Travelers with a love of nature have likely dreamed of walking among elephants, swimming with turtles, or living with monkeys. However, voluntourism programs can break the bank, sometimes costing over a thousand dollars for just a single week in the wild. While paying to volunteer isn’t out of the question, you want to make sure your money is being spent wisely, on items such as project costs, food, and accommodation. Here are three reputable volunteer projects in Southeast Asia where you can work with animals without going broke.
In fact, many nonprofit travel services have emerged that specialize solely in volunteer travel opportunities. Moreover, by using such a travel service, many of the costs associated with volunteering become tax deductible (this applies mainly to American citizens). However, I would recommend consulting a few tax calculators beforehand. That way you can have a general idea of what you can expect as far as taxes go.
Elephants – Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Elephant tourism is a tricky subject in Thailand. Since logging was banned over two decades ago, hundreds of domesticated elephants have been out of a job and unable to resume life in the jungles. Many work in trekking camps or worse, made to paint pictures or play football for tourists uninterested in seeing these animals in a natural state. In the midst of these camps, the Elephant Nature Park is a breath of fresh air. The sanctuary, created by Lek Chailert in 1995, is home to over forty elephants, many of whom have been badly injured. The sanctuary is open to both visitors and week-long volunteers, and is located near Chiang Mai in Thailand.
Sea Turtles – Juara Turtle Project, Pulau Tioman, Malaysia
One of the earth’s oldest creatures, sea turtles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. However, it’s only in the past century that their populations have been decimated, primarily due to human interference and habitat destruction. Conservancies such as the Juara Turtle Project are working to stop that. The project is located on Tioman Island in Malaysia, where volunteers and researchers scour local beaches for turtle eggs, hoping to increase the survival rates of these tiny dinosaurs. Interested volunteers can stay for as little as four days or as long as a season.
Long-tailed macques – Phana Monkey Project, northern Thailand
Deep in the jungle of northeast Thailand lies the Don Chao Poo Forest, home of the Phana monkey project. This project works to increase sustainability of the macque population in Thailand, to create a center for primate and ecology research, and to promote education among the children of the area. Volunteers can feed, bathe, and clean up after the monkeys, and those staying long-term can propose their own research projects.
These volunteer projects are sustainable, locally-run, and budget friendly. However, they’re not the only ones out there doing good work. Researching an organization ahead of time is the best way to ensure that your volunteering will be valuable and benevolent. Visit Worldwide Helpers or Grassroots Volunteering to find an organization and a project that suits you.