Volunteering with animals....how to choose the right project

Working with exotic wildlife is a dream for many and nowadays these experiences are available with only the press of a button. Searching the internet will provide a large range of programs and projects; one even nicer than the other, or so it seems. Since I started Khaya Volunteer Projects in 2005 we have learned the hard way how this industry works.

One late Sunday evening in 2013 by coincidence I came upon a program on TV showing the owner of the lion project we at that time worked with hiding from the camera and refusing to speak to the media about where all her lions were going. She was clearly hiding something and this motivated me to do some more research about lion breeding and where these lions might end up as they were, contrary to what they want you to believe, not released anywhere.

Learning more and educating ourselves we decided to pull that project immediately and cancel all bookings. Not an easy choice to make as it was a very popular project but as a responsible organization there is no way that knowing this could keep us working with these practices. So maybe it was not such a difficult choice after all as projects like that do not fit in our vision and reasons behind why we do what we do.

So which project to choose and how to know what good projects are, not so good projects and even straight out bad projects?

Recently we have seen huge media exposure in Western Europe and the US for practices that were perfectly acceptable for most people up till now; riding elephants in Thailand or South Africa, taking selfies with lion cubs, walking with lions or tigers and other interaction activities with wild animals.

The media has finally taken to exposing the cruelty behind many of such practises. Riding an elephant might make you part of an abusive upbringing of elephants to condition them to obey and remain obedient. Walking with lions promotes breeding with lions to keep an available source of young lions to be walked. Breeding lions has no conservation value; the only purpose lions are being bred is for money; either to pet young cubs by tourists, walk lions and finally to be shot by a hunter for big bucks.

This week TripAdvisor took a stand and under online petition pressure and media exposure they decided to stop selling these kinds of activities. Read more about this on

You might think; ‘wow, what the hell? I did not know any of this.’

Well; you should because your will to volunteer and support projects with your money and own hands makes it your responsibility to know if you actually really help and how your hard earned money is being utilized.

So please do your research, look up information, google away but make a conscious decision of which Volunteer Organization you feel is ethical and responsible or which are really only out there to make as much money as possible from gullible international volunteers who do not know any better. Not always easy to really know but with asking the right questions and doing your research you will actually minimize the chance of being taken for a ride.

We can advise you to look at a Facebook page such as Volunteers in Africa Be Aware or specifically for projects with Lions; go see the documentary

I will promise you that you will be shocked about the real truth behind all the 'mixing the gene pool', 'training them to be released into the wild' stories that are being told by sometimes seemingly respectable organizations and individuals.

Be aware of what is going on and make motivated choices before you volunteer with animals, that is all we can hope for.

Martijn van der Put - Founder Khaya


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