Volunteering abroad used to be a long term commitment for a highly qualified few. Today, opportunities have opened up for people of all skill levels, in virtually every country in the world.
Wildlife conservation holidays
Projects with lions or elephants might have star appeal but there’s no need for long-haul flights to exotic climes if you’re passionate about helping the world’s wildlife. Europe’s wilderness areas, both on land and at sea, are home to a vast array of vulnerable creatures with futures dependent on the support and scientific research undertaken by willing volunteers.
Don’t dismiss Europe when it comes to wildlife conservation, projects here bring you up close to brown bears, Balkan lynx and majestic whales.
You might be noting sightings of wild dolphins, setting up camera traps to track elusive, critically endangered Balkan lynx, or preparing kilos of breakfast for hungry, rescued bears. Whatever project you choose you’ll be expected to work hard, and don’t expect lots of physical interaction with animals either. This is wildlife conservation, not cuddling and your tasks will mostly be centred around scientific research and data collection, or in rescue sanctuaries whose aim is rehabilitation into the wild, or as wild a life as possible.
Our Wildlife conservation Holidays
What wildlife can I work with in Europe?
BearsThe Carpathian Mountains, stretching in a wide arc through Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia, are one of the last bastions for large predators in Europe. This vast upland wilderness hides the continent’s largest populations of wolves, lynx and bears. In Romania, it is the latter which take centre stage. And yet while Romania’s bears might appear to be a conservation success story – numbers here are increasing due to government legislation making it illegal to kill them – the challenges of human-bear conflict, vocal opposition to the hunting laws and traditional attitudes (bears have historically been used as entertainment) mean these are still some of the most vulnerable populations on the continent.
Bear conservation projects are focussed on rescue sanctuaries like this one, just outside Brasov, which not only takes in bears that have been rescued from abuse and the entertainment industry, but also works to increase local understanding and knowledge of bears to help change attitudes and make Romania’s rural farmers more receptive to sharing their land. Don’t expect hands-on interaction – the sanctuary aims to keep its bears as wild as possible – offering as natural a life as possible in large, woodland enclosures. You’ll be responsible for feeding and creating enrichment materials, as well as helping with tours and ongoing educational projects.
Responsible Travel’s Chris Kearney volunteered with bears in Romania in the summer of 2019. He shares his experiences: “My favourite thing about volunteering with the bears was that sometimes I forgot where I was, while working or eating lunch or wandering around the reserve. And then a bear would come into view and remind me where I was and why I was doing the things I was doing. I never got used to the fact I was surrounded by bears, and seeing one was a lovely hourly surprise/reminder.”
“Romania as a destination was enjoyable on the whole. Brasov is a lovely base, very picturesque and a joining up of old traditions and new tastes. You can find vegan cafes and modern bars with local beers and wines hidden amongst the more traditional and touristy spots. There is an airport being built nearby though, and our host expressed fears that the city would change irrecoverably for the worse.”
Whales & dolphinsEuropean seas are home to over 20 species of cetacean (including the endangered northern right whale) – with key habitats coinciding with some of the busiest coastal resorts across Italy and Greece. The whales and dolphins which gather in the Ligurian Sea, which stretches along the coast where Italy borders France’s Cote d’Azur, are particularly vulnerable to human encroachment. Scientific research has been ongoing since the early 1990s to assess changes in populations and behaviour of cetaceans in the protected Pelagos Sanctuary. In Greece, ongoing research in the National Marine Park of Alonissos assesses the numbers of cetaceans visiting this key habitat and reveals in detail the health of their populations.
No previous experience – save for a love of the sea and its inhabitants – is required for projects in either destination. What the research teams need is additional pairs of eyes and manpower to track and record data. You can expect to head out daily on a research yacht, taking photographs of whale and dolphin fins for identification, recording behavioural details, logging GPS coordinates of sightings, and updating research computers with the days events. Each evening is spent on land, often with the opportunity to attend talks and presentations on whales and dolphins by the expert marine biologists who accompany you each day. You’ll be expected to work hard, but you’ll also enjoy plenty of opportunities for a swim, and to simply enjoy spending time in the company of some of the world’s most intelligent creatures.
While the Carpathian Mountains may hold the largest populations of European lynx on the continent, southwest of this high wilderness arc lives a small, critically endangered subspecies, the Balkan lynx. Research expeditions here take you far from Montenegro’s crowded tourist beaches into the heart of the spectacular peaks of the Prokletije National Park, and the remote Haila Mountains bordering Albania.
The Prokletije National Park was set up with the specific aim to protect the vulnerable ecosystem, however it lacks the manpower and technical expertise to maintain detailed inventories of the wildlife in the region. Volunteers work alongside research scientists to capture data and sightings of different species – in particular focussing on the Balkan lynx, of which only around 50 individuals remain. You can expect to be tracking wildlife on foot each day – looking out for droppings, animal hair and prints – as well as setting up camera traps to help build up a comprehensive database on wildlife populations. You’ll need to be physically fit, prepared to hike for four to six hours daily through mountainous terrain and happy with simple, away-from-it-all accommodation.
But not only will you enjoy an introduction to conservation research methods, you’ll also learn more about life in this traditional corner of Montenegro. Depending on when you visit, you’ll pick blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, and your guides will show you which of the wild mushrooms you pass will be perfect for delicious home-cooked pasta that evening.
Wildlife conservation projects pull on the heartstrings – especially if your heart is one filled with love for all things in the animal world. But unscrupulous projects have worked out how to cash in on our animal affections and anyone interested in a wildlife conservation project needs to do some careful research into what the work involves and the long-term project plans to ensure they are making a valuable contribution to conservation. Here are our top tips for more responsible wildlife conservation:
Research and ask questions, lots of questions. Who is backing the work? Does the organisation offering the project have links with any renowned conservation bodies for example WWF or other established NGOs? What happens to the data you collect, how is it used? A reputable organisation or project will be happy to address any concerns and discuss their work in detail.
Any conservation project worth its salt won’t allow any hands-on interaction with animals solely for the benefit of the volunteer experience, especially if the aim of the project is rehabilitation into the wild.
Remember, wildlife conservation is an expensive business – from the quantity of food a bear may chomp though, to keeping a research boat running throughout the year. Don’t begrudge your volunteer fee – as well as paying for your food and accommodation you can expect to be supporting the project you are working on too.
Read more tips for responsible wildlife conservation
If you'd like to chat about Wildlife conservation or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
Best time to go on a wildlife conservation holiday in Europe
The best time to go on a wildlife conservation holiday in Europe is generally dictated by the project’s requirements, the behaviour of animals (if you’re tracking in the wild) and the time you have available to give. Some projects, for example the bear rescue sanctuary in Romania, need volunteers year-round. Consider volunteering at a notoriously quiet time – Christmas rather than midsummer – when fewer volunteers are at the sanctuary and your contribution will become even more valuable, plus you’ll experience the magic of a Transylvanian winter. Other projects are more seasonal, for example joining research teams monitoring whales and dolphins along the Ligurian Coast in Italy is only possible from May to October each year with the added benefit of warm sunshine and ideal conditions for days spent at sea.
Anne Smellie at our volunteering specialists Oyster Worldwide shares her advice on the best time to volunteer with rescued bears in Romania: “The most popular time of year to travel is April to October, so more volunteers in November, December, January, February and March would be amazing! There is always loads to do at the sanctuary, but numbers decrease in the chillier months due to the snow and the cold – but it is a great time of year to be there in terms of snowy scenery, seeing the bears (it’s easier to see their coats against the snow) and hearty Romanian food!”
More about Wildlife conservation
Find out whether wildlife conservation is for you and what wildlife conservation entails as you pour over our wildlife conservation guide.
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