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We live in a time where travel has evolved from the simple concept of movement to a lifestyle or even a calling that has many means and ends, with a plethora of projects designed to engage travelers with local life, from wildlife tours to volunteer abroad programs. As the world reckons with climate change and the impact of most human pursuits on our planet’s flora and fauna, including tourism, young travelers are making the environmentally conscious tradeoff. Today, local initiatives are giving global tourism conglomerates a run for their money, as young travelers veer away from commercial tourism and its high environmental price tag and more towards conscientious travel.

In Egypt, there isn’t much environmental awareness on a popular level. According to Egyptian adventure traveller and mountaineer Sarah Ghaly, ecotourism is still considered a travel niche. Ghaly is a member of a small community of conscientious travelers in Egypt. For her first solo travel experience, Ghaly volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Namibia in 2011. “When I was going to Namibia, I got nothing but negative comments from family and friends, like ‘why are you blowing your money on petting lions, why don’t you go to France instead?’” she says. “I didn’t get the sense that anyone else was interested in this kind of travel or tourism. Even if they are, it’s highly unlikely they’ll pay money to actually go and do this. I think it’s a question of priorities.”

Ghaly in Namibia (via Sarah Ghaly)

During her two weeks with the wildlife conservation organization, Ghaly tended to rescued lions, leopards, cheetahs, and other endangered species. “It’s a huge farm, far from the city [Windhoek], where they rehabilitate the animals and release them back into the wild,” she says. “My duties ranged from feeding the animals, cleaning after them, walking them, to monitoring their progress.”

Such organizations work in tandem with conservation efforts by the Namibian government, and despite the obvious dangers of feeding lions and petting cheetahs, the benefits of this kind of eco-voluntourism far outweigh the risks. In fact, Namibia is one of leading nations on the wildlife conservation front, and it is in large part due to such programs that attract millions of travelers every year.      

Eco-tourists are, in more ways than one, consumers of the experience rather than thrill seekers. They derive a sense of reward and enjoyment from their impact on their host communities. “When an animal recovers, they’re resettled in a place called The Lifeline [The Lifeline Foundation by Harnas Wildlife Foundation Namibia], until they are fully rehabilitated and ready to go back into the wild. We tag them to monitor their movement and progress,” she explains. “One time, I went searching for a tagged cheetah when I found she had had a daughter and they were both doing well. She had just made a hunt. You get to see the actual progress of it. …That was an amazing experience, actually.”

Ghaly in Thailand (via Sarah Ghaly) 

In ecotourism, as in any other type of alternative travel, experience is the only marketable feature, which is why many such organizations accept volunteers and charge a fee for such programs – fees usually cover room and board. Such requirements may be cumbersome for some and they even decidedly defeat the purpose of volunteering, but they are a business necessity for wildlife sanctuaries.

For elephant conservation organizations in Thailand, these fees are essential. Unlike their African brethren, Asian elephants are more vulnerable and are even more endangered due to poaching and loss of habitat, but, most importantly, neglect. Many elephants are owned as pets by villagers in some parts of Thailand. In most cases, they are a source of income for their owners who lease them to circuses or touristic establishments for elephant trekking, both of which are severely damaging to the animal, both physically and psychologically, which leads to their premature deaths. To save the species from extinction, conservation organizations must incentivize owners financially to entrust the animals to their care for a given number of hours every day. “The deal with the owners is that the elephants in the project are not to work in circuses or in tourism, and they’re not to be abused – they tame elephants with a bullhook to the ears, it’s a very vicious way of treating the animal. We take them on walks, we take them to the beach, and we look after them," Ghaly says of a wildlife conservation organization she recently volunteered with in Thailand. "They get to take their chains off most of the day, but until these people find another source of income, these elephants will be their property, and they won’t be free.”

Ghaly in Namibia (via Sarah Ghaly)

In addition to tending to the animals, Ghaly’s duties extended to canvassing the villagers to raise awareness about these fascinating creatures and their immense capacity for emotionality, who often die of sadness. “This was the difficult part. At some point during the day, the elephant is bound to go back to their owner who ties their front legs to the ground so they can’t move. It’s a horrible thing to see,” Ghaly recounts. “The project was in a village where there are people working with us and there are people who aren’t, so you get to see both – the abused elephant whose owner sends to the circus and the one who is well taken care of.”

Aside from providing a revenue stream to these wildlife sanctuaries to finance their operations, volunteers also provide much-needed elbow grease. At a time when there are more endangered species than ever, eco-travelers and conservation societies and communities everywhere are buying the world time to quite literally shape up or ship out.

Although the scale may appear to be tipped in these organizations’ favor, Ghaly and others find reward in the knowledge that they are offsetting the extinction of species without whom the world would face far-reaching evolutionary consequences that could potentially lead to the demise of the human race.

Ghaly also believes that the experience has taught her invaluable things about life and human nature. “You learn that it’s not about what you want. At the end of the day, you’re there for these animals, to help them, to rehabilitate them back into the wild. You learn to adapt to them, not the other way around,” Ghaly explains. “At first I didn’t understand the concept of one life form surviving by preying on another, but it’s the circle of life. For these predators to live, they have to feed on creatures from the inferior order of the food chain. You understand this reality and you realize your place in it.” 

Interested in ecotourism? Check out the MENA globetrotter's guide to alternative travel.