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Big Cat Conservation: Work with Cheetahs, Tigers, Lions & Leopards

Robin Van Auken | Hands-on Heritage
By Robin Van Auken
Writer
Big Cat Conservation

Big Cat Conservation isn’t a topic they teach you at school. If you want to learn how to work with these complex wild animals and preserving the endangered species of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, then this is an amazing opportunity to take control of your education and go into the field.

The term “big cat” refers to the four largest members of the Panthera genus: the tiger, lion, jaguar, and leopard. This definition has been expanded to include the snow leopard, puma, clouded leopard, Sunda clouded leopard, and cheetah, although these species do not roar like the four big cats. Big cats are “apex predators,” which means they are at the top of a food chain – no other animals hunt the big cat, except humans. And it’s because of human-animal conflict that the big cats are endangered. The primary threats to big cats are habitat destruction and poaching, both caused by people.

What You Can Do for Big Cats

An animal sanctuary, park, or reserve provides a refuge for these big cats to live out their lives in safety, but these facilities are expensive and difficult to maintain. They rely upon the assistance of researchers and volunteers to monitor and improve the health of the population, sustain the environment, and to educate the nearby community to alleviate the human threat.

When you travel abroad on a volunteer conservation program – to the rainforests of Costa Rica, to the savannas of Africa, or the jungles of India and Malaysia – you’ll work with a team of researchers who are monitoring current big cat populations. You can help them as they develop solutions to save habitats by educating communities, eradicating poaching, and enforcing sustainable practices. You’ll learn how to track animals in the wild, using sophisticated monitoring equipment and cameras, and identifying different species by their prints and spoor.

If you’re eager to learn more about big cat conservation, keep reading! Select a big cat or a destination, like volunteering at a South African National Park, that interests you and help save a species.

Featured Volunteer Abroad Programs

Agape Volunteers

Big Cat Conservation

Agape Volunteers is a reputable and affordable volunteer abroad organization offering a variety of meaningful trips throughout Africa. Founded in 2011 by graduates from Oxford University and Kings College London, Agape Volunteers is a registered UK charity that provides volunteering, tourism, and development work in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, and Maasai-land. Agape’s projects range from medical volunteering to teaching abroad, to volunteering at a wildlife refuge at a South African National Park. Program costs include registration and administration fees, tours and excursions, housing and feed, and even travel insurance, making Agape Volunteers the most affordable option for volunteering in Africa.

Big Cat Conservation in South Africa

If you’re fascinated by big cats, consider this wildlife conservation program in South Africa. Work with naturalists in the beautiful Marataba Section of the Marakele National Park, a spectacular landscape and home to lions, leopards, and cheetahs. Help to support these endangered species, as well as rhinos, elephants, water buffalos, and hyenas. While on this project, you’ll take part in monitoring animal movement and behavior, as well as analyzing the data you’ve collected on game drives. Everyday tasks may include fence patrols, invasive plant removal, trash removal, and bush clearing.

Anti-poaching activities are also needed so you’ll keep a lookout for suspicious tracks, and report low-flying aircraft. You’ll stay in a spacious farmhouse, surrounded by a fence to keep out the cats. While in South Africa, use the cableway or hike to the top of Table Mountain, a remarkable flat-topped mountain overlooking the city of Cape Town. Stay a minimum of two weeks with fees starting at £1,530. Read more and sign up here.

Fronteering

Big Cat Conservation

Fronteering offers travel services and volunteer experiences that combine adventure with programs that help communities, wildlife, indigenous people, and the environment. Founded in 2007, Fronteering partners with communities off the beaten path that can benefit from volunteer input. Its placements are in unique, remote locales, and some are even extreme – promising the experience of a lifetime.

Big Cats Sanctuary in South Africa

Volunteer with big cats alongside experienced animal caretakers of magnificent lions, leopards, tigers, caracals, and black-backed jackals at the Big Cats Sanctuary located in Stanford, South Africa. This 40-hectare, safe haven for big cats is dedicated to raising awareness about the lion and tiger industry in South Africa and serves as an educational platform.

The sanctuary is a diverse property filled with large trees, a natural spring, and a beautiful mountain view, but requires a lot of effort to keep it maintained and secure for its wild residents. Your daily tasks will include:

  1. Caring for the amazing big cats
  2. Taking part in the enrichment program
  3. Preparation of food and feeding the animals
  4. Cleaning and maintaining enclosures
  5. Helping with general farm work
  6. Educating visitors

Arrive at Cape Town International Airport (CPT) and be transported to the project site. In a way, you’ll be living with big cats while you volunteer! You’ll stay in a guest house at the sanctuary, in a semi-private room with roommates of the same gender. There are a spacious, fully-equipped kitchen and a large living and dining room for relaxation, game nights, or watching films. You’ll have internet access, and outside there is a BBQ area, pool for swimming, and a garden to sunbathe. You’ll prepare your own breakfast, but lunches are provided. Volunteers make their own dinners and have full kitchen privileges. Weekly transport is provided to Cape Town for groceries and supplies, plus excursions.

The area is known for its historical sights, vineyards, wildlife, and outdoor activities. Fees start at $1,495 for two weeks. Long-term volunteer and internship opportunities are available. Learn more and register here!

Global Vision International

Big Cat Conservation

Global Vision International (GVI) places travelers on high-impact volunteer community development programs – and places interns on professional training projects – around the world. Since 1997, GVI has placed more than 24,000 volunteers on projects with local partners and international agencies, including Save the Children, The Red Cross, WWF, SANParks, and The Jane Goodall Institute. Its award-winning programs connect 2,000 participants each year on sustainability issues in more than 350 locations.

Jaguar Conservation in Costa Rica

Journey to GVI’s research station in the stunning Tortuguero National Park in Jalova, Costa Rica, to assist with the protection of the endangered jaguar. The park is surrounded on three sides by protected rainforest and opens to the Caribbean Sea. The beach is home to one of the largest nesting colonies of Green Turtles in the world.

The jaguar’s population numbers are down from 400,000 in the 1950s to an estimated 14,000 today. The threats to this big cat include habitat depredating and scarcity of food sources, all a result of human activity. Your work will benefit the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment to develop well-rounded and consistent conservation policies for this important animal. It also will be shared with GVI local partners Coastal Jaguar Conservation and Panthera.

While on this exhilarating project, you’ll conduct surveys along the 16-mile beach, set up remote cameras, collect data for long-term conservation, and develop an understanding of the ecosystem of the rainforest. You may assist with other research projects while onsite, including the monitoring of nesting turtles such as green, leatherback, and hawksbills sea turtles. You also can help with bird monitoring and the research of 30 key aquatic species.

You’ll share basic accommodations on-site and all meals are provided. Because you’re at an isolated location, most of your downtime will be spent on base, however, there are side trips to Tortuguero Village to browse its small souvenir shops and bakery. Other free time activities include hiking, snorkeling, fishing, or canopy and zipline tours. Fees start at $2,195 for two weeks. Click here to sign up!

Cheetah Conservation and Research Project in South Africa

Join GVI in the African bush learning how to track and collect data as part of team conserving one of the African big cats: the elusive and endangered cheetah. The Cheetah Conservation and Research Project in South Africa place you with a team of international volunteers in the Limpopo province researching the world’s fastest land animal. You’ll have the opportunity, once tracked, to get up close and personal, viewing these vulnerable animals from the research vehicle.

Cheetah populations are nearing extinction because of habitat loss, hunting, and the farming industry. They have declined by half since the 1970s. GVI’s partnership with the Endangered Wildlife Trust means that all data you collect will be used to help assess the meta-population and achieve a sustaining, and hopefully increasing cheetah population.

Highlights of this exciting program are:

  1. Experiencing life and work in the African bush
  2. Mastering radio telemetry techniques
  3. Learning to track animals through the bush
  4. Getting close to big cats on game drives
  5. Exploring breathtaking sites such as Blyde River Canyon in the Drakensberg Mountains
  6. Living and working on the wildlife reserve
  7. Working with and learning from certified South African guides

You’ll stay at the GVI camp in the reserve, sleeping in a safe, dormitory-style room. There are shared facilities, including a bathroom, kitchen, and living area. Camp duties are assigned on a rotational basis, so be prepared to work and live as a team. All meals on the project are included.

A side trip to the renowned Khamai Reptile Park is included as part of your training. You also will be taken to a local curio market where quality carvings and other gifts are sold. If you stay longer, you may wish to rent a car and travel further abroad, visiting Kruger National Park, Blyde River Canyon, and the historic towns of Pilgrims Rest, Graskop, Sabie. There, you can choose from adventure activities such as bungee jumping, quad biking, canyoning, and hiking. Fees start at $2,390 for two weeks. Click here to learn more and to register!

Volunteer with Tiger, Wildlife, and Nature Conservation in India

If you’re looking for a project with major impact, the Tiger, Wildlife, and Nature Conservation Volunteer project by GVI in Central India combines wildlife management with agroforestry, community development, and education. This award-winning initiative in Madhya Pradesh helps to reduce the conflict between relocated communities and the wildlife that live on a reserve. Families here rely on farming as a livelihood, and as a result, the wildlife in the denuded reserve are encroaching, such as deer and wild boar seeking food in gardens, and even leopards preying on domesticated livestock.

This project works on big cat conservation through reforesting the reserve, adding new habitats, and building a buffer zone. Successful conservation means that larger mammals will return to the reserve and re-populate it, which can add tourism to the local economy. New tourist activities include canoe safaris, tented camping options, and hiking safaris. In fact, the Tiger Reserve is the only reserve in India that offers these options. Some of the tasks you’ll take on include:

  1. Studying animal movement around and between the reserve and farms
  2. Downloading and storing GPS tracks and waypoints
  3. Confirming species identification
  4. Processing photos and submitting observations
  5. Studying animal migration for influences
  6. Documenting birds on the reserve and their migration patterns
  7. Contributing to studies of the absence/presence of animals
  8. Compiling and analyzing safari logs for trends
  9. Contributing to the rewilding intervention effort, including planting vegetation, constructing waterholes, and checking dams
  10. Removing invasive plant species

And your work in the village may include:

  1. Conducting environmental education workshops
  2. Organizing park visits for school children
  3. Helping guides develop village tours
  4. Assisting families in the village with homestay visits
  5. Supporting critical infrastructure and facilities in public buildings
  6. Promoting the fuel-efficient stove program

You’ll share housing with other volunteers at the edge of a village that borders the park. A small room shares space with the office, library, and meeting room. Meals are included in the project as well. On days off, take safaris into the park to see leopards, sloth bears, and maybe tigers. Visit Kanha, Pench, or Bandhavgarh national parks and reserves, famous for their tigers. You also could take an outing to Pachmarhi hill station to view its waterfalls, caves, and religious sites. This program starts from $2,245 for two weeks. Click here to learn more and to register!

African Impact

Big Cat Conservation

African Impact is an experienced and impactful volunteer organization, placing travelers on responsible programs and internships in 11 countries throughout Africa. Founded in 2004 as a small, family-operated organization, African Impact has grown and has connected nearly 13,000 people with humanitarian projects. With its holistic approach, African Impact integrates its programs into the community from a grassroots level to partnerships with governments, maximizing the power of volunteering and creating a culture of respect and understanding. The following are a few of their volunteer opportunities working with African big cats.

Leopard and Predator Research, Kruger Region

To conserve animals and nature, you need to understand the intricate connections between these two. Join a research team on game reserves in South Africa’s Kruger area and monitor the elusive leopard, learning how to track and identify individual leopards and collecting information for a database.

During the day and night stake-outs, you’ll observe animals in the wild, monitoring leopard corridors, and learning the practical methods used in wild animal research. These include setting up camera traps, measuring tracks, heat mapping, and building identification databases.

Part of this research project incorporates data collected on wild dogs and hyenas to better understand group dynamics and behavior. Other activities include ongoing conservation initiatives like building waterholes, removing invasive plant species, and patrolling for snares. Some nights, you’ll camp out in the bush, eating around the fire, and stargazing at night.

Your accommodation is an African lodge on a private reserve in the Greater Kruger Area, a wildlife hotspot near the world-famous Kruger National Park. The program base is on 18 hectares of land, with a large swimming pool, and is a great place to relax with other volunteers, enjoy a game night, watch movies, and roast marshmallows around the fire.

On days off, you can explore the Blyde River Canyon or visit Swaziland. Program fees begin at $3,495 for four weeks. Click here to learn more and to register!

Big Cat Wildlife Research & Conservation, Masai Mara

Join African Impact on a big cat conservation program in the Naboisho Conservancy, which borders the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. This is a great opportunity to volunteer with lions. This area has a wealth of wildlife and the largest density of lions in the country.

You’ll get to monitor wildlife each day and collect data for conservancy management. Do this by going out on drives to conduct bi-weekly game counts. Document sightings of big cats and contribute to the leopard database. Learn more about the Maasai culture as you work alongside experienced Maasai guides from the Koiyaki Guiding School.

Accommodation is in a volunteer house in the Kenyan Mara Naboisho Conservancy, which borders the world-famous Maasai Mara National Reserve. Animals on the reserve include lions, hyenas, wildebeest, and antelope. You’ll stay in an authentic, rustic safari camp with dorms or large tents. Meals are included. Enjoy movie nights, campfire nights, bush dinners, and board games with other volunteers.

Spend weekends and free time on safari, or even enjoy a hot air balloon ride. You can also spend a night (or two) in a luxury safari camp. Kenya’s Malindi Marine National Park has extensive and beautiful beaches and coral reefs. Go surfing, snorkeling, fishing, and diving. Program fees start from $2,311 for two weeks. Read more and sign up here!

Hands-on Lion & Wildlife Conservation in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Work alongside a team of researchers and enjoy a close encounter with captive lions on their daily walks when you join African Impact in Zimbabwe on the Hands-on Lion & Wildlife Conservation program. You’ll play a key role in one of the world’s largest conservation areas close to Victoria falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world!

Your role is to assist researchers on the team, collecting baseline data on each species to improve the conservation management plan. You’ll track and collect data on the lion, spotted hyena, and other large predators through spoor transects, census physical sightings, and predator call-up surveys. Hands-on work with lions includes helping captive-bred lions become familiar with their environment through daily walks, and you’ll help in the feeding, cleaning, and enrichment of these big cat cubs.

In addition to working with lions in this groundbreaking and globally-recognized lion-release program, you’ll have a chance to track and monitor large predators, including the hyena and leopard in the Zambezi National Park. Another aspect of this conservation project is outreach, where you’ll help with educational initiatives in the community. This includes teaching children living on the borders of national parks about the importance of wildlife and environmental sustainability.

You also may spend time on African Impact’s elephant research project, helping to build a database of each individual animal based upon identification of their ear notches, tusk size, and shape. Park conservation activities that you may help with include invasive plant species removal, waterhole and fire management, anti-poaching cavities, and litter picks.

Stay at the private Tokki Lodge with other volunteers and staff, and enjoy the pool, outdoor living space, fire pit, and barbecue area. Wifi is available for about $1 per day. Victoria Falls is a great location for your gap year or internship as well, giving you a chance to learn about indigenous people, culture, and tradition. The national parks are some of the best in Africa, and you’ll see many animals on your safari there. The Zambezi River is home to crocodiles and hippos, and elephants drink from its banks. Adventures you can have there include bungee jumping, white-water rafting, and river cruises. Program fees start from $2,111 for two weeks. Learn more here!

Global Nomadic

Big Cat Conservation

Global Nomadic offers international internships, TEFL courses, and volunteer abroad placements in 40+ countries. Launched in 2009, Global Nomadic has placed more than 10,000 people on meaningful programs and research projects. It partners with international NGOs, academic institutions, and companies with a focus on conservation, wildlife rehabilitation, community development, and educational research. Global Nomadic also offers professional placements for individuals on a career track.

Leopard Conservation in South Africa

Gain wildlife conservation experience in Zululand, South Africa on an environmental project focusing on leopard conservation with Global Nomadic. This project is a collaboration with Panthera, an international wild cat organization that conducts leopard population surveys by using remote camera trapping methodologies. This program is the largest of its kind and supports provincial parks with data trends and population numbers to help managers improve big cat conservation.

You’ll spend two weeks on this project at several different national reserves, working four days each week in setting up, maintaining, and taking down cameras. You’ll help by downloading content from cameras, recording and analyzing data, overseeing camera sites, and helping with identikits for each animal. Other animals you might encounter in your surveys are lions, elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, and wild dogs.

You’ll fly into O. R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg (JNB), and take a connecting flight to Richard’s Bay Airport (RCB) – Global Nomadic can assist you with this service at no charge. Accommodations vary at each park, but all include shared rooms, toilets, showers, and kitchen facilities. You’ll cook your own food on this placement, working in a communal kitchen and sharing duties with fellow volunteers. When you’re not working, you can spend time relaxing around the park, visiting museums, and birdwatching. Program fees start at $1,350 for two weeks, with an option to stay up to three months. Learn more and apply here!

Frontier

Big Cat Conservation

Frontier provides volunteering opportunities, gap year placements, and inspirational adventures in 60 countries worldwide. Founded in 1989 as nonprofit conservation and development NGO, Frontier offers more than 400 capacity-building programs that combine community development, ecosystem protection, and economic growth, with an emphasis on conserving endangered wildlife and building livelihoods for under-resourced communities. Frontier gives you the ability to make a positive impact as you travel the world.

Costa Rica Big Cats, Primates & Turtle Conservation

Travel to one of the most ecologically diverse places on Earth and contribute to a conservation program in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. Walk out of camp each morning and embark on a different adventure, checking on sea turtle nests one day, conducting primate surveys the next day, and then recording puma and jaguar sightings.

When you work on the Big Cats, Primates & Turtle Conservation program, you’ll gain practical experience in research and conservation, and study the ecology and behavior of species including jaguars, sloths, tapirs, and Olive Ridley and Pacific Green turtles. Primates in the region are the squirrel monkey, mantled howler monkey, Geoffroy’s spider monkey, and the white-faced capuchin monkey.

The Osa Peninsula is home to five cat species: the jaguar and puma, the smaller jaguarondi and margay, and the intermediate-sized ocelot. Another facet of research is on the neotropical river otter, which is an elusive and critically endangered animal. The research camp is situated in the dense tropical forest on the edge of Corcovado National Park where you’ll carry out biodiversity surveys, which could include:

  1. Walking primate transects to collect valuable data on various primate species in the park
  2. Patrolling beaches to assess and survey turtle nesting habits and hatchling health
  3. Surveying big cat tracks and collecting data
  4. Participating in surveys of exotic bird populations, invertebrates, and other animal groups on the peninsula
  5. Helping with jungle trail creation and maintenance

You’ll arrive at Puerto Jiménez Airport (PJM) and be met by Frontier staff, who will escort you by local bus to the project camp. The jungle research camp is simple, and accommodation is in open-air, shared, mixed-sex eco-cabins in the jungle near Carate. Conditions at Camposita are basic and environmentally-friendly, so mosquito netting is a must. There are showers and toilets. Meals are included, and cooking is carried out communally on a rotational basis. You’ll learn how to cook local dishes, which are mainly vegetarian.

Free time can be spent swimming in the ocean, swinging in the hammock with a good book, horse riding, forest canopy tours, dolphin and whale watching tours, and guided trips to the national park. This program starts from $895 for one week. Click here to learn more and to register!

Malaysia Tiger Conservation

Malaysia has the second-highest tiger population in the world after India, and you can help protect this classic animal and its habitat when you volunteer on the Tiger Conservation program with Frontier. Travel to the jungle and patrol the wildlife corridor between the Taman Negara National Park and the main mountain range in West Malaysia, and be a deterrent to poaching. The wildlife trail also is used by elephants, rhinos, leopards, and sun bears.

This project gives you hands-on experience tracking wild animals as part of a team. You’ll trek through the jungle to collect data on the range and movement of the tiger, finding and identifying animals tracks and other signs of animal crossing. The team also organizes and runs anti-poaching patrols, where you’ll look for snares, record their location with a GPS, and destroy these animal traps. Your guide will teach you how to use camera traps to monitor animals that are in the area, and point out signs of animals as well as interesting flora and fauna on the walks.

You’ll need to be fit and healthy enough for jungle walks, as well as exploring the limestone caves. There are 60 caves in the Merapoh region, and many have been occupied by humans. Some have waterfalls or underground rivers, and even a variety of nocturnal wildlife.

Another component of this program is teaching conversational English to the people of the Batek village, focusing on environmental topics and your explorations. Share your culture and history, helping them learn about you and your interests as they develop a small tourism industry.

Fly into Kuala Lumpur Airport (KUL) and make your way to Merapoh, where you’ll be met by the staff for orientation and training. In-country support is available 24/7. You’ll stay in a dormitory-style volunteer house in same-gender rooms. You’ll have continental breakfast and packed lunch, and enjoy dinner out using a food allowance. Shops are walking distance of the house.

Spend your free time exploring Merapoh, or relaxing after the long days on the Tiger Trail. When your project is completed, explore Kuala Lumpur using a bus tour around the city, or take cooking lessons. Enjoy the canopy skywalk at the nearby national park, or take an eco-bike tour through Melaka. Fees for this program start at $795 for one week. Learn more here.

Namibia Carnivore Conservation Program

Join the Carnivore Conservation program in Namibia and help Frontier and its partners on a sustainable conservation plan that saves cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas. Namibia is home to one-third of the cheetah population, and it is an endangered species in this country. As well, the leopard’s range has decreased in the past years because of habitat loss and hunting. These important animals are threatened because their habitat has become farmland, and they prey on the farmers’ livestock.

You will spend the first week of your placement helping Frontier’s partners develop a sustainable conservation plan that avoids human-animal conflict. Work with biologists to monitor and track these two big cats, providing scientific research into their behavior. You’ll take part in animal counts, tracking and identifying carnivore spoors, and locating trees where cheetahs leave marks. Assist with setting and checking box traps and capture of the animals, then help transport them to a remote wildlife release site. Then you’ll learn how to locate and process the telemetry tracking data of collared cheetahs and leopards.

The remainder of your placement will be spent at the wildlife sanctuary, supporting the staff with their daily tasks, including feeding and general care of lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, caracals, meerkats, and sometimes orphaned baby baboons.

Fly into Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek (WDH), and a team member will meet you then transport you to the sanctuary for your project introduction. You’ll sleep in a large safari tent with a living room and a shared bedroom area. Electricity and solar-heated showers are available, and all meals are included. Program fees start at $2,745 for three weeks.

While you’re in Namibia, enjoy some of the unique activities this country has to offer, such as dune surfing in the Namib Desert, visiting the Kolmanskopp ghost town, or traveling to Cape Cross to see the vast seal colony that lives there. Learn more and apply here!

Big Cats Rule!

Big cats rule their territory as the alpha predator, but they’re important to the planet for another reason. As carnivores, big cats love meat, and this has an impact on plant populations. Because lions, leopards, tigers, and cheetahs hunt the herbivores in their habitat, and they spread seeds in their scat, they create what’s called a “trophic cascade” – an interaction that can control entire ecosystems. When an ecosystem loses its apex predators, and when an important species disappears, the system loses balance and the entire region can suffer. Big cats rule for a reason and with your help, they can stay at the top.