Sam Iverson is a program manager for a large corporation, but her passion lies in wildlife conservation. She has taken a month off work three separate times to volunteer on conservation projects, so far all of them in Africa. Her paid job can be hectic and stressful, so by doing these volunteer retreats, Sam can feel like she’s making an honest impact in the world. This is what her self-care looks like.
The following is an edited version of a recent interview I did with Sam. You can hear the full recorded version here, in which her passion really shines through. In addition, Sam is the author of a couple of pages on this page, where you can learn more about conservation volunteering. She also includes ratings of organizations that offer these opportunities.
What inspired you to get involved with conservation volunteering?
Ever since I was 8 or 10 years old, I wanted to be a zoologist. That’s not the profession I chose, but it’s always been my passion. In my twenties, I started looking at how I could use my vacation time and learned that volunteering was an option.
Tell us about the places you volunteered and what you did.
Malawi: I worked in a national reserve studying ecosystem health. The park had no information about the wildlife, so we collected a lot of data, mostly to see which animals they had and what kind of tourism it could support. I set camera traps to see what happened when we weren’t around. We also looked at wildlife interaction with the locals, whose crops were getting destroyed by elephants.
Namibia: I worked in a wildlife sanctuary helping care for [injured or orphaned] animals that couldn’t be released back into the wild. This included feeding them, cleaning their enclosures, and providing enrichment [to keep them mentally healthy]. We also cleared trails. At the end of the trip I did research in the Namib desert, tracking radio-collared cheetahs and leopards to understand their territory range, hunting techniques, where they hunted, and how they moved within their territory.
South Africa: I researched African wild dogs, tracking one pack for 14 days. We recorded their behavior, including when they played, when they hunted, and the pack hierarchy. We spent 14 hours a day with the same pack and really saw their personalities. Their hunting technique was amazing. We also counted other wildlife we saw, including lions, rhinos, elephants, and giraffes.
How do you choose your destinations?
I don’t choose destinations; I choose the projects based on which ones I find attractive. I love doing research with the scientists and collecting data, as well as helping solve problems with wildlife-human interactions. So even though I love big cats, I found the African wild dog project fascinating. I’ve also worked on elephant and hippo projects. I go with an open mind and try to enjoy the experience to the fullest and end up learning so much more than I expected.
Do you have to have prior experience to do this kind of volunteering?
Not at all. It’s called citizen science. They will teach you how to use the tools and what to do, including using telemetry tools to track collared animals or camera traps and how to collect data. Some days you process the data you collect. Other days you’re walking all day, and some days you just sit in the truck and observe. When I was tracking the wild dogs, if they yawned, we had to write it down. If they got up and stretched, we had to write it down. So this really helped illustrate in one day that wild dogs slept 80% of the time. They were active 20%; 10% was hunting and 10% was playing and grooming.
Describe a frightening experience you had during one of your journeys.
It wasn’t so much frightening as it was a learning experience. In Namibia four of us were tracking a radio-collared female leopard. We came within about 100 meters of her but we couldn’t see her at all, she was so well camouflaged. I figured I could outrun my companions (if the leopard chased us)! But even though I felt vulnerable, I realized the leopard probably felt more threatened by our presence. It taught me to stay calm under these kinds of situations. Panicking will not help.
Describe a highlight of your experiences.
Hearing a lion’s territorial call from about 20 to 30 feet away from me. I could feel the vibration throughout my whole body. Lion calls can be heard for three miles, so imagine the impact when it was that close! For me, who loves wild cats, this was really the crème de la crème. Another time I was sitting still in the back of a truck and this elephant came up to me within a few feet. I could see into his eyes. He stood there for only half a minute but it seemed like five minutes. It was awe-inspiring and something I will never forget.
What costs are involved?
Most projects have a fee. Good organizations provide insight into where that money is going. Be wary because some places will say your fees go to “administrative costs.” A good organization will tell you exactly what percentage of your fees covers food, what covers the tools, and what goes into the conservation work. They all differ based on the length of stay and include accommodations, meals, and transport to and from the airport.
You also have the cost of airfare, travel insurance, vaccines, and visas (depending on the destination). Then there are incidental costs, for example if you want to go to the market on your day off and buy something. In general, safaris costs thousands of dollars; volunteering will cost a fraction of that. With volunteering, you get a more authentic experience of working with scientists and local communities and seeing things most people don’t see on safari. You’re not seeing the tourist stuff; you’re seeing the real.
Name three things you love about volunteering for a cause.
Although I always wanted to be a zoologist but never was, this helped me find ways to fulfill that dream. Volunteering recharges me; I need this in my life. So maybe it’s volunteering or maybe it’s something else, but it’s important for people to do something they are passionate about.
When you volunteer you really find out what is essential in life and what isn’t. Seeing the local communities you work and interact with, you realize that your stresses in life aren’t really problems. We take a lot for granted here in the U.S., like immediate access to drinking water. So when you live for a few weeks with just the basics, it helps you realize what our priorities should be.
And lastly, volunteering brings me great happiness. But it doesn’t have to end with the volunteer projects. There are also things you can do locally to help. So I started volunteering with my local rescue shelters. I started sharing my experiences and help people find volunteer projects themselves.
What advice would you give others who might want to volunteer for a cause?
Do your homework. Make sure that the project you want to do has a positive impact. A lot of organizations don’t have a positive impact; some are greed-driven. So understand where your money is going, how it’s being used, and what the overall goal of the project is. Most good organizations will be up front about their work. Be wary of the ones that aren’t.
Volunteering is work. You’re not sitting by the pool drinking cocktails. In Africa, I was out all day in the hot sun, sometimes getting bitten by bugs, and doing hard labor other times. It can be exhausting.
Enjoy the little things, like the night sky. There were times when we got up at 4 AM and we came across some lions; we were the only ones out there. It was great, just us and the lions. It’s these little things that make you appreciate where you are. You live simply when you volunteer but that in itself is a gift.
Anything else you want to say?
Wherever you go to volunteer, they always need supplies. So ask the organization what they need and bring those things with you (e.g., rechargeable batteries, books, or kitchen implements such as spatulas and whisks). These are easy to put in your luggage. I also ask if the local communities need things, like for the school or an orphanage. When you bring supplies, it helps the community see the positive impact that the volunteer project has in the area. Then they associate your work as being good for the community and they’re more inclined to save the wildlife.
Also, if you buy items in-country, know what you’re buying and avoid animal products. People have tried to sell me lion teeth necklaces. Where did these teeth come from? Obviously a dead lion. I stay away from things like that, including ivory. If you buy products made with wild animals, you are fueling the black market industry and the poaching of these animals. I won’t buy anything that looks like it could be ivory or an animal product.
It’s fulfilling to know that the work I’m doing allows scientists to make better decisions about conservation. It puts your perspective into place, seeing how people live around the world and realizing where your priorities are.
Thank you, Sam!
For more links to retreats, including volunteering for a cause, visit my Retreats page.