Top 5 responsible volunteer programmes in Zimbabwe

27 September 2016

Volunteering in Zimbabwe: everything you need to know about joining a responsible conservation programme. 

Despite a turbulent recent past, Zimbabwe's tourist industry, once one of the busiest in Africa, is well on the road to recovery, and, thanks to a growing number of proactive conservation and community organisations, Zimbabwe is becoming a very popular destination for volunteers.

The reality of life in one of Africa’s most beautiful and unspoilt countries is quite different from the one portrayed in the international media. Zimbabwe offers something for every traveller - from the absolute wilderness of Mana Pools National Park, the unspoilt and mysterious Lake Kariba and the magnificent waterfall at Victoria Falls.

There are a number of wildlife conservation volunteer programmes in Zimbabwe, from animal sanctuaries, work on private game reserves and living in the wilderness of the country's magnificent National Parks. Zimbabwe's wildlife population has been severely decimated in the last 25 years because of the political and economic turmoil in the country. Volunteering for a reputable conservation organisation can have a massive impact, not only on animal population growth and environmental recovery, but also on economic improvements in poverty-stricken rural areas, where most conservation projects are located.

What should you look for in a responsible conservation project?

Conservation work should always put the needs of the animals first and the needs and desires of volunteers second. Ask your project lots of questions about their animals and the role of volunteers.

1) What animals are at the project

If your project is based within a private game reserve or at a wildlife sanctuary, do they have big cats (lions, cheetah, leopard) or other endangered animals such as rhinos and elephants? If so, find out where they came from and if there are plans for them to be released into a larger reserve or park, more like their natural environment. What is their track record of animal release?

If they are keeping "popular" animals solely to attract volunteers, that isn't conservation.

2) Can you touch the animals

Animal interactions are a draw-card for volunteers who want to come to Africa and touch or cuddle lion cubs, baby monkeys and other adorable animals. Reputable organisations will have a minimal or no-contact approach to their wildlife unless the animal is never going to be released (and then you should find out the reasons why that animal will live the remainder of its life at the sanctuary or in the reserve).  

A lion cub which has been handled by hundreds of humans can almost never be successfully released into the wild.

3) Is there evidence of breeding?

Breeding wild animals in captivity without a clear and proven plan for release adds to the problem of unwanted animals. Facilities which allow visitors to interact with cubs and other larger animals, is that they need to breed or buy a constant supply to keep visitors coming. And what happens to these cute cubs as they grow up and become too large and unpredictable to interact with tourists? Often older animals are sold to private hunting conservancies where their habituation to humans makes shooting them much easier. The argument often used in support of captive breeding is that if endangered animals are not bred in captivity, there will be none left. This is flawed and a stance dismissed by most conservationists. Privately bred cats (and other animals) are generally too crossbred and inbred to be useful in maintaining genetically diverse subspecies, and to bring new animals to breed with those in captivity is usually prohibitively expensive.

Ask your project if they breed their animals and for what purpose.

4) No conservation without education. 

Reputable conservation programmes, whether wildlife sanctuary, private reserve or National Park, should recognise the benefits of working with local communities to reduce the human-wildlife conflict. Support in development projects, literacy, conservation education and facts about the bushmeat and exotic pet trade will not only benefit conservation efforts, but also bring economic development to an area. 

5) What impact do volunteers have on the welfare of the animals?

Ask yourself what the benefit is to the animal of you walking with a lion cub. How does this help the future of the species? Why are you habituating lions? Can humans teach a young lion how to hunt better than its mother? The vast majority of "lion rehabilitation" programmes simply breed lions with no intent or concrete plan to release these lions into suitable areas in the wild, away from potential conflict with humans. Well-managed sanctuaries will limit contact with animals which are destined for release, and volunteers will work more on data collection, habitat enrichment and enclosure maintenance, all of which have a positive impact on the lives of the animals at the sanctuary.

Well managed game reserve projects will not allow hands-on interaction with animals which are truly destined for release.

Our Top 5 conservation programmes in Zimbabwe:

1. Imire: Rhino & Wildlife Conservation

Project Link: click here for more details.

Live and work on a 10,000 acre private game reserve, home to black and white rhino, elephants, buffalo, lion and numerous plains game, birds and repitiles. Imire has bred black rhinos for release since the late 1980s, releasing 11 back into National Parks in Zimbabwe and Botswana. Their five elephants aged from 10 - 45+ were either orphaned in the wild and could not be re-released, or were given to the project by sanctuaries who had taken them as orphans, hand-reared them and had no space to keep them as they got larger. They have one old lion, who was taken from a farmer keeping it as a pet in terrible conditions, and is now living the remainder of his days in a large enclosure in a safe environment. The project is home to five black and two white rhino who freely roam the game park under armed guard.

Volunteers interact with the older rhino, who can never be released, and work alongside the elephants, as well as get involved in every aspect of daily game park life. They will assist the Anti-Poaching Unit with snare patrols on foot, vehicle and horseback; support the Game Park Manager in road and fence maintenance, bush clearance, animal feeding and game counts plus learn about conservation issues and the challenges of running a private conservancy. You will also assist with data capture for research projects and monitor elephant and rhino behaviour and interactions. Volunteers work in the local school supporting primary school teachers on a Ministry of Education approved reading scheme and run conservation clubs for high school students within the reserve.

More details...

2. The Zimbabwe Animal Sanctuary

Project Link: click here for more details.

The Zimbabwe Animal Sanctuary is a family run not-for-profit organisation run by a husband and wife couple, one a vet, one a conservationist. They take in any animal, large or small, which has been abandoned, injured, orphaned or rescued througout Zimbabwe. The sanctuary is home to dogs, cats, tortoises, horses, small carnivores (mongoose, serval), antelopes, injured birds and reptiles and numerous baboons and monkeys. There are six rescued lions on the property, all old and most rescued from lion breeding programmes (including ones which take volunteers) once they had outgrown their tourist use and were too big to keep. The other lions were rescued from farmers who had captured them on their land and kept them in captivity. There is a strict hands-off policy with the lions and no-one is allowed to handle them.

Volunteers join the small family team and work alongside the trustees and permanent staff members. The project's goal is to rehabilitate, re-home and release all their animals, but where that is not possible, it provides a forever home where they can be looked after and cared for in a safe and secure environment. Volunteers provide enrichment activities for those which cannot be released, help rehabilitate injured wildlife and care for orphaned animals, particularly the primates, until they are in a position to be released, often into the 70 acre farmland which is owned by the sanctuary. The project provides a free outreach vet clinic where community members can bring their own pets to be fed, vaccinated, spayed and treated, free of charge.

More details...

3. Big 5 Wildlife Conservation, Hwange and Zambezi National Parks

Project Link: click here for more details.

This project is run by a local Zimbabwean not-for-profit organisation who support the rangers and scouts of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in their work within two of Zimbabwe's most amazing National Parks - Hwange and the Zambezi National Park. The project provides manpower and practical resources to the rangers, who otherwise would be unable to successful patrol the huge areas of wilderness or adequately monitor the large wildlife numbers in the parks. The project also aims to restore the ecology of the park and ensure that it's infrastructure can support the animals who live there and pass through. Hwange is home to perhaps the larges concentration of elephants in Southern Africa, and with its border with Botswana, it is an ancient elephant migration route between the two countries.

Volunteers join a team of dedicated rangers and scouts and learn to track and observe a huge variety of big game including elephants, rhino, leopard and lion. Monitor critical elephant populations and their movements and gather valuable data for research projects and policy making. Volunteers are also responsible for the maintenance of key waterpoints, the repair of elephant damage and the restoration of roads and riverbanks. The parks are home to Africa’s Big 5 game and during this off-the-beaten-track adventure you will also track rhino and lion, monitor poaching activity, locate missing animals and help identify and record family groups.

More details...

4. Anti-Poaching & Wildlife Management, Lake Kariba

Project Link: click here for more details.

This project is based on the shores of Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, the largest man-made lake in Africa. The programme is run by the permanent team of the Kariba Conservation Programme, which aims to restore the ecology of the Lake Kariba and Charara South Safari area, reduce poaching and in turn encourage game to return to the area. This project is a true wilderness programme where volunteers camp out in remote areas of the park to monitor areas of high poaching and remove snares and traps.  This is a rare opportunity to get involved in helping to fight wildlife and fish poaching and collect data on the wildlife in the area.

Volunteers look for signs of animal activity, monitor known herds of big game, check for evidence of poaching and map the locations of snares and poaching activity. You will also monitor and record the activities, numbers and species of animals around waterpoints and other specific points across the park, which will be used to identify possible areas of poaching that need increased protection. Volunteers will also conduct GPS surveys of roads, water points, seasonal rivers and mountains to better assist the park's management in the maintenance of the area and collecting data for other organisations. 

More details...

5. Horse Riding & Conservation

Project Link: click here for more details.

For horse lovers, there is no better way to experience the African bush than on the back of your very own bush horse. Based at Imire and run alongside the Hands-on Rhino & Elephant Conservation Programme, this Horse Riding project provides support to the mounted Anti-Poaching Unit and patrols areas of the conservancy which are inaccessible to vehicles. 

Volunteer experience a different Africa as they explore the game park on horseback, undertake fence and boundary monitoring and join the dedicated anti-poaching team for moonlight snare patrols. Camp out with your horse as you drive cattle around the game park and interact closely with wildlife, who are not afraid or threatened by horses as they sometimes are by people or vehicles. On this project you will experience the amazing animal sitings, enjoy the African bush and do essential volunteer work, all on horseback, as well as having the opportunity to interact closely with rhinos and elephants and monitor other wildlife on the reserve.

More details...


The projects that we offer all meet our strict animal care and community engagement objectives, and also match our conservation ethos - where the project or area's wildlife is always put first.

If you would like to make an enquiry or a booking about any of our projects, please do get in touch

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