Ethical wildlife volunteering in Africa

Open questionsCategory: Information requestEthical wildlife volunteering in Africa
Matilda asked 5 years ago

I am very interested in volunteering at a wildlife conservation in Africa. I was researching the volunteer organisation: IVHQ as they seem to have a very interesting program based in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and they claim to give 100% of their program fee to the partner in-country with further claims of having strict ethical and sustainable policies put in place. However, upon reading one of your blogs about IVHQ, I now have a few doubts about whether they promote ethical volunteering as you have found them to have connections with certain review websites. As a concerned potential volunteer, I do not want to invest my money towards an organisation that isn’t ethical. Please can you shed some light on this topic regarding IVHQ, if IVHQ isn’t what they claim to be then I would greatly appreciate it if you can recommend some other organisations/NGOs that offer ethical wildlife conservation volunteer programs based in Africa. I stress that they must be/work with an NGO as I want to have the peace of mind that my money has contributed to a great cause.
Thank you,

1 Answers
Sebastian Drobner Staff answered 5 years ago

IVHQ Zimbabwe and Nakavango – an example on how to find a wildlife volunteer project in Africa

Hi Matilda,

Thanks a lot for this interesting question. We have seen that you already asked the above question in our Facebook group critical volunteering reviews. The question received very interesting comments and answers. That’s why we decided to summarize and add some information to the discussion here.

How to search for a wildlife project in Africa

It is important to know, that most international volunteer travel companies outsource responsibilities (read here why) to local organizations. Local project partners are the institutions that team up with international volunteer travel companies. They take care of

–           the volunteers in the host countries

–           the matching process

–           project development

–           and a lot more

When searching for a volunteer project through a volunteer travel company in a wildlife project, it is important

–           to know with which local organization the international company teams up with

–           to research carefully about the local project

–           to ask as many questions as possible to the international company

–           to contact the local partner directly to get more information

–           to compare prices (how much does it cost to go directly to the local project, how much does it cost through the international company).


Why do International Volunteer travel companies keep their placements and local partners secret, before volunteers pay?

Future volunteers should be concerned, if an international volunteer travel company is not sharing the names of their local project partner or placement.

The most common reason behind keeping the names a secret is that the international volunteer travel companies want to make sure that volunteers don’t sign up directly with their local partners. Another reason is, that more questions are being raised once volunteers know where they will be working. Preparing volunteers and a good matching process costs time and money and can lead to complications. As a result, IVHQ asked to submit the placement details as late as possible to the volunteers.

How volunteer companies dominate their local partners

Another way to make sure volunteers travel with international companies but not the local project is, to require local partners to charge volunteers that apply directly and other international companies higher rates and to prohibit them to accept volunteers directly as well as from other companies (exclusive partnerships). International Volunteer HQ asked their local partners to stop giving “IVHQ replicas and startups” instant access to local programs or to charge them 200% of what IVHQ charges.

In 2012, IVHQ outlined in an email, that their international partners are agreeing that it is best to send volunteers their placement details as late as possible. IVHQ added, that there are of course “volunteers that are not happy and are hard to deal with because they want to know everything“. IVHQ outlined that “giving out placement details causes questions, sometimes frustration (because volunteers do not like the placements) and extra work“. We (IVHQ) “always tell volunteers that we do not share names of projects nor family address and contact information prior” to the arrival in the host country. IVHQ asked one of their international partners, to tell their volunteers

that each organization requests volunteers from us every month. Sometimes projects change at the last minute because we ultimately assign volunteers to the organization that has the most urgent need for volunteers and provides us with the best project. Once volunteers arrive, they will have all the information they need regarding their accommodation and project.

IVHQ explained, why this is helpful for their operations. It “ensures that volunteers do not have too high expectations and that all details they need to know about their stay and project will be provided during the orientation” – as there is plenty of time for volunteers to be “introduced to their projects at the orientation“.

To sum it up, International Volunteer HQ asked their local partner to lie to the volunteers about why project details cannot be sent to the volunteers in advanced. Internal organizational reasons are the main factor but not that they “ultimately assign volunteers to the organization that has the most urgent need for volunteers“.

In this case IVHQ told Marta, that they don’t disclose their partner’s in-country information due to privacy policies. But this does not make any sense to us. We have seen one IVHQ contract and haven’t found any parts in them that confirm this. Therefore, the reason behind this excuse are most likely financial interests, which have been reflected by the above cited emails.

How to find out where you will be working before you sign up for a program or arrive in a host country.

Even though we believe it is the right of the volunteer to know what they will sign up for, in most cases they will not receive information about the local partner before paying..

Whereas it is difficult to get information about the work, it is possible to find out with which local partner the international volunteer travel companies work with. We recommend to research in expats or NGO facebook groups. This is a good way to reach out to locals who know more than any former volunteer.

Marta found out, that the local IVHQ Zambia partner for their wildlife projects is the organization Nakavango. It was not difficult. She contacted the well-known Facebook Page Volunteers in Africa Beware. Check out the Volunteers in Africa Beware list about good and bad organizations operating in Africa. The Facebook Page is an excellent source to get information about wildlife projects in Africa. The Nakavango projects has been verified by Volunteers in Africa Beware as an ethical organization. Thanks to this information Matilda was able to contact Nakavango directly. Nakavango charges around $300 more for volunteers that apply directly with them than IVHQ. For the same course and duration.

IVHQ Zimbabwe – Why does IVHQ have cheap programs

The high numbers (around 100 000 volunteers) of IVHQ customers make the low prices possible and give the company a huge bargaining power over their local partners. To team up with IVHQ, the local partner has to fit into the IVHQ pricing model. IVHQs main point is the slogan, that they are the “Most Affordable & Trusted” volunteer organization.. In the past IVHQ has asked their local partners to charge non IVHQlers more in order to prevent volunteers to sign up directly with the local partner.

IVHQ prefers to have “exclusive relationship partnership in place with” their local partners. Some of their local partners are now not allowed to work with any other agent nor to accept volunteers directly.

Should I volunteer with a NGO or a commercial provider?

Matilda was not able to find out if Nakavango is a non-profit organization or a commercial provider. Well, they are a privately operated Reserve.  But we at Responsible Volunteering believe, that the non-profit status does not necessarily make a difference. There are many companies that have more transparent and ethical operations than non-profit organizations. It is often not difficult to receive a non-profit status. Especially in the voluntourism sector, many organizations grace themselves with such a status. But unfortunately, the list of unethical NGOs which do so is long.

Do not pet and play – canned hunting

If volunteers are allowed to “pet and play” with the animals, in this example specifically with lions, don’t volunteer there. Often the animals end up in a canned hunt, which is a “hunt for animals that have been raised on game ranches until they are mature enough to be killed for trophy collections”.

Also breeding wild animals in camps so that they can be used for the is something that should not be supported.  Animals have the right to live in the wild. Furthermore, many animals are being exploited or used to attract tourist. Let it be elephants, turtles or tigers. In many countries, the wildlife industries are unregulated, uncontrolled and is responsible for untold cruelty. It is a tragedy that animals are used as profit making machines. Volunteers are unwillingly supporting this. It is important that the volunteers are aware of the partners and placements that are behind volunteer companies, so that they can make informed decisions to be able to not support an unethical industry.

Go local- Why is it often better to volunteer directly with a local organization

There are many benefits if volunteers avoid going through an international volunteer travel agent and choose to go directly with the reserve or a local placement. Eventhough this would be the more expensive option, there are many advantages. Often there are many parties involved, the company you pay to, a local partner and a local placement. This and the few informations volunteer receive ahead of their arrival make it hard to know where the money you pay is going and to prepare the work well ahead. Also the advantages of going local are

  • You know where your money is going
  • You are able to prepare yourself better because you know exactly which project you will support ahead of time
  • Local organizations are more open to your questions and give you more information about their projects
  • It makes local organizations more independence from other institutions and volunteer companies
  • You are able to get in touch with former volunteers from that exact project before you start your placement
  • You might save money, as many placement do not charge And a lot more You are not supporting a profit driven company

Where ever you choose to volunteer, make sure you know where and what project you will be placed, otherwise you might be supporting an unethical or unsustainable project, which is designed to satisfy you as a volunteer only.

You know more advantages, some disadvantages or even disagree with us? Then please leave your comment below!




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