Zoologists call whales and dolphins “charismatic megafauna” and it’s easy to see why. People are fascinated with sea mammals. For thousands of years, they have been the subject of religious myth, worship, and reverence. Their size is certainly part of the fascination. The blue whale is the largest animal on planet Earth. But they are also renowned for an intelligence that is rather unique in the animal kingdom. Whales, dolphins, and elephants are the only non-primate creatures that have this human-like wisdom. They have culture and tradition. They have complex social lives. And yet, for centuries humans have been killing these magnificent creatures. We have used their blubber for candles and their baleen for corsets. We have eaten their meat and gotten rich off of their destruction. Today, we are finally beginning to recognize the importance of these incredible creatures. As our oceans warm up and acidify, poachers still roam the waters, and policy ties the hands of conservationists, people are rallying around a single cause: saving the whales.
I lived in Kenya when I was a child so Africa has always held a special place in my heart. The sunsets were spectacular, like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world. They’re orange and pink, expansive, like a painting on velvet. I was only seven when I lived there but I made three lifelong friends—each of them uniquely bright, energized, curious, and kind. I fed giraffes and walked with elephants. I tended a carnivorous pitcher plant in my own backyard. Africa is magical. It’s full of incredible creatures, each more fascinating than the last—the stark stripes of the zebra, the proboscis of the anteater, the mischievous cunning of the spider monkey. And it’s full of incredible people, many of whom face unimaginable challenges and hardships. Organizations that serve Africa help to protect this magical place while they help to improve the lives of her people. If you have never been to Africa, go! It will change your life forever.
Students are some of our most important volunteers. These are young people, excited to learn and to grow, often having their very first experiences overseas. College is a time of transformation, when children become adults. It’s a time when we learn about ourselves: how we learn, who we want to be, and what matters most. When I think back to what I was like before college, I remember feeling scared, like I didn’t have the stuff to be bold and outgoing. I relied heavily on my parents. I wanted desperately to be independent but didn’t know what that meant, or how to achieve it. College helped me to mature, but travel was what really challenged me to think deeply about life choices and to ask myself a very important question: how was I going to save the world?
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.
In all the world there is perhaps no more recognizable champion for the underdog than Oprah Winfrey. She has made a career out of being an understanding, sympathetic listener. On her talk show, guests told their stories, no matter how harrowing or difficult. Something about Winfrey makes people feel comfortable. It’s easy to relate to her because of her own public struggles and failings. It’s easy to admire her because she is a humanitarian dedicated to philanthropy and making the world a better place.