Volunteering in Africa

I’ve lost touch of the number of people who have written to me over the years asking how to get some practical experience in conservation by volunteering in Africa.  So here it is at last –  my list of volunteering suggestions!

Kids at Humani School, Zimbabwe

Kids at Humani School, Zimbabwe

Bear in mind that honestly the biggest way that you can make a difference is by going on a safari with a company that works in partnership with local communities.  The BEST kind of tourism is that which ensures that local communities are benefiting directly through jobs, income and development projects (like schools), because this stops local people poaching and makes them the ultimate protectors of the wildlife.  When locals benefit from wildlife through ethical tourism,  the wildlife is their asset, not just a burden on their livelihoods.  Having said that, volunteering will give you useful practical experience and is often a great way to get up close and personal with rehabilitated wildlife.  One thing you could consider is combining an ethical safari with some volunteering.  Or join one of the safaris I lead, like the one I’m taking to the Okavango in November, because I’ve hand picked the camps we go to so that our dollars make a difference.  Get in touch with me here if you’d like some ideas.

Photo credit: Harnas, Namibia

Photo credit: Harnas, Namibia

Okay, so firstly, times have changed since I first volunteered as a budding seventeen year old with the Whittalls in the Save Valley Conservancy back in 1995.  Nowadays, you usually have to volunteer through an established volunteering organisation, and that does cost money.  There are risks associated with looking after volunteers in Africa and these organisations not only have their own costs, but they also often need (and should) contribute to local conservation and communities, all of which means you might be volunteering your time, but it’s not for free.  Often there’s also a minimum stay.  Keep this in mind when you’re looking at options.

Here’s a short list of a few options that I’ve heard offer good volunteering opportunities.  If you know any volunteer operations in Africa that you’ve been with or have heard good things about, please share them in the comments below.

Turgwe Hippo Trust – Zimbabwe

Run by the original founder, Karen Paolillo, the Turgwe Hippo Trust is just about the most personal volunteering experience you will get.  Her home, where you stay in a very comfortable room by the house, is a wildlife mecca on the bank of the Turgwe River.  It’s a divine place to commune with monkeys, baboons and all manner of other creatures who feel safe there.  I volunteered with Karen when I was studying at university many moons ago and the experience was really worthwhile.  There are few places in the world (if any) where you’ll get the same experience learning about the behaviour of hippos that Karen knows and has studied for decades.  Learn more about this experience here.

Hippo at Turgwe Hippo Trust

Hippo at Turgwe Hippo Trust (photo: Tammie Matson)

Elephant Human Relations Aid (EHRA) – Namibia

While I don’t have first hand experience with EHRA, I have heard good things about what they’re doing.  Their focus is on mitigating human-elephant conflict between people in north-west Namibia and desert-dwelling elephants.  It’s a breath-taking part of the world where they operate in the southern Kunene region of Namibia and their focus is on collecting data on elephant movements, protecting water points from elephants and education of local people.

Photo Credit: EHRA

Photo Credit: EHRA

Save The Elephants – Kenya

Each year, Save The Elephants, started by the pioneering elephant conservationist, Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton, takes a small number of internships for those intending to pursue university studies and a career in conservation.  Me thinks this would be as good an experience as you could get if you fancy yourself as a budding elephant conservationist.

Elephants in Kenya (T. Matson)

Elephants in Kenya (Photo: Tammie Matson)

Harnas, Namibia

Located near Gobabis in Namibia’s Kalahari Desert, the Harnas volunteering experience is all about getting up close and personal with the animals that are being rehabilitated there.  I’ve heard good things from people who have volunteered at Harnas and you can also be an ‘exclusive voluntourist’ which means you can both volunteer with the wildlife and experience a little luxury at the same time.  No harm in that, I reckon!

Photo credit: Harnas

Photo credit: Harnas, Namibia

One question you should always ask before you volunteer anywhere is what conservation impacts the group is having, to make sure it is really making a difference and not just talking the talk.  These ones here are just a few examples and there are lots more out there.  I’d like to hear from you so leave a comment here about where you’ve volunteered and what it was like!


About the Author
Dr Tammie Matson is a zoologist, author and director of Matson & Ridley Safaris.
  1. Tammie

    Good to have your feedback Mirinda. Thanks for highlighting the importance of ethics in volunteering. It’s something that everyone considering volunteering should be aware of. Always ask the question about what conservation impact your volunteering efforts are having, and their overall organisation’s. Maybe the folks at Harnas will reply to this post. Thanks also for the heads up about Twala.

  2. Mirinda Thorpe

    Hi Tammie.
    After reading on your website about volunteer opportunities I would like to provide feedback on Harnas after volunteering there for 2 months in 2010. After a period of time a few unanswered questions arose, including: Where are all these baby animals coming from? Why are there so many for volunteers to raise? And why is their history and stories not always shared with volunteers?
    I don’t doubt that some animals are rescued as either orphaned or injured, though unsure if this is the case for all of them. It seemed there were often many baby animals with their provenance unaccounted for. I have heard similar questions from other volunteers and staff. Given all this I will personally not recommend this project to people.
    Finding ethical wildlife volunteer projects in Africa can be somewhat challenging. There is one in Zimbabwe that I would recommend for their ethical practices: Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary run by Sarah Carter. Having visited there twice I do not doubt her ethics and that the animals there are rescued, as she does not breed them.

  3. Ginny Scholes

    In August 2013 I volunteered with EHRA for 2 weeks in Namibia on the desert elephant project and then went on their charity desert trek to raise further funds. I loved every minute and would go back in a heartbeat. It was inexpensive compared to other projects, well run and it felt as though all funds were going to the project and not lining organisers pockets. The camp is set in a stunning location and the accommodation quite unlike any other!

  4. Tammie

    Thanks for your comments Henriette and Kylie. I’ve also heard good things about Naankuse – related to the Harnas family and offers amazing accommodation too just outside Windhoek.

  5. Henriette Crouse

    http://www.naankuse.com also doing amazing work for wildlife orphans and the bushman community of Namibia.

  6. Kylie

    I can definitely confirm that Save the Elephants is a wonderful place to volunteer. I did an internship and my Masters research with them and now beginning my PhD. The knowledge and experiences of the researchers at STE is incredible and their research sites are stunning.

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