Photo by Mara 1 via Flickr
"It's not a job. It's an adventure." That old Navy recruitment slogan can be readily applied to voluntourism, perhaps the most environmental way to fly off to remote lands. Opportunities abound, from replanting secluded sections of rainforest to protecting rare endangered species, to monitoring the sex lives of crocodiles. Use your skills, learn new ones, immerse in a culture and sleep in a hammock, hut, or tent. Some places even have running hot water. It's all part of a unique experience with downtime for exploring spots you'd never otherwise visit. Be a citizen scientist at studies on mountaintops, in the middle of the ocean, or search forests for poachers. Length of commitment depends on the project and costs for food and lodging varies, from $52 to over $3500, since most nonprofits require donations. But making a contribution is priceless.
1. Hang with Meerkats of the Kalahari
Gemsbok battle with meerkat spectators. Photo by Mister E via Flickr
Explore the real meerkat manor. Observe colonies of the adorable critters in South Africa's Kuruman River Reserve through Earthwatch Institute, which hooks up volunteers with scientists to study threatened cultures, declining oceans, and climate change issues. Radio-track and weigh these small mammals, collecting data for researchers. Investigate their interactions with fork-tailed drongos, and evaluate how cooperative breeding affects pups' survival--and our own. This expedition among the mongoose, hartebeest, and bat-eared foxes, also involves conducting plant surveys for biodiversity, recording pied babblers' and weavers' response to rainfall levels, and outreach at primary schools. Excursion runs $3750, though special discounts reduce rates--you can get the Costa Rica Sea Turtle trip for $1880. Other Earthwatch assignments include saving Kenya's Black Rhinos and measuring permafrost in the arctic.
2. Count Albatross on Midway Atoll
One of the most remote spots on the planet is the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, less than 150 miles from the International Dateline, where an albatross around your neck is a thrill. The six-mile stretch of beach on the Midway Atoll at this National Wildlife Refuge is home to two million of the world's largest population of Laysan Albatrosses ("gooney birds"), endangered monk seals, threatened sea turtles, and spinner dolphins. Not far from the Pacific trash patch, the former Naval facility flipped its mission to the defense of 18 species of wildlife through the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Sign up for 12-weeks as a castaway in paradise to monitor these seabirds, yank up verbesina and replace with native plants. The round-trip to Honolulu is on your dime, they'll take it from there.
3. Patrol Thailand Forests for Monkey Poachers
In remote Khao Yai National Park, 120 miles from Bangkok, poachers and poor villagers snare birds, baby monkeys, and tigers (for prized penises used in Chinese medicine). Help stop illegal killing and trading through Volunteers for Peace (VFP) and partners Greenways which train volunteers to walk the Thailand forest with rangers, assist researchers with animal counts, and teach farmers about cultivating organic vegetables, peanuts and rice as an alternative to poaching--the most challenging part of the task. For a $330 fee, join VFP, and lots of projects in countries around the world are available.
4. Replant Ecuador's Cloud Forest & Track Butterflies
Conserve the Mindo Cloudforest to make it habitable for the hundreds of species of birds and butterflies. This project entails reforestation after clear-cutting to build sugar cane plantations and fields for livestock, including the collection of seeds and maintaining seedbeds. Several projects from Ecuador Volunteers include monitoring butterflies, recovery of endangered native species in the Amazon and Galapagos, studying birds, and agroecology, or turning conventional family farms to organic agriculture. Most average the low-cost of $150. Also, with no more oil drilling, Ecuador is converting a swampland dump next to a river into a natural park for the community, planting a botanical garden, and building a recycling center.