Tourists volunteer time and passion for Daintree science effort

Using volunteers is nothing new to researchers, but working out the most suitable type of volunteer – intern, undergrad, PhD student, local community member, ‘voluntourist’ – needs consideration so that it’s a happy and productive experience for everyone involved.

That’s been the result of an experiment mixing volunteering and science at the Far North Queensland Rainforest Landscape Research Supersite in the Daintree. In fact, it’s been so successful that those involved have agreed on a partnership.

The Director of the Australian Supersite Network, Associate Professor Mike Liddell, said he and his team realised that, if they were going to have a decades-long research presence in the Daintree, they needed to re-think the labour needed to do the research, and how it is managed. The solution seemed to lie with volunteers.

‘After discussing our problem with Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA), which is diversifying the types of volunteering it offers, we planned a trial with them,’ Mike says. It was made easier by a grant that the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism allocated to CVA so it could trial new volunteer tourism programs in Far North Queensland. The result was a five-day trial trip early in June. The volunteers spent one day working at the Daintree Research Observatory (DRO), two days at Daintree Discovery Centre setting up a 1 ha vegetation plot, and two days sightseeing. At the DRO the volunteers assisted in putting dendrometers on the trees to measure fine increments in stem growth, and also commenced a study to measure liana dynamics using the 47 m tall canopy crane.

‘Overall the field trip was a success, but, as we expected, it provided us with some good learnings,’ Mike says. ‘The volunteers were young and, like all people, had different levels of physical capacity, interest, and relevant experience. We’re going to improve the quality-control checks in our methodology; for example, rather than reviewing work at lunchtime or at the end of the day, we’ll build in some checks as the work is being done.

‘Now we are designing a long-term partnership based on the research needs, methodologies and human resource requirements for the Daintree site – and looking carefully at data quality. We’re just mapping out next year’s trips and each will be a little different, based on the research needs at the time.’

The Project Manager for CVA, Dr Claire Ellis, said that CVA, too, decided to change some things. ‘Having a variety of back-up tasks available is really handy, as we discovered when we had too many volunteers and not enough work at some stages during the trial – this can drain enthusiasm,’ Claire says.

Rich, a volunteer from the UK, said ‘the chance to work with botanists was brilliant, and I’ll be recommending the trip to friends’. Summarising the highlight for most volunteers, he said that ‘the crane experience was pretty special’.

The National Manager of CVA’s Nature Holidays program, Ms Jo Davies, said her team was fine-tuning its capacity to work with researchers and land managers.

‘That means being able to provide volunteers that meet quite varied needs. Our relationship with TERN will allow our volunteer managers to provide greater levels of support around task management as both organisations understand each other’s needs better,’ Jo says.

Conservation Volunteers Australia involves young people from all over the world in one- or two-week projects, and is boosting Naturewise, its ‘voluntourism’ program of holiday packages designed around conservation projects. It has been going for 30 years, which makes it the longest running conservation volunteer organisation in the country. It has managed 18,000 conservation projects and planted more than 25 million trees, and now organises more than 10,000 volunteers a year to take part in its projects.

Last year, the organisation won a Ulysses Award from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation for its project to transform 260 hectares of degraded farmland by planting 200,000 trees to improve biodiversity and replicate the natural ecosystem.

By exploring a long-term program together, the FNQ Rainforest supersite and CVA recognise the value of building their separate skills into a synergistic partnership. Conservation Volunteers Australia is keen to develop more TERN partnerships. TERN site or facility leaders can discuss ideas with Jo Davies on 08 8981 3206 or by email.

Volunteers practise a folding technique for dendrometer banding (left) before going into the rainforest to tag trees (right)

Published in TERN e-Newsletter August 2012

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