5 Places to Volunteer with Endangered Wildlife in Costa Rica

Maybe it’s the magic combination of biodiversity and Pura Vida, literally meaning “the good life”, which makes a trip to Costa Rica unforgettable. Costa Rica, a small country that contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity, is an ideal vacation destination where you can admire its rugged coastlines, lush tropical forests and jungles. Pair that with the laid-back attitude of Costa Rica’s Pura Vida and chances are you’re in for an amazing getaway.

Cooper’s Hawk, Jaguar Rescue Center (Photo credit: Andrew Morse Photography / Shutterstock.com)

But how about having a “hands-on” experience where you roll up your sleeves and work with endangered and threatened species in Costa Rica? With habitat loss, orphaned animals, and illegal trafficking, there is a need to rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles, monkeys, sloths, and birds in Costa Rica.

There are plenty of opportunities for animal lovers who want to make a difference on their travels and contribute to wildlife preservation while having a unique and inspiring experience.

There are a wide variety of volunteer opportunities to support wildlife in Costa Rica. Think carefully about what you are looking for. Do some research and read the reviews. Some organizations offer conservation projects for the duration of a week, while others require a much longer commitment. Some wildlife conservation projects in Costa Rica take place in remote locations without electricity. Others have access to nearby towns.

Below are five volunteer opportunities in Costa Rica that you might find yourself applying for. Believe me, a volunteer opportunity with wildlife in Costa Rica is always on my to-do list.

Jaguar Rescue Center, a group of young two-toed sloths eat carrots.
expat postcards / Shutterstock.com

1. Jaguar Rescue Centre, Puerto Viejo De Talamanca, Caribbean Coast

The Jaguar Rescue Center is close to my heart. I lived with my daughter on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica while she returned for the second time to volunteer at the Jaguar Rescue Center. Her first volunteer experience had left a lasting impact and she knew she had to come back. We lived in a house in the jungle, near Puerto Viejo. She rode her bike to do her volunteer work. Me, freshly retired, I was cycling in the opposite direction of the yoga classes that took place in the jungle.

At the end of her volunteer period, I had the approved opportunity to go behind the scenes with her. Never in my life had I imagined what it would be like to have a baby howler monkey squeeze my leg and use me as a gym in the jungle! I couldn’t help wondering why I hadn’t participated in the volunteer opportunity as well. As I mentioned before, it’s on my bucket list!

Parrots at the Jaguar Rescue Center, Costa Rica.
Katarzyna Drazek / Shutterstock.com

The Jaguar Rescue Center rescues between 400 and 700 animals a year, providing them with temporary or permanent homes, and releases approximately 40% of them into the wild. Volunteering at the Jaguar Rescue Center is a minimum commitment of 4 weeks. Volunteers, aged 18 to 85, come from all over the world to support the rehabilitation of abused, injured and orphaned animals who arrive at the centre. Animals typically found at the Jaguar Rescue Center are monkeys, sloths, other mammals, birds, and reptiles. Most arrive because they are sick, abandoned or have been electrocuted on poorly insulated power lines.

The type of volunteer work at the Jaguar Rescue Center depends on need. Do the dishes, clean the enclosures, give guided tours or supervise monkey picnics in the jungle; these are just a few of the many tasks required to keep the center running smoothly.

Pro tip: Accommodation is included, if you choose to stay on site. Meals are not included but there is a kitchen where you can keep your groceries and cook your meals.

2. Punta Banco on the Burica Peninsula, South Pacific Coast

Costa Rica’s coastline is home to dozens of nesting sites for four species of turtles: leatherback, green, hawksbill and olive ridley turtles. Watching sea turtles lay eggs or watching hatchlings run out to sea are pretty spectacular animal experiences.

My experience with endangered sea turtles in Costa Rica took place at Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast. Watching the sea turtles lay their eggs was a profound experience, even more so knowing that all remaining sea turtle species are either threatened or endangered.

ConservationVIP, an organization that runs volunteer programs around the world, offers organized trips dedicated to the conservation of sea turtles in Costa Rica.

If you’re passionate about volunteering for sea turtle conservation, these 10-day trips might be just what you’re looking for!

Traveling to the village of Punta Banco – on the Burica Peninsula on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica, where sea turtles nest – volunteer work includes locating, excavating and moving sea turtle nests in a protected hatchery. One of the highlights of ConservationVIP trips to Costa Rica is the hands-on experience of releasing turtle hatchlings.

If you know anything about Costa Rica, it’s that the bird life is amazing. Although the majority of the time is spent preserving sea turtles, this trip also includes an opportunity to support scarlet macaws by volunteering at an almond tree nursery; their main source of food.

Cloud forest in Monteverde Costa Rica.
Cloud forest (Photo credit: Jennifer Kurt Photography / Shutterstock.com)

One of the most beautiful birds in the world, the resplendent quetzal, which you can see in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, is also on the list for conservation work. Volunteers go to Cerro de la Muerte and build quetzal nests to place in a quetzal protection area.

Pro tip: Another strong point of these sea turtle conservation programs is that the villagers of Punta Banco are very welcoming towards volunteers. They show their appreciation for all the voluntary work that is done by organizing a village fete on the last evening.

Two-toed sloth Manuel Antonio National Park.
Stephan Hawks / Shutterstock.com

3. The Sloth Institute, Manuel Antonio National Park

The Sloth Institute is located in the Tulemar Gardens of Manuel Antonio National Park and is dedicated to sloth research, education and conservation. Their main goal is to rehabilitate and release as many sloths into the wild as possible.

Although sloths are not critically endangered, with habitat loss many sloths end up crossing power lines or roads to get to where they are headed. The Sloth Institute has built 3,280 feet of expressways or rope bridges to help sloths travel safely through the rainforest.

As someone who has found a sloth stopped in the middle of a road, I can attest to the importance of fast lanes for sloths.

There are plenty of places to see sloths in the wild in Costa Rica, but working with these adorable, smiling mammals, one of the slowest-moving mammals in the world, would be a rare and memorable experience.

Volunteer positions at the Sloth Institute arise several times a year and are for periods of 6 months. Daily field work and observing sloths in the jungle are all part of supporting the sloth release program.

If this volunteer opportunity isn’t calling your name, the Sloth Institute hosts guided nature walks through Tulemar Gardens with a sloth expert. This is one of the best places to see sloths in Costa Rica.

Pro tip: The Sloth Institute states on their website that as a volunteer you will be hot, sweaty, sleepy and eat mosquitoes, but so happy! This opportunity is for animal lovers who really want to make a difference.

Toucan Rescue Ranch sanctuary in Costa Rica.
Samuel Morgan / Shutterstock.com

4. The Toucan Rescue Ranch, San Josecito, San Isidro, Heredia

The Toucan Rescue Ranch has the primary mission of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing Costa Rican wildlife into their natural habitat. This sanctuary specializes in toucans, sloths and owls, but also has a wide range of other wildlife.

Located just 25 minutes from the capital, San José, the Toucan Rescue Ranch offers the opportunity to get your hands dirty and take care of the daily care of its sanctuary animals. Volunteer responsibilities include tasks such as preparing food, feeding sanctuary animals, and cleaning enclosures. The Toucan Rescue Ranch attracts volunteers from around the world who must commit to a minimum of 4 weeks of volunteering.

The Toucan Rescue Ranch is involved in exciting programs such as a Costa Rican toucan captive breeding program, toucan aviaries for a pre-release experience, and is in partnership with the Sloth Institute for rescue orphaned sloths.

Pro tip: The Toucan Rescue Ranch offers ethical and educational tours of its sanctuary animals.

5. Las Tortugas Research Station, North Caribbean Coast

Seeturtles is an organization that helps save sea turtles through conservation programs. One such planned trip to Costa Rica is the leatherback turtle volunteer vacation program.

According to the WWF, leatherback turtles have survived for over 100 million years. Their status is critically endangered and much more needs to be done to protect the world’s largest sea turtle and largest living reptile. It’s amazing to think about their average size, which is around 800 pounds and 6 feet long.

Volunteers on this “volunteer vacation” spend four nights working at the rather remote Las Tortugas research station, located in the Tortuguero Canals. Volunteers participate in activities that directly protect leatherback turtles, such as patrolling beaches at night, helping to measure leatherback turtles, collecting data, collecting and moving eggs to protected hatcheries.

Please note that accommodation at Las Tortugas Research Station is very basic. The bright side ? You live in the rainforest and are sure to see howler monkeys, sloths and fabulous Costa Rican birds.

Pro tip: From mid-May to June, volunteer work involves working with hatchlings, measuring, weighing and releasing them into the water.

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