Taking leisure seriously: the power of the conservation volunteer

It’s a whole world at your fingertips: searching “conservation volunteer” gets you 88 million results, of opportunities, programmes and expeditions just waiting for you to go outside and save the environment.

At the conservation science poster conference held in late October at Edinburgh University, Malin presented the resource-potential volunteers have in light of the hypothetical liability they pose in the face of scientific research. She focused on the plight of under-funded conservation projects that seek alternative solutions and make use of volunteers to supplement their work.


Eco-volunteers in action in the Costa Rica rainforest.

There is disagreement in the use of volunteers for conservation research, though Malin argues that it can be remedied through open dialogue.

The main point of contention here is that conservation programmes will not attract the ‘right type’ of volunteer: bringing in an external workforce has issues in any area of work. Specific to conservation research, the volunteers may not provide satisfactory work, or work that is detrimental to the essential scientific research of the projects. Additionally, cultural clashes exist; where volunteers aren’t knowledgeable on local customs and misstep, resulting in the failure of cooperative projects.

Once again, communication is key: programmes which promote responsible volunteering must facilitate cross-cultural understanding, and make it part of the goal of conservation volunteering. Multi-faceted training appears to be at the core of successful volunteering efforts, and ensuring that volunteer expectations and conservation needs meet is fundamental.

Malin imparted two success stories, that of the Tambopata Macaw Project and the Australian Threatened Bird Network, which showed the potential that eco-volunteers have in returning services and funding. The analysis carried out in both organisations showed that volunteer contributions are not detrimental to scientific research and boost the number of hours spent on the projects.


A macaw in flight at the Tambopata Macaw Project.

Volunteers are a physically immense resource in terms of labour and funding. The contribution of their time, efforts and skillsets are invaluable to the multitude of small and under-funded organisations. As long as effective training is integrated in the project, the volunteers both give and receive increased scientific and environmental understanding. The convergence of cultures and backgrounds can lead to new perspectives and further directions in research.

There is, however, one downfall to the popularisation of eco-volunteering. The appeal of the programmes reaches far further than the keen natural science student, and extends to those who may see it as a ‘wild’ vacation. This encourages many programmes to increase their volunteer fees due to their high demand, to the extent that money matters more than talent and pure interest. This has the ability to effectively prevent the participation of volunteers from different socioeconomic backgrounds who would be better suited as volunteers, than vacation-goers who would do better in less scientific programmes.

Conservation volunteer programmes must remember that providing competitive-wage career development opportunities is in their self-interest. Training volunteers who may one day become conservation scientists is incredibly important in the face of the environmental uncertainties which are to come.

By Emma


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