There are hundreds of conservation volunteer projects around the globe but not all are equally meaningful or effective. Some have a rigorous scientific brief; some develop sustainable living alternatives to hunting and deforestation while others are really just holidays with a sense of purpose.
Some conservation projects are really just specialised forms of tourism; some are even created for volunteers with advertising typically highlighting customer’s interests before conservation priorities. To be fair they invariable leave a lower carbon footprint than all-inclusive beach or bush resort holidays but do they really make a significant conservation impact?
Some do and some don’t. On the best conservation volunteer projects the objectives are clear, volunteers live and eat like locals, take away their rubbish and engage respectfully with local people. They should never operate in a western volunteer vacuum, local people need to play a central role and projects should generate a self-sustaining life of their own after paying volunteers have left.
One of my favourite projects is at Hustai National Park in Mongolia where an extinct species has been brought back from oblivion.
Back in the Palaeolithic herds of ancestral wild horses roamed Europe and Asia; they were so common that our cave dwelling ancestors depicted them as pre-historic cave art in such places as Lascaux in France (circa 15,000BC).
By 1900 these equine ancestors of all modern day horses had become rare and restricted to the open Steps of Mongolia. By 1969 hunting, competition and interbreeding with modern horses along with the widespread capture of foals for zoos and private collectors eventually led to their extinction in the wild.
Instantly recognisable from the prehistoric cave paintings these sturdy pony sized horses are typically dun coloured with a pale underbelly, dark upright mane and dark tail. A dark stripe along their back, dark legs and sometimes rings around their hocks.
Extinct in the wild and increasing genetic inbreeding problems in captured zoo specimens sounded the death knell of this ancient bloodline. Then around 1980 Dutch couple Jan and Inge Bouman decided to change things and formed the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse (its western name).
They raised funds, bought separate bloodlines from zoos around the world and started a breeding programme to build up genetic diversity. All the animals had been born into captivity for many generations so additional problems included human habituation, dependence and a need to relearn social behaviours.
Semi-wild reserves were established in the Netherlands and Germany where they began to live a semi-wild existence. In the 1990’s the second semi-wild generation were transported to Mongolia for controlled release back into the wild.
So little is known about their natural behaviour or how they are adapting to wild conditions that volunteers are needed to track ‘harems’ across the Steps, recording distribution, behaviour, new harems, births and signs of predation.
Early naturalists studying this disappearing species shot and stuffed them, zoos captured foals and probably shot the mother but the major cause of their extinction was pressure from the ever-increasing human population. But it’s heartening to see how the dedication, enthusiasm and vision of a few individuals can make a difference. And that’s what real conservation volunteering is about.
For the inside track on this and many other projects see: Wildlife & Conservation Volunteering; Bradt Travel Guides