Go Beyond the Safari With These Wildlife-focused Volunteer Trips in East and Southern Africa

See firsthand what it takes to protect the savanna’s precious wildlife.

An elephant and her keepers at a wildlife reserve in Zimbabwe
Orphaned elephant Mandebvu with her keepers at the Imire wildlife conservancy, in Zimbabwe. Photo: Rachel Rebibo

A crisp wind hits your face cruising across the plains of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province, but this morning is not a typical game drive. You're on a mission — to locate the resident pack of African painted dogs, dart the alpha female, and help your conservationist guide replace her radio collar for monitoring. The experience is about as exhilarating as it gets, because you know you're helping to study and preserve one of this ecosystem's many endangered species.

All across the continent, small conservation projects are making a real difference, and many offer opportunities for travelers to contribute behind the scenes — and provide much-needed revenue for local nonprofits.

A black rhino at the Imire conservancy
The Imire conservancy has a special focus on the black rhino, a critically endangered species. Rachel Rebibo

Care for the Endangered Black Rhinoceros

Volunteers at Imire Rhino & Wildlife Conservancy in Zimbabwe rise with the sun to feed daily vitamins to a group of rhinos, whose squeaky vocal expressions will make the early wake-up call worth it. This family-owned reserve, farm, and lodge about a two-hour drive from Harare employs more than 500 people from neighboring communities and runs a distinguished black rhino repopulation program. Antelope, elephants, buffalo, giraffes, zebras, and cheetahs also roam Imire's 10,000 acres, which are dotted with kopje rock formations. The chore list might include shoveling elephant dung — but the volunteer house, which has its own pool and chef, makes that worthwhile, too. Seven-day trips from $900.

Tagging a pangolin at andBeyond Phinda
Tagging a pangolin at andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, in South Africa. Courtesy of andBeyond

Assist With Cheetah Research

Lions and black rhinos are among the many species that roam freely at andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, 66,000 acres of pristine wilderness in South Africa. This year, Phinda's monitoring team is opening its tent flaps to volunteers for limited-time conservation experiences, which will run through November. On a predator-focused research expedition, guests can spot cheetahs and participate in camera trapping, radio tracking and capture, veterinary work, and data analysis. Seven-day trips from $900.

James Mwenda, one of the dedicated rhino care givers at the ol-Pejeta conservancy, stands next to Najin, one of the only two remaining female northern white rhinos, in their paddock on March 20, 2018 in Nanyuki, north of capital Nairobi.
Conservationist James Mwenda with Najin, one of two remaining female northern white rhinos, at at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Meet the Only Living Northern White Rhinos

Conservationist James Mwenda — once the caretaker of Sudan, the world's last male northern white rhino — takes volunteers on a journey through Kenya with his company Jemu Mwenda Expeditions. At Naretunoi Conservancy, near Nairobi, you can help mitigate human-wildlife conflict by installing lion lights, removing invasive species, and monitoring camera traps. Then, between daily walks with the anti-poaching dogs at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, volunteers can help out at a chimpanzee sanctuary before meeting Najin and Fatu, Sudan's only living descendants. Guests stay in individual safari tents with meals prepared by local chefs, with the option to upgrade to more luxe accommodations at Ol Pejeta's Sweetwaters Serena Camp. 15-day trips from $2,199.

A Wildlife Act team member brings in an African painted dog for radio-collar fitting.
A Wildlife Act team member brings in an African painted dog for radio-collar fitting. Rachel Rebibo

Volunteer With a Painted Dog Monitoring Program

Ask safari buffs and they'll say their most desired sighting is the elusive African painted dog, which is a primary focus of the Wildlife Act conservation trust. (They also work with other keystone species such as rhinos, cheetahs, and vultures.) The nonprofit runs robust voluntourism programs across South Africa that include radio tracking, behavioral monitoring, and identifying prints from paws and hooves. Depending on the time of year, volunteers — who stay at a communal house and prepare their own meals — may assist with darting, collaring, and relocation. Wildlife Act also runs longer-term marine conservation programs in the Seychelles. 14-day trips from $1,545.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Our Fellow Creatures.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles