After our recent Apes Like Us Youtube piece about “Baby Apes Forest School”, many of you asked about how YOU can get involved with primate sanctuaries and make a difference in the lives of these primates. Sanctuaries have very limited resources and rely on their supporters around the world to help them with fundraising and outreach, especially as Covid-19 dampers their work. Here are some tips, considerations and advice if you’d like to volunteer when global travel bans are lifted and it’s once again safe to grab up your passport and go.
Volunteering = Planning
Even though most of us are stuck at home due to COVID-19, arranging an overseas volunteer experience may take weeks or months to plan! Many overseas sanctuaries rely on international volunteers to help their local staff care for their animals, with some bringing volunteers on for short 1-2 week stays and others requesting that volunteers stay for 6 months or more. Costs to volunteer may vary depending on the season and sanctuary needs, it can range from $300 to $3,000 plus travel, depending on the length of time. Many sanctuaries will offer discounts for returning volunteers or those who wish to extend their stay once they’ve arrived.
Volunteering with primate sanctuaries is a fantastic way to meet people from around the world, experience a different country and culture, and learn new skills and more about animal care. Some organizations may request volunteers with particular skills and specialities (i.e. those with construction experience or video editing skills), while others may only request volunteers to come with a good attitude and work ethic to make a difference. Life at sanctuaries is seldom dull and it’s certainly important to have fun and get to know your fellow team members, but it’s critical to remember that you are helping care for vulnerable lives – not going to summer camp!
“Volunteers at Mefou are invaluable before they even arrive to the forest – fundraising and raising awareness. Once they arrive at Mefou, they bring a variety of invaluable skills, supporting our team. Once they have returned, they then continue to support us from afar. We are really grateful for all the help the volunteers give us!” ~ Alex Benitez, General Manager at Ape Action Africa’s Mefou Primate Sanctuary, Cameroon.
Your Contribution is a Commitment
Different sanctuaries will have their own standards and rules about volunteer participation and activities on-site. Many organizations will teach volunteers how to:
- Prepare food and baby milk bottles for the animals
- Clean animal enclosures and night houses
- Create different types of stimulating enrichment for the animals
- Collect different types of forage (seed pods, leaves, grasses, fruits, etc) for the animals
- Help maintain habitats, grounds and facilities
- Conduct integrations and other behavioral observations
- Participate in outreach and education programs
- Assist with veterinary procedures
- Undertake website development and other administrative functions
- Other seasonal tasks as necessary
Some folks prefer more physical tasks such as building or cleaning, while others prefer more observational duties such as behavior monitoring. It’s definitely worth it to try all possible tasks out to get a feel for what you like (and what you’re good at) – who knows, maybe you’re a whizz at creating puzzles and enrichment! If there are any tasks that you really love (or some that you really don’t love as much), be sure to chat to your volunteer supervisor and let them know. There may be times when you are asked to perform a task that may not be your favorite, but remember that through your efforts, you are still contributing to the incredible primates at the sanctuary.
**Keep in mind that some sanctuaries will have a strict no-contact policy between volunteers and the animals – especially with primates that may be more dangerous or vulnerable. This is for your own safety- as well as that of the animals. Your hard work and effort in other aspects of the organization will mean that longer-term staff are freed up to take care of more in-depth and complicated animal activities, like raising rescued orphans.
Some organizations may ask you to work 5-6 days per week, with varying hours per day, others more or less. These expectations should be outlined on the volunteer packet/webpages. If you have any restrictions or disabilities, be sure to communicate these with your volunteer coordinator prior to arriving, that way they can find suitable tasks for your volunteer contribution.
Choosing the Right Sanctuary
Between airfare, vaccinations, and volunteer fees, overseas volunteer experiences can be expensive so it’s important to make sure you’re choosing the right sanctuary for your interests, skills and resources. Before booking your journey, we also highly recommend ensuring that the sanctuary is ethically run and doesn’t contribute to animal exploitation. It’s important to do your research – check their website and social media, looking for information on what they allow volunteers to do, if they offer any public tours/interactions, etc.
You can also check if they are accredited through third parties like the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries to show they maintain certain standards of animal and facility care. For African primate sanctuaries, check out this list of Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) members with volunteer programs. This page on Apes Like Us also lists a number of sanctuaries in Borneo/Sumatra that are worth checking out if Orangutans and Gibbons are your cup of tea.
Each organization will have its own unique room and board options, leisure opportunities, local tourist attractions, and special experiences, sometimes for additional fees. Also check with the volunteer coordinator prior to departure to see how much cash they recommend bringing on hand as ATMs and credit transactions may be limited in country.
Once you’ve narrowed down your choice, read through the application process carefully, keeping in mind that some centers may be more selective than others. I recommend getting in touch with the sanctuary if you’re interested in participating to see if there’s any other information or advice they can give to you to prepare for your trip, especially as certain programs or requirements may have changed in the midst of Covid-19.
“Volunteers are crucial to the success of many Wildlife Centers. They bring with them a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm that we often can’t get elsewhere. Volunteers allow us to work on long-term projects and to constantly improve our animal welfare standards. We are forever grateful for their time and dedication” ~Torie Curr-Smith, Animal Care and Rehabilitation Manager at Lilongwe Wildlife Center, Malawi
Booking your Trip
You’ve done your research and you’ve been accepted as a volunteer- now you get to book your trip, pack your bags, sort out travel insurance and much, much more. Keep a list of anything you may need to handle in preparation for your trip, taking note especially if there are special visa requirements or vaccinations to enter the country. Your coordinator should point you to a pack-list of clothing, gear and other items to bring with you, as well as the sanctuary’s wishlist in case you’re able to procure equipment and goods to donate! Depending on the length of your stay, it may be worth it to buy a cheap, local mobile phone or sim-card to facilitate communication once on the ground – just make sure to have a contact number for the sanctuary in case you hit a hiccup on your trip.
Staying Safe and Healthy
Prior to departure, be sure to check in with your family doctor or local travel doctor to assess the need for further vaccinations or medication, as well as your volunteer packet. Some sanctuaries may require all volunteers to take malaria prophylaxis or have certain vaccinations. I also recommend taking a decent amount of basic meds- Benadryl, Imodium, Pepto-Bismal, pain relief, and a small first aid kit have been handy more than once on my own trips abroad. There are a number of travel insurance options for your trip – your volunteer coordinator may have a good idea of suitable options as well. Sanctuary life certainly comes with its risks, so make sure you cover your bases before leaving!
As someone who’s lost important documents in transit, I also highly recommend bringing photocopies of your passport, visa, yellow vaccination card, insurance card and other important documents. Keep these copies separate from the originals just in case, you can even send scans to the sanctuary and your family back home just in case you get caught in a tight spot! Always have your cash spread out in various spots on your person as well and never too much in your wallet at once lest you fall victim to a pick pocket.
Within your first day or two of arrival at the sanctuary, your coordinator should run through other health and safety precautions while onsite, this should also include info about wildlife at the sanctuary – especially snakes, spiders and other tiny critters you may come across (not to scare you!). Speak to your coordinator with any concerns over health and safety during your stay and they can help sort out any worries or issues.
Below are several sanctuaries that the GLOBIO team has seen firsthand and vouches for; all of whom have high standards of care for their animals and aim to provide a highly enriching experience for their volunteers. Keep in mind that some sanctuaries will be forced to keep their volunteer program closed for an extended period of time, and that they may have to change certain aspects of their own programs in the wake of the global crisis.
- Ape Action Africa – Cameroon
- Sanaga-Yong Rescue Center – Cameroon
- Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary – Sierra Leone
- Vervet Monkey Foundation – South Africa
- C.A.R.E. Baboon Sanctuary – South Africa
- Lilongwe Wildlife Center – Malawi
For other African Primate Sanctuaries with volunteer programs, check out this list from the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance. Keen to donate time to your favorite sanctuary but unable to travel? Check out this blog post about helping from home.
If you’re looking for a unique primate experience, volunteering at a sanctuary is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in animal care and make a huge difference in their lives! A volunteer stint abroad can be challenging, rewarding, and above all – life changing. As someone who’s both volunteered and manage hundreds of volunteers, my last piece of advice is to remain patient and flexible, set yourself up to have an amazing time, and always bring a deck of playing cards!
~ Meg Stark, GLOBIO Programs Director