget Trump and Brexit and who won Love Island and the fact Big Brother has finally come to an end after (somehow) blowing out eighteen candles on a surveillance camera-style birthday cake, the hot topic of today is actually sustainable travel, and that makes it a great time to be alive. The only problem is trying to work out how you can be the most earth-conscious traveller, which is no easy feat when you have a thousand experts telling you a million different things. Like you, we want to adhere to all their advice, we really do. But, also like you, we’d have an easier time trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube while bungee jumping from a bascule bridge. And we feel guilty about it.
That’s why we’ve simplified all that important guidance into one beautiful, bite-size piece of sustainable travel advice: take only pictures and leave only footprints. That should be the very minimum each travel-addict adheres to before going on another adventure-slash-all-inclusive holiday, and the reason we said very minimum is simple: voluntourism is taking off with more gusto than a Eurofighter Typhoon.
Now, for those that haven’t heard of this concept before, it’s about taking sustainable travel up a notch (or ten), helping the planet while you're “out of office” by volunteering with wildlife around the world. It's a total win-win.
But we’re not talking about cuddling a tabby cat or stroking the feathers of a poorly pigeon. We’re talking about you aiding a scad of incredibly exotic animals, the sort that would probably snack on your for dinner or trample you into the ground if you met in any other circumstance. And with that in mind, we’ve pulled together a list of truly epic creatures you can show some tender, love n’ care for on your next voluntourism trip.
Protect The Panda
Ya’an Sichuan, China
Now we know any debate about which animal is the cutest would have to be classed as subjective, technically speaking, but we disagree because there’s nothing cuter than a panda bear. Nothing. Not even a litter of puppies watching The Notebook. So imagine how quickly your heart would turn to smush if you got to get up close and personal with a real-life, bamboo-chewing, super-cuddly one at the Giant Panda Centre in China, the world’s most awesome panda breeding base. For seven days and nights, you’ll get to help the panda-keepers with their day-to-day tasks, from feeding to cleaning, general medical care to collecting all-important behavioural data. The point is: everyone loves a panda, but only a few get to say they’re friends with one. Remember that.
Elephants Are Everything
Chiang Mai, Thailand
If you’ve done one of those slightly-cliche post-university “treks” through Indochina, then you probably spent a dollop of time in Thailand and, during that time, you were probably offered the chance to ride on - and play with - a bunch of elephants a bunch of times. When you compare it to your last visit to Twycross Zoo, it’s a totally bonkers opportunity. And yet you probably didn’t take up any of these offers because they always carry a bit of baggage in the form of negative thoughts. You just knew, deep down in your gut, this “enjoy an elephant” market has a far-from-innocent underbelly and, quite rightly, you didn’t want your tourism budget to go to bad people who abuse elephants. But that’s what makes the Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand different. It’s a total paradise for all long-trunked pachyderms because it actually rescues elephants from all those dodgy Thai “elephant sanctuaries”. So if you’ve got a week spare - or a month - volunteer here and enjoy the chance to bathe, feed and walk these amazing creature and, wait for it, even shovel up their humongous poop. Come on, it’ll be fun.
Cheetahs Should Be Cherished
Somerset West, South Africa
If you didn’t know we were referring to Cheetahs or South Africa and we asked if you would like to put a leash on a cat and take it for a walk, you would probably roll your eyes, bear both sets of teeth in an awkward gesture and say, “thanks but, ummm, no thanks”, which is fair enough because taking a cat for a walk is not cool. Not in anyone’s eyes. But tweak the details a touch and change ‘cat’ to ‘jungle cat’ and it probably becomes the coolest thing you could ever do. Well, if you volunteer at Cheetah Outreach in South Africa, taking a stroll with a cheetah is actually one of your normal tasks and, man, will you feel like a badass. And that’s not the only reason you should volunteer here. The other reasons include free accommodation, free grub and the keys to some cool transportation vehicles, not to mention kicking it with some usually ferocious felines. Feeding, cleaning, maintaining their enclosures, taking people on tours, walking them - these responsibilities will all fall to you. It’s epic.
Koala Cuddle Care Program
If someone randomly came up to you in a pretty official-looking white lab coat and said you had just been popped onto the critically endangered species list, we’re guessing you would need a nice big cuddle. You’d also want to live in a sanctuary surrounded by a team of dedicated volunteers that are focussed on your health, happiness, rehabilitation and general survival, but you’d want a cuddle first. Well, and we say this with the most gut-wrenching amount of regret, koalas are in this exact boat. Thankfully, you can volunteer at a sanctuary that works its butt off to help these cuddlicious creatures live a happy life. Over the course of four “impossible to forget” weeks, you’ll get to help with a spot of animal husbandry work, a bit of enclosure cleaning, some leaf changing, supplementary feeding and, maybe just maybe, become the trusted sidekick to a koala rescuer. Talk about living your best sustainable traveller life.
Save The Sharks
South Water Caye, Belize
When weighing up a list of all the most terrifying/hardcore/insane things a person can do, we used to think it was voluntarily stepping onto a forty-year-old fishing boat knowing you were going to be put into a decidedly-dodgy cage and dropped into shark-infested waters wearing a makeshift meat suit. But it turns out shark cage diving is actually pretty tame, at least when you compare it to spending 10 days snorkelling your way around the beautiful Belize reefs with a bunch of teeth-baring sharks... no metal bars included. That’s right. Join the team at Earthwatch and you’ll get the chance to ride on a research boat, working alongside a bunch of amazing marine scientists as you count, catch, tag and film the different sharks and rays here. It’s amazing. But the most amazing part is probably the fact you’ll be doing it in SHANGRI LA (aka paradise). Just maybe don’t watch Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D or Jaws: The Revenge before you go.
Rhinos Totally Rock
Skukuza, South Africa
Okay, so this particular voluntourism trip probably isn’t for the faint-hearted because a big part of your “job” will be to chase roughly a 150 white rhinos with a dart gun and a) they probably won’t like you a whole lot for it and b) they weigh around 2,300kg each and have a sharp horn attached to their face. Basically, it’s a total thrill ride, but it’s all for a great cause too. Admittedly, we made it sound a lot meaner than we needed, but the reason you need to dart these gorgeous animals is to notch and microchip them, something you’ll do alongside the Klaserie Nature Reserve’s chief vet. But that’s not all you’ll be doing (we know right!). You’ll also be riding shotgun on a bunch of game drives aimed at big cat and game encounters, and take part on interactive game walks, where you’ll get taught how to track and identify birds, reptiles, mammals, insects and trees (although we’re pretty sure tracking a tree won’t be too tricky).
It’s Turtle Time
There aren’t many times in history when the entire world stopped in its tracks, but that’s exactly what happened one Sunday night, when Blue Planet showed footage of the Green Turtle’s epic battle for survival. It was a scene that made near enough 7 billion people shed a tear and start Googling “how can I help save some turtles?” Well, to help you on your quest, the answer is Costa Rica… and Sri Lanka… and Greece… and basically everywhere else that turtles call home, and that’s because each of seven species of sea turtle are listed as either a) vulnerable, b) endangered or c) critically endangered, and if we don’t play our part in their survival the harm caused to these cute little flipper-wearers will become irreversible. Basically, turtles desperately need some positive intervention, and you could be it, with the added bonus of sending your Insta-followers into an absolute frenzy. Trust us: the cocktail of tropical beaches, amazing swimming shorts, turtles getting saved and people doing good deeds is a winning combination.
And there we have it.
6 truly epic voluntourism trips you should absolutely sign up to because they will blow. your mind. It doesn’t matter whether you have a week’s worth of holiday days to use or you’ve managed to convince your boss a month-long sabbatical will boost your productivity on return, each of these sustainable travelling opportunities will give you the chance to make the world a better place, all while cuddling up to a bunch of typically hard-to-cuddle creatures. Pffffttt. Come on. What are you waiting for?
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