Volunteering in Conservation Part 2: International Volunteering

In part 1 of this series (here) a local perspective on volunteering was explored, but journeying overseas for volunteer experiences is increasing in popularity and comes with a new set of challenges and opportunities.

I met Magali Marion through my own international experience on the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica with International Student Volunteers (ISV). The program, which took place at a sea turtle research station, provided us with an abundance of skills and experiences facilitated by Magali’s expertise and background in marine biology.

I graduated in 2008 with a Masters degree in Coastal Management from the University of La Rochelle in France. I did my thesis on coral reef propagation and rehabilitation in the Maldives.

I also collected data for the government and Maldivian research programs on whale sharks and manta rays and then I moved to Costa Rica where I started work with sea turtles. 

Fittingly, Magali’s appointment as a leader on the ISV program actually came about through a volunteering experience:

When I moved to the Maldives I started to work as a volunteer research assistant and it was in partnership with ISV, so I kept in contact with them then in 2015 they contacted me to take over the two-week program in OSA.

International volunteering presents a new set of challenges that come with being away from home often in an unfamiliar country. I asked Magali what some common concerns with international volunteering are.

A lot of the time its bugs, what is the wildlife around, safety of the country and area we’ll be living, is there any connections if we’re in isolated areas can they still call people, can they get cash and so on. 

A good background check is really important so you know what you are doing for the next week or several weeks.

It’s important to make the most of your volunteering experience and perhaps more so in an international scenario where the experience is usually for a limited amount of time and often has a large cost associated with it. So considering what makes a good volunteer is key before embarking on an international program.

What makes a good volunteer is just the will to learn and participate, be proactive and creative. 

If they feel they are doing something good that is bringing a lot to the community or to the species then they can work 8-9 hours a day. A good volunteer is the one that can identify themselves to the project. When they have the right information before arriving into the project it’s all about living up to the expectation. If they do receive the right information either from the program itself or from the company that’s bringing them into the program then they usually become really good volunteers. 

Because the competition is really hard most people have to do volunteering to gain some sort of experience and then they can qualify for a job. I still have many people including research assistants that are almost my age 26, 28 years old and they are still spending 3, 4 months as volunteers. Competition between all the people for the available jobs will be so high. 

So unfortunately because of the situation now in conservation people have to do this kind of volunteer jobs especially in the US. 

Most of the people before applying for grad school will do a gap year gaining more experience going from one project to another so that they can find something afterwards.

Taking measurements. Photo by Stacey Harwood.

Taking measurements. Photo by Stacey Harwood.

With competition so high the next obvious question is how to give yourself an edge when you’re volunteering.

I think when volunteers bring special skills with them they can bring something different to the program. For instance, we can have people that are carpenters that can really help out with maintenance on the project, or people with experience with children, things like that.

A common concern many recent graduates voice is at what point does volunteering simply become taking advantage of people? I raised this issue with Magali who agrees it can be a problem and that conducting a thorough background check is a must.

Planting mangroves on the Osa Peninsula. Photo by Magali Marion.

Planting mangroves on the Osa Peninsula. Photo by Magali Marion.

Sometimes it’s a bit sad, it does become exploitation if you’re at masters degree level when you have a whole set of skills that are actually worth being paid for. If people have the chance to do volunteering while they are studying then they can hopefully get a job later on through that process of working for free. I think it’s really about researching the company. 

There are so many people that propose research assistant programs and with some of them it was absolutely ridiculous for 6 months they would ask you to pay £6000 so it’s just those people making really good money off really professional programs but I volunteered with a program that made me pay $10 a day which covered my food and training and I worked there for 3 months. They covered all the contacts in the country and thanks to that I got a job right afterwards. 

Thinking about it, there is also the problem of some projects that are not ethical and trample over animal wellbeing. Excessive handling of the animals may provoke stress, rescue centres can turn out to be zoos. Nowadays we see many programs that try to attract volunteers by promoting conservation but in reality their practices are anything but conservation. 

So I think you really have to be extremely careful with whom you engage yourself with and sometimes, big ones are not always the good ones. 

It’s international companies, so they don’t have the portfolio, the address or contact book with them whereas most likely with a local project they will know people. They are really in contact with governments, with other projects, they’ve been long established in the country. 

It’s less like a business and more about conservation itself.

Volunteers at the Osa Peninsula turtle research station receiving lectures from the scientists on site. Photo by Magali Marion.

Volunteers at the Osa Peninsula turtle research station receiving lectures from the scientists on site. Photo by Magali Marion.

It’s no doubt that volunteering can be a great way to develop skills and make contacts and the prevalence of volunteering within conservation does not appear to be diminishing. By learning from those experienced people within the industry such as Magali making the most of your volunteering experience can, hopefully, propel your career in the right direction.

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