Help save the planet with a conservation gap year. By Kate Hilpern

"More and more young people want to take a gap year which is not just fun but altruistic too," says Eibleis Fanning, managing director of gap year provider Frontier. "Because saving the environment is often high on their agenda, I'm not a bit surprised that so many are opting to spend it doing conservation work."

For those wishing to stay in the UK, organisations such as the National Trust, British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, RSPB and English Heritage are just a few that provide opportunities. Meanwhile, those wishing to broaden their horizons can go anywhere from Australia or Tanzania to Fiji or Cambodia. "Some of our volunteers do biological surveys in tropical rainforests, while others look at how to reduce the number of shootings of elephants in national parks," says Fanning.

Such options aren't cheap, she admits. "Our prices start at £1,100 for four weeks on a land-based project, while the marine ones start at £1,400. But it's an incredible experience and you can come away with a vocational qualification in conservation."

Richard Oliver, chief executive of the Year Out Group, points out that there are a growing number of specialist conservation gap year companies, including Frontier, Africa Conservation Experience, Global Vision International and Coral Cay Conservation. "But young people shouldn't rule out the more general volunteering companies, most of which have conservation options," he says.

"Don't go with a company just because you've heard they're good. What might be right for your mate might not be right for you."

Once you've narrowed down your options, talk to someone who has recently returned from a project, suggests Oliver.

The benefits of doing a conservation gap year include learning or improving a skill such as scuba diving, as well as gaining confidence and improving team working skills. According to Bex Stonebridge, 22, who took part in conservation work in Australia and Tasmania for her gap year in 2003, you get to see more remote places than if you just went backpacking. "We met people who had been travelling in the same areas and they hadn't even heard of the places we went to," she says.

The variety of the conservation work she was involved in was huge - from planting trees to helping endangered baby penguins and making over school gardens and courtyards. "I only wound up doing conservation because the organisation didn't have any more places for teaching. At first I didn't fancy it, but it was incredibly worthwhile and I feel I've seen a lot more of the areas I went to than I would have if I'd been stuck in a classroom."

Conservation work can be demanding, admits Georgina Leach, 19, who went to Brazil with Quest Overseas for five months. "We were replanting trees in the rainforests for some of the time, and it was very labour intensive and hot. But it was so rewarding to know what a difference you're making."

Among the achievements of gappers who have gone through Quest Overseas are planting more than 7,000 trees, creating a new animal sanctuary, building six large animal enclosures and a bird hide, and spending thousands of hours caring for animals. The work won't always be glamorous, admits marketing manager Tom Setter. "One of our current projects is working on a collection of game reserves in Swaziland. The long-term goal is to have them as one big reserve and the kinds of things we've needed to do is build a chicken shed."

Sarah Horner, spokeswoman for i-to-i, agrees. "You could find yourself mucking out animal cages on monkey projects, for instance." So be prepared to get stuck in to some pretty dirty jobs. "There isn't a particular type of person that suits conservation work. You just need a willingness to get involved," adds Horner.

According to Holly Nicholas, 19, who went to Costa Rica with i-to-i, you also need to enjoy variety. "We spent two weeks on a beach watching out for turtles being hatched in the sanctuary and then taking them down to the water. Then we spent another two weeks in a national park, helping to build trails, a nursery for flowers and a gutter system for the roads. It was an unbelievable experience and I'd recommend it to anyone."

Pristine reefs

Michelle Davenport, 18, has just returned from the islands of Fiji and Dravuni, where she did coral conservation work "Because I've recently finished my A-levels and have a place at university for 2007, I decided to spend some time abroad in between. One of my A-levels was in geography and I'd become increasingly interested in coral conservation.

I went to a gap year show in London and talked to various companies. I was particularly impressed with Coral Cay Conservation ( because the staff were so supportive, the website was so informative and the work looked so worthwhile. I went to one of their talks and made the decision to go with them.

I was away for five weeks and particularly loved the scuba diving. I got to see sharks and turtles and one of the most pristine reefs in the world. I also enjoyed living with people from different backgrounds and values. I made some lifelong friends.

I spent the first two weeks training. You go out with a buddy who points out the species of fish and coral, and then you're ready to do some surveying. You have a reel and every half a metre, if there's a piece of coral, you write down the name, as well as the species of any fish. The idea is to gather information about what's there so that the area can be better conserved."