5 Ways to Avoid Predatory Pay to Work Schemes – Part 1

Finishing the last exam, Sarah returns to her dorm room to finalize her summer eco-adventure internship. It’s so expensive, she thought, more expensive than just going on a basic safari…but what a dream come true. I’ll actually get experience and a resume boost! Sarah hits the “submit & pay” on the company’s website. 


Images of happy college interns assisting researchers radio-collar jaguars, setting up bird nets, and rehabilitating capuchin monkeys scroll across the web page. Another image appears of young people around a campfire laughing while the mysterious rainforest lurks behind them. I can’t wait to be there! 

The reality of Sarah’s experience…


A few weeks later, Sarah lands in Costa Rica, excited to begin the trek to the private eco-tour facility. 

After landing, a non-English speaker ushered Sarah to a tourist van with large photos of travelers posing with native animals, all held improperly. What did I get myself into…?



Sarah was met with poor living conditions — a dilapidated, bug-infested field hut — not anything like the luxurious cabin featured on the website. I can’t believe I paid that much money for this, she thought. She saw monkeys and capybaras in small, smelly cages. Every animal was held in improper and crowded enclosures. Are these the animals they are rehabilitating to go back to the wild? After talking to other volunteers, it became clear: There’s not even a veterinarian on staff, she realized with horror.


Unfortunately for Sarah her experience didn’t get any better. She fell for a deceitful pay to work scheme. During her stay, she was instructed to empty excrement from the animal cages and carry buckets of water back and forth across the compound. 


The field experience–which promised her biological skills to add to her resume– was even worse. The “researchers” took turns posing with the birds they caught, more concerned with a photo for Instagram than data quality. Plus, despite being told she would work with jaguar researchers, she merely trekked through the forest alone checking camera traps. How does this help conservation research? she wondered. Unfortunately for Sarah, she lost lots of money, time and the ability to learn meaningful skills.


This was the worst part for her. She paid good money to invest in her future career as a biologist. Her entire trip in a unique rainforest ecosystem felt wasted.


Sarah wanted to spend her summer contributing to the greater good of conservation. However, she realized that the company didn’t care about the preservation or care of wildlife and biology– rather, they had a money-making agenda which took advantage of starry-eyed zoology students.


It broke Sarah’s heart that she had been tricked to believe this experience would better herself and wildlife. Now Sarah saw wildlife in inhumane conditions, emotionally and physically stressed, and mishandled. Sarah realized the company used their animals as entertainment for tourists and took advantage of her willingness to work for free.

Sarah ended up working for a company like the ones she had sought out to fight against, and she wished she could take it all back.


A Real Life Example: Meet Marie


After writing about fictional Sarah, we stumbled across an article written by Marie Therese Heggen for Earthwise Aware. Marie was brave even to write about her experiences, and she’s given us permission to share parts of her story.


“Looking back, that first project I volunteered for in Africa was not good –the ethics of the place were questionable. It was more of a tourist attraction than a genuine conservation project…


The venue was advertised as a wildlife rehabilitation center that supposedly did rescue and release wild animals….It’s clear to me now in hindsight that the facility was not contributing to the conservation of the species they said they protected. Although they claimed to rescue and release, there was no evidence (or records) of that actually happening…


You expect an organization saying they are dedicated to conservation to be a conservation project. Of course looking back, I now have a different –and hopefully– more critical and ethical perception of what wildlife volunteering ought to achieve for the wildlife…and that organizations may not be what they seem.


I tried to find projects that were ethically and morally right and that also contributed to conservation in one way or another…. it is doable if you put the time and effort into it. You can never do too much research before choosing a project”


What’s a pay to work scheme and how is it different than an ethical conservation experience? 


Like Sarah’s fictional experience, pay to work schemes charge unfair prices in exchange for experiences that were not originally advertised and do not offer any educational value. Additionally, like Marie’s example, the money raised does not directly support conservation or environmental research, propagating a system that preys upon aspiring biologists to instead benefit shady organizations and tourist traps.


On the other hand, ethical conservation internships and experiences differ from these pay to work schemes in two main ways:


  • A trip participant pays fair fees for worthwhile & educational experiences. This can include skills to add to a resume or college credit. It does not mean holding and taking pictures with animals.

  • The money these organizations take in directly supports an environmental cause, furthering conservation.

  • Organizations must have a track record of the research, education, or ecological restoration they have contributed.

Ideally, these ethical experiences benefit all people, regardless of socio-economic status (but stay tuned for a future blog addressing this more directly).


Additionally, they prioritize respect for native peoples and cultures. 


How to discern a pay to work scheme from an ethical conservation trip


These seemingly similar experiences can be sorted out if you do your due diligence.


We at Nova Conservation vet all of our partners and experiences, but we encourage direct communication with the organization yourself to ensure their ethicality.


Here are five tips for checking company and trip authenticity:


  1. Read reviews. Don’t just read the website reviews that the company posts, look on Yelp, Google, and other websites to see what other people say about their experiences.

  2. Research the company. Does anything pop up that reflects negative experiences or inauthentic promises? News articles, blogs and other crowd-sourced, or journalistic pieces can help you discern if a company or a specific trip is an ethical experience.
    • Forums are a big help here– One experience I almost signed up for I was talked out of from negative comments on a forum. We provide a Forum  to have these discussions, but Reddit and Facebook have some good pages to check out, too!

  3. Price check. Is one trip way more expensive than other similar trips on other company websites? Do some digging if there is one way more expensive than the others — and be wary of registering until you have further verified its authenticity.

  4. Call or email the company. You can learn a lot about a company and its values by starting a conversation about potentially attending one of their events. Are they pushy? Do they seem to ward off answering directly? Are they rude in response to you having questions? These are all signs to RUN!

  5. Attend a verified trip posted on Nova Conservation’s website. If you want an authentic experience, without having to do the digging yourself and even then not being 100% certain your trip will be as promised, then choose one of the many verified trips on Nova Conservation. We vet our partners to ensure they are the highest quality, most ethical travel businesses in conservation. 

Whether you’re looking for donation or volunteer opportunities, internships to further your career, or simply want a unique eco-adventure, it is important to know how to discern legit ethical conservation businesses from the illegitimate, unethical companies.


We founded Nova Conservation to make authentic conservation travel more accessible to all people. With our trips and partners, you can find ethical conservation trips, volunteer opportunities, jobs & internships, and more! 


Learn more about what we are up to on our upcoming Kickstarter campaign video. If you like what we’re doing, please donate and share! 


Check out our Kickstarter preview to learn more about our mission to make ethical conservation travel and internship opportunities easier to discover and participate in:



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