Nature is where my heart is. I’ve been a wildlife lover since I saw my first butterfly fluttering above a dandelion. The movement of the wings, the way it flitted from one side of the flower to the other, and then the way it rested, folding its wings to sit perched atop a blade of grass… I was captivated by how unique and special it was, how beautiful and free and unlike me. And yet, it was alive! There are so many creatures in our world, of all shapes and sizes. Over millions of years they have evolved to perfectly inhabit their environments—from grassy hills to the treetops, from the driest desert to the deep sea. Today, all of our world’s creatures are in danger and the danger comes from all sides: pollution, over-fishing, development, deforestation, poaching, and climate change.
The more I read about voluntourism, the more I realize how in-demand eco-friendly projects have become. In part, I’m sure this is a result of trends: caring about the Earth has become a popular culture movement, and that’s great. But whenever something becomes popular, it also becomes the focus of our capitalist machine. Part of me squirms at the idea that something so important would be co-opted by an industry to make money. It’s my idealistic side. I still feel, deep in my heart, that we should all do things for the purity of them, not for the industry. I know I’m being naïve and impractical. The more people who care about the Earth the better, regardless of how they go about spending their money. Still, I am hyper aware of the interplay: ideology vs. capitalism. It’s a puzzling tension and I think being aware of it makes us more critical consumers, and that’s important.
When I was a young girl, I lived in Kenya. I spent long days at Masai Mara game reserve, a massive wildlife park (and popular tourist destination) where the animals roam free. I watched the lions sleeping in the hot afternoon sun; the gazelles, fleet of foot and on the watch for cats; and the zebras swishing their tails, a black and white tangle of shivering flanks. The boars rammed each other in the tall grass. A herd of elephants circled to protect a single calf. As the sun started to set, the nocturnal animals emerged: the hammer-headed fruit bat; the aardvark with its long snout and shuffling gait; the bush baby with wide, staring eyes and a whip-like tail; and the civet who’s musk is used in the fanciest perfumes.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a biology student. I volunteer with a wildlife conservation organization in my area and spend a lot of time with biologists in the field. A few weeks ago I was chatting with a career biologist—a man who has spent the past thirty years working with endangered species. Somehow the topic of climate change came up, and I was flabbergasted to discover that he doesn’t believe in it, as if it weren’t the overwhelming scientific consensus. It illustrated something I’ve long understood: that a person’s political views (he is a staunch conservative) can dramatically affect his opinions, even when he should know better. None of us wants climate change to be real. We all want to cling to a memory of a time when we weren’t so profoundly afraid for our planet.
Working with primates holds a special mystique thanks to the legacy of people like Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall (more on volunteer opportunities affiliated with their organizations soon). Primate is a large and diverse order of mammals that includes chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary ancestors. Many scientists are drawn to the study of primatology because they see so many similarities between the animals they work with and themselves. As a volunteer, working with primates offers a unique opportunity to experience the humanness of wildlife. No other animals can tell us more about our own evolutionary past, and yet, like so many others, these animals are in great danger.