Volunteer projects around the world

Hello again. This is probably one of my most important posts, as a lot of people request information from me on cheap volunteer projects abroad. Whether you want to volunteer for a couple of weeks or a couple of years, I'm gonna give you some information on how to do it without spending the thousands of dollars that some companies want you to pay them for setting you up with volunteer opportunities. Yes projects are expensive, but a lot of these "middle-man" companies take a profit from your contribution to the charity that you choose to volunteer with. So it's much cheaper to find these projects on your own. That's where I come in. When I'm not working my arse off to make actual money doing lab work, I'm in the jungle or the forest working with wildlife on a volunteer basis. Though my ultimate goal is to build my own wildlife sanctuary, I enjoy traveling around the world doing various volunteer projects with different kinds of wildlife.

My first volunteer experience was in Belize after I graduated with my Bachelor's degree in Biology. Not a couple of days after graduation, I took off to Central America via plane to Belize City, where I caught a "bus" (what they call buses in Central America vary, but it's never anything quite as close to the definition as you expect. This one was an old elementary school bus that was now black, had little seating, hardly any windows and no air conditioning). Five hours riding without a seat cushion later, I arrived in San Ignacio, where I pulled my five pieces of luggage (hey it was one of my first experiences living abroad, for some reason I thought I needed a variety of trendy and unnecessary clothing in the middle of the jungle) to the nearest bar/cafe and waited for my ride to the jungle. My first word of advice when going to Central or South America - don't wear long sleeves, jeans and a hat. :P

A two-hour landrover ride over something that might pass for a road later and I was smack dab in the middle of the rainforest at a research station called Las Cuevas, where I was to assist in Ocelot research for three months. Ocelots are small, reserved jungle cats, much like jaguars but 3 times smaller. I was so excited to be working with such a crazy exotic species that people didn't know much about. My work consisted of hiking twice per day, morning and night, through dense forest and up steep hills, in less than an hour, to make it to the top to take readings of the cats' positions. They had attached radio collars to some of the ocelots before i got there, and we were to study the cats' movements throughout the day and the night, some nights camping in the forest and getting up every hour to take the readings; my favorite part (what with the pitch black, eerie jungle around me, hungry jaguars, BUGS! and bratty skunks that would come by and scare the jeepers out of me). The first time I climbed one of the hills, at a super-fast pace cuz I wanted to of course impress the researcher I was working for, I thought I was gonna die at the top. It took me about 40 minutes to finally get my breath back to normal. After that I took things at a slightly slower pace. :)

Anyhow, 3 months later I had mapped out ocelot movements, had been part of a live-trapping (which we had to do to remove the radio collars at the end of the project), got to touch the ocelot and take some of its measurements (amazing!), got to feed harpy eagles (biggest bird of prey on earth), saw coatis, capybara, got chased by wild pigs that were really just howler monkeys (as told in the story in a previous blog), met so many awesome people, and got to feel proud of myself in a way I never had - for overcoming so many obstacles (physically and mentally) to finish this adventure I had set out upon. My life was forever changed after that.

My point is, just three months in the jungle changed me forever. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Each and every volunteer opportunity I've taken part in has done the same. So let me now share some of the information with you.

If you want things cheap, don't use a middle man. Take the time to find projects on your own, using the web or other people as resources. Deal directly with the charity for the best pricing. Some of the projects offer work-for-compensation and don't charge anything at all. But most do charge something, as volunteer funds are the main source of funds for keeping the project running.

If you're science-oriented, there are tons of research opportunities out there. Look up biologists at different Universities to find out what they are studying and if they need assistance in the field. In my case, a grad student from Virginia Tech University needed assistants for ocelot research, and that's how I found the opportunity. Look up research stations all over South America or elsewhere: La Selva in Costa Rica, Las Cuevas in Belize, Palo Verde, and many others.

Once you've been at one volunteer project, you'll find that you can network easily with other people there to find other opportunities. When I volunteered at Merazonia Wildlife Rehab center in Ecuador, I became friends with some people who were planning to build their own center elsewhere in Ecuador, and have networked with them so that I am now planning to move to Ecuador in the near future and help them construct this new center, for free! I'm hoping this will in turn teach me the skills to go on and build my own center.

Volunteer projects I've been a part of:

Las Cuevas Research Center via Virginia Tech University (ocelot project in Belize)

Merazonia Animal Refuge (in the jungle near Mera, Ecuador. Worked with construction of a fairly new rehab center for injured wildlife or those found as pets in the cities, to rehabilitate them and put them back in the forest)

You can also simply volunteer with charities in your own city. Here are some of the charities I've worked with:

Save the Rhino, UK (volunteered here while I was living in London, doing membership database building and helping out with events)

Wildife Aide (took the train 45 minutes on the weekends to help rehabilitate native English wildlife found injured or lost to place back in the wild. Worked with foxes, owls, ducks, geese, badgers, hedgehogs, and lots of pigeons)

TreeUtah (planting trees to restore migratory bird habitat in my hometown, Salt Lake City)

CAWS (homeless cat and dog fostering while finding them new permanent homes in Salt Lake City)

Wildlife SOS (UK and US charity focused on Indian wildlife and dancing bear rescue. I helped with online marketing and events. I fundraised by throwing charity dance parties at clubs in London and Utah. Dancing for wildlife turned out to be a big hit!)

And just to make it clear, you don't have to be at all scientifically oriented to do volunteer work. It takes all kinds! My completely-non-biologist friend just returned from Africa where he worked with wildlife rescue there. He told me about baby babboons and cheetahs he helped raise. He decided to climb Mt. Kilamanjaro while he was there.

Here are some more resources for cheap volunteer projects - for conservation, the community, and wildlife.

Organic farming and other environmental activities. My friend is doing this right now in Brazil.

Cheap projects in South and Central America. There are some great ones here doing clinic work, work with children, indigenous peoples, and wildlife.

$300 projects worldwide.

Photo Break!
Some of my photos from volunteer work abroad

Capturing and anaesthetizing of an ocelot in Belize

Taking bearings on radio signals from the ocelots in Belize

Taking measurements and checking health of an ocelot in Belize

Bat catching and studying in Belize.

Mayan ruins of Caracol in Belize.

Our diggs in Merazonia animal rescue center in the jungle near Mera, Ecuador. Pretty rustic.

Bed building at Merazonia (my first built anything! not to mention first time handling power tools. I was on a power tool kick!)

Doing my beloved reforestation project at Merazonia


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