When is a wildlife sanctuary not a sanctuary

Thinking of volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary in Africa? Read this article first!

The thrill of working closely with iconic African animals is a big draw for volunteers, and working at animal sanctuaries across Africa is a very popular volunteer choice.

Before choosing a sanctuary programme and booking your flights, there are questions we urge all potential volunteers to ask about the facility and the animals you will be helping, to establish whether it has the ethical credentials that should be the backbone of any wildlife-focused volunteer programme.

When choosing an ethical wildlife sanctuary project, you look for signposts – programmes which advertise themselves as “eco-friendly” or “responsible” – surely these are the good ones?

Projects are all-too-often far from ethically run, and many sanctuaries which promote animal handling or animal interaction are often on the bad side of that fine line between genuine and “no no no”.

definition of sanctuary

There are many wildlife sanctuaries around the world which are genuinely doing fantastic work, rehabilitating and rescuing animals which would otherwise be unable to survive. For the sake of these places, volunteers need to be aware of the bad ones – ones that operate solely for the benefit of tourists, not for the long-term well-being of their animals.

But how do you tell the difference if everyone uses the same words?

The following questions are focused more on sanctuary and shelter projects, but could also apply to larger conservation programmes based on private conservancies. We urge volunteers who want to work in wildlife sanctuaries, to ask these questions before they pay their fees.

1. What kind of animals are at the facility?

If the sanctuary has endangered animals (particularly baby or adult lions, other large carnivores, or elephants), where did they come from? How did they end up at the sanctuary? Why have they not been returned to the wild or to a conservation area that is more like their natural environment?

2. Can you touch the animals?

Animal interactions are a draw-card for volunteers who want to come to Africa and touch or cuddle cubs, baby monkeys and other adorable animals. The controversy over sanctuaries often comes down to how much the animals are used to draw in paying visitors (including volunteers). Reputable organisations will have a minimal or no-contact approach to their wildlife unless the animal is never going to be released (and then you should find out the reasons why that animal will live the remainder of its life at the sanctuary).

The main aim of sanctuaries should be to rescue, rehabilitate and release as many animals as possible. Those which maintain a hands-off approach are usually ones which are keeping these principles in mind.

A lion cub which has been handled by hundreds of humans can almost never be successfully released back into the wild.

3. Is there evidence of breeding?

Breeding wild animals in captivity adds to the problem of unwanted animals, which sanctuaries were created to solve. The problem with facilities which allow visitors to interact with cubs and other larger animals, is that they need to breed or buy a constant supply to keep visitors coming. And what happens to these cute cubs as they grow up and become too large and unpredictable to interact with tourists? Often older animals are sold to private hunting conservancies where their habituation to humans makes shooting them much easier.

The argument often used in support of captive breeding is that if endangered animals are not bred in captivity, there will be none left. This is flawed and a stance dismissed by most conservationists. Privately bred cats (and other animals) are generally too crossbred and inbred to be useful in maintaining genetically diverse subspecies, and bringing new animals to breed with those in captivity is usually prohibitively expensive.

Ask your project if they breed from their animals and for what purpose.

4. What credentials does it have?

Reputable sanctuaries work hard to differentiate themselves from less ethical facilities and most are supported or affiliated with a conservation organisation. Do some digging into the background of your sanctuary project and see who it supports and who they are associated with. Look for any positive or negative reviews or scientific case studies which have been written about the volunteer programme or facility.

5. Does it support local education?

African animals suffer at the hands of humans and one of the most essential areas where sanctuaries can have an influence is within the local community. Sanctuaries which take steps to educate communities on animal welfare and the illegal wildlife trade are those which have long term wildlife conservation at heart. Everybody wishes that sanctuaries weren’t needed, and it is only through community education and awareness raising that attitudes towards the treatment and protection of animals can be changed.

What community programmes does your sanctuary have?

6. What impact do volunteers have on the welfare of the animals?

For an animal lover, heading to Africa and working in an animal sanctuary sounds very tempting. In the right place, with the right support, volunteers can make a positive difference. But there are too many wildlife sanctuary programmes where volunteers support money-making enterprises which have nothing to do with conservation. These are projects which separate babies from their mothers to stock their facility with cute animals for volunteers and tourists.

Well-managed wildlife sanctuaries will limit contact with animals and volunteers will work more on data collection, habitat enrichment and enclosure maintenance, all of which have a positive impact on the lives of the animals at the sanctuary.

7. Is your sanctuary actually a zoo?

Sanctuaries, by definition, take in and care for animals which have been abandoned, abused or neglected. The murkiness comes when considering if, when and how these animals can be released. Sanctuaries should not, in general, exhibit their animals to the general public or tourists, unless there is a strong educational purpose that will have a long term benefit for the animals.

Zoos were created specifically to exhibit animals to the public. They collect animals to conduct scientific research, to undertake managed breeding and to show these animals to visitors. Many animal welfare advocates believe that zoos, even those with scientific, conservation and educational aims, are exploiting animals by keeping them in captivity for their entire lifetime. Without a doubt there are excellent zoos which are doing valuable conservation work and many zoos which keep animals in appalling conditions.

Think logically.
If an animal is to be released into the wild, contact with humans should be minimal. Don’t trust a facility which claims lofty release goals, but offers contact with large endangered animals.
If you are in doubt about the values of your favoured project, our suggestion is find an alternative which raises no ethical questions.

We offer the following wildlife sanctuary programmes, and we are happy to answer your questions about any of them:


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