Over my years of travel, I have morphed from being just a tourist with a camera visiting the hot spots, to developing a sense of reason when visiting far flung places. Travel has given me the opportunity to discover and learn while engaging in experiences outside of my norm. I felt it was only fitting for me to try give back to the people and places I encountered along the way.
Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, is an emerging trend of travel linked to “doing good”. This is not to be mistaken with “feeling good”. When you engage in voluntourism in an ethical way it can be an eye-opening, unique and soul enriching experience. Unfortunately, the voluntourism industry isn’t always that clear-cut.
As the popularity for voluntourism has risen, so too have the scams which take tourist dollars and at the end of the day, do more harm than good to those whom it is meant to help. There are many companies offering the opportunity for travellers to get involved and help while in a country. This can vary from hands on wildlife experiences to helping children in schools. Just do your research on exactly who benefits from the experience.
I most recently returned from Africa with Where Wild Things Roam Travel where I engaged in voluntourism. A continent that stole my heart early in the piece, I was determined to give back to something that had given me so much joy, the wildlife. As I walked up to the sedated male rhino before me, I was overcome with emotions.
Having previously seen rhinos many times in the wild and knowing these animals are in the fight of their lives against the ugly war of poaching, I was humbled to be a part of an operation to help protect this animal.
The chainsaw started and I flinched. A wave of anger engulfed me realising the need to take this drastic measure of removing this rhino’s horn in order to protect it. Surrounded by a team of professionals, we safely removed the rhino’s horn, recorded data and took DNA samples, before setting the animal off back into the wild. Watching him run off into the bushveld I felt a sense of hope for his future and in a way, a sense of accomplishment that I had helped do my part for this worthy cause.
That is what voluntourism delivers when done correctly. It adds a depth to your travel experience. I didn’t sit on a safari vehicle and watch this animal from a distance. I had touched the rhino. I smelt his odour. I heard and felt his breath. I learnt from the professionals on the ground more than I could read in a book. I had hands on experience that directly helped the conservation efforts of rhino.
Once I returned home, I now continue to speak of my experience with my peers and spread the word as far and wide as I can, giving that cause one more voice in the world. That experience will stay with me for life. An experience that delivered more than just a holiday memory, but of giving at least one rhino a fighting chance at life.