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8 Citizen Science and Volunteer Nature Travel Options for Environmentally Conscious Travellers

This month, I wanted to put together something a bit different. Instead of a single in-depth profile, I’ve curated a list of 8 citizen science/voluntourism experiences around the world.

A couple of these places appear in my recently released book and nature travel guide “The Nature Traveller’s Handbook: 150 Research Stations and Private Reserves to Visit Before You Die,” a guide to visiting 150 of the most important remaining wild areas throughout the tropics (5 continents and 36 countries). 

I chose not to include the others on the list below because they are not actual field sites but organizations that facilitate non-academics’ participation in various research projects around the world. 

What they all have in common, however, is that they offer participants the opportunity to combine legitimate scientific inquiry and conservation work with immersion in some of the most unique wild areas on the planet. 

What is citizen science?

Citizen science, often referred to as “community science” or “public participation in scientific research,” is a collaborative approach that invites the general public to actively engage in scientific endeavours.

This inclusive model recognizes that individuals from all walks of life can contribute valuable data, observations, and insights to scientific research, democratizing the process of discovery. It empowers ordinary citizens, often with no formal scientific training, to become active participants in the scientific process, fostering a sense of ownership and connection to the natural world.

Contributions to Scientific Work: Citizen science offers a multitude of benefits to scientific work across various disciplines, but it holds particular significance in conservation, wildlife biology, and ecological research. In these fields, it can be challenging for researchers to gather vast amounts of data across large geographical areas or over extended periods.

Citizen scientists step in as “boots on the ground,” extending the reach and depth of research efforts. They help collect data on everything from wildlife behavior and population dynamics to monitoring changes in ecosystems and tracking the spread of invasive species. This collaborative approach not only accelerates data collection but also fosters a deeper understanding of the natural world by involving the public in scientific processes.

Conservation, Wildlife Biology, and Ecological Research: In the context of conservation, citizen science plays a pivotal role in monitoring endangered species, tracking the health of ecosystems, and identifying conservation priorities. Wildlife biology benefits from public engagement through citizen scientists contributing to population counts, tracking migratory patterns, and documenting the impact of climate change on wildlife habitats.

Ecological research relies on citizen-generated data to understand the intricate relationships within ecosystems and to detect environmental changes over time. The collective efforts of citizen scientists enhance the capacity of researchers to make informed decisions and advocate for policies that protect the environment and biodiversity.

Ultimately, citizen science is a powerful tool that fosters a sense of environmental stewardship and empowers communities to actively participate in safeguarding the planet’s natural heritage.

Kariega

included it in this book because it provides volunteer opportunities that I think set it apart from a lot of the nature-oriented voluntourism out there.

Kariega is exciting both because of its location and the variety of projects volunteers participate in. From lion prey selection monitoring to cataloguing bird species to rhino monitoring to game capture and introduction, this seemed like one of the best opportunities to get up close to African wildlife outside the confines (and price limitations) of a safari.

And, if you’re a diver, you are only 16 km from the coastal reefs off Port Alfred, South Africa’s Sunshine Coast, a great place to see Ragged Tooth and Great White Sharks.

Volunteers share a house and, of course, you are there to work (Saturdays and Sundays off), but much of the day-to-day is likely to involve tracking and observing the abundant wildlife in the area.

Shripuno

The Shiripuno Research Centre is the most remote biological station in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Primarily a field site from which to mount studies on natural history and tropical ecology, the following are some of the projects for which Shiripuno requires volunteers:

  • Orchid garden
  • Bromeliads and Epiphytes
  • Camera traps
  • Bird monitoring
  • Trail signs
  • Amphibian & reptile monitoring
  • Teaching English

In order to be considered as a volunteer, you need to write a letter of intent and be able to commit to a minimum of a month-long stay, so this is an opportunity for people with some time on their hands.

If you look on the map, this place is, indeed, in an incredibly remote part of the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the opportunity to participate in survey work is quite Special.

Add to that the fact that Shiripuno sits at a unique nexus of habitats—where the Andean foothills, the Western Amazon and the Equator meet—and visiting a place like this immerses you in some of the most impressive biodiversity and species richness in the world.

Accommodations here are very basic, and there is no electricity.

Walindi Nature Centre 

The Walindi Nature Centre is located in Kimbe Bay in West New Britain, one of two provinces on the island of New Britain off the northeast coast of PNG in the Bismarck Sea and home to some of the most gorgeous coral reefs in the coral Triangle.

Walindi is another of the locations in the book that officially only accepts nonacademic visitors on a volunteer basis. Their volunteer page lists the positions and skillsets they are looking for, but they also give you the opportunity to pitch them a volunteer position based on your experience.

I would suggest checking out the YouTube video at the bottom of the centre’s homepage to get a better idea of why this area is so special.

Volunteer opportunities are based on the centre’s needs and the skills you bring to the table.

Accommodations are simple.

Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS)

The Agumbe Rainforest Research Station is a permanent field station of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, situated on a 4.5-acre site in the middle of the Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary (314.25 square kilometres) and the Agumbe Reserve Forest.

Surrounded by contiguous national parks and forest reserves, Agumbe is located in one of the richest and most biodiverse regions in India (and the entire world):

The Western Ghats—one of the 8 hottest spots of biological diversity on the planet and of global conservation importance. The Western Ghats are home to over 5,000 flowering plants, 139 species of mammals, 508 birds, and 179 reptile and amphibian species and, with over 300 species of freshwater fish (65 percent of which are endemic), this ecoregion boasts some of the richest and most unique freshwater fish fauna in the world.

The ARRS has hosted some important ecological projects over the years, particularly ones focused on reptile and amphibian populations (most famously, groundbreaking King Cobra research), as well as general hillstream ecology.

There are limited accommodations for both academic and non-academic visitors, but the station also accepts non-academic volunteer participation in their ongoing research projects.

This is certainly one of the best wildlife and nature experiences in India.

Reef Check

Reef Check describes itself as “a non-profit organization leading citizen scientists to promote stewardship of sustainable reef communities worldwide.” They are based out of Southern California and have been organizing citizen science expeditions since 1996. 

As a participant on one of their expeditions, you will be trained in and tasked with collecting data on reef health and assessing climate change impacts. This data will be used by marine resource managers, policymakers and scientists “to make ocean management and conservation decisions.”

Their expeditions vary in price. Their one-week Maldives trip will run you about the same as a mid-range liveaboard in the islands. Their Tobago trip, which offers both a one-week and a two-week option, is $699 and $1099 (respectively). 

Seacology 

Seacology’s mission is:

“to protect threatened island ecosystems all over the world…by working directly with communities, helping them to preserve their cultures and improve their lives while saving precious island habitats.”

Their work is predominantly scientific and conservationist in nature, and their expeditions are organized via their newsletter, which you can sign up for here. As of writing this, their next upcoming expedition was to Fiji in December of this year (2023). 

Past expeditions have taken them to Borneo, Chile and the Philippines. 

Biosphere Expeditions

Biosphere Expeditions organizes “volunteering holidays” that aim to “promote sustainable conservation and preservation of the planet’s wildlife by forging alliances between scientists and the public.”

They stress that the purpose of their volunteer expeditions is “to save wildlife and wild places are not tours, photographic safaris or excursions, but genuine volunteering research expeditions, based on good citizen science.”

Their upcoming expedition list is quite extensive and reasonably priced and includes projects that span everything from whale shark and reef monitoring in the Maldives to surveying snow leopards in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan. 

Earth Watch

Earthwatch is a pioneer in the citizen science field and has been pairing scientists with citizen researchers in spectacular locations around the world

Each expedition is led by a “lead scientist”, and volunteers participate in genuine scientific work, whether it’s Amazonian river biodiversity in Peru or restoring coral reefs in Bali. The trips are also categorized by age groups, with the option for young people to participate in youth-specific projects

Citizen science as an alternative to purely commercial nature and wildlife travel 

If you are interested in nature and wildlife travel that not only immerses you in wonderful wild areas and exposes you to spectacular wildlife but gives you an opportunity to directly contribute to scientific understanding and conservation, consider incorporating a citizen science element into your holiday.

There are organizations out there connecting passionate citizens with meaningful scientific endeavours, the objective being the protection of our planet’s dwindling wild areas and the embattled flora and fauna that call them home.

Or, if you are interested in more long-term volunteer experiences that allow you to stay in and experience some of the planet’s most incredible marine and terrestrial ecosystems while donating your time and skills, consider lending a hand at one of the field sites included in this article.