H A V E N: Part II - Bittersweet Hope for Bolivian Wildlife sanctuary
Updated: Jan 9
In a region of rural Bolivia devastated by logging and forest fires set by cattle ranchers, Ambue Ari wildlife sanctuary serves as the last safe haven for wild and captive animals alike (Click here for Part I: Wildlife under Siege). Run by Bolivian NGO Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY), the sanctuary is manned and funded by international volunteers. But with a drop in the number of foreigners visiting Bolivia, the sanctuary is falling short on the volunteer workhands and money needed to feed its animals and tackle the uncontrolled fires.
Ambue Ari is located on the site of an abandoned cacao plantation, re-wilded to lush secondary rainforest. Today, it teems with wildlife seeking refuge from deforestation and poaching. To continue the sanctuary’s mission of protecting Bolivian wildlife, workers have their sights set on a new project running in tandem with the animal sanctuary: sustainable agroforestry, harvesting the abundant feral cacao to produce chocolate.
[Image: rescued night monkey Waway eats a palm fruit fresh from the jungle surrounding the sanctuary.]
“Right, so you all saw the fires by the road on the way back from Santa Maria last night,” broaches Research and Finance Director Ollie cautiously at breakfast anuncios (announcements).
We had. On the way back from a night off in the local village, the chatter in the back of the pickup truck had fallen silent as the volunteers smelled smoke, and we passed several patches of land glowing bright orange in the dark. Just a few kilometres from the park, it could be a matter of hours before the jungle catches fire, and the flames might reach the sanctuary.
“I’ve checked again this morning and they’re still going, just a few minutes from us. So I’m going to need a crew to come help me put them out straight after breakfast.”
It’s another problem that can leave the camp suddenly short on people for a morning: the occasional sudden call for volunteers to become impromptu wildland firefighters.
Ollie rattles off a list of more than half a dozen names – almost half the workforce available in camp for the morning. The remaining volunteers will have to work extra hard to make up for our absence. We switch into non-synthetic clothes that won’t melt in the heat, fill water totes (read: recycled jugs previously holding cooking oil), and pile as many of the totes and of us as we can into the back of the CIWY truck.
When we get there, we realise how lucky we’ve been this time. Although there are several patches of fire to tackle spread along the road, they’re mostly small flames and glowing embers working through the grass. The fire is only just starting to eat at the bushes on the edge of the forest. The volunteers quickly put them out in just a couple of minutes each – but the difference this makes could be immense.
“They just set the fires and leave them unattended?” asks a volunteer from Australia.
“Yep,” replies Ollie. “They start as small things like these on the side of the road, but they can quickly get out of control. Some Mennonite farmers started a fire to clear land recently, and it ate up the forest for miles.”
He points to a hill not so far from the sanctuary.
“That whole mountainside was glowing at night - it was terrifying.”
Later, returning volunteer Ben (from France) will describe to me how when he’d come a year before, they’d been hacking a firebreak trail in the jungle overnight for fourteen hours straight.
“It was tiring as hell, but when you see four-metre high flames headed towards the park, you find the motivation.”
Ollie then has us renew the fire trails around the sanctuary as a preventative measure, maintaining them with machetes and rakes to prevent burns spreading into Ambue Ari’s land. It’s also part of routine maintenance for cages and enclosures to hack away a few metres of jungle outside the fences, making a fuel-free safety buffer for the animals. The extensive precautions are well-warranted: not only are the unchecked forest fires worryingly common, but buildings in camp were been set ablaze a few years before because of careless volunteers leaving lit candles unattended in dorms.
A few days after our first outing to tackle unchecked roadside fires threatening the forest, my name comes up in a morning anuncios list again, this time as part of “team Ollie”. We’re told to grab machetes before we head to the other side of AA’s land. My stomach tightens, fearing more fires must be on the way. But this excursion is altogether more hopeful.
Today, Ollie has us cutting a new trail through the thick jungle undergrowth, leading with a GPS in hand as we hack away behind him with three-foot long machetes. It’s sweaty work, but incredibly satisfying. I find myself swinging with such zeal, I almost hit the volunteer behind me in the face with my machete.
“Sorry,” I say, laughing nervously. “I’m used to using the little short ones.”
She stares at me with alarm. Briskly changing the topic, I ask: “So what are we cutting this trail for, Ollie?”
He turns and holds up the GPS he has been transfixed by for the last twenty minutes, showing a path that as yet doesn’t exist in reality.
“This is a model simulation of the path going through the highest density of cacao trees in the area. We’re planning to harvest four tons of raw product through the trail we’re currently cutting.”
My mind starts racing. Agroforestry of feral cacao from a rewilding project – it was perfect. Marketing sustainably produced chocolate might be the silver bullet to end Ambue Ari’s financial worries. Explain that buying the chocolate helps fund AA’s wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, and you could also put the place on the map internationally. Returning volunteer Ben even suggests a single cacao harvest could fund the camp’s work for an entire year.
[ Image: unripe cacao fruit, growing wild in abundance on one the the many cacao trees in the wildlife sanctuary. ]
Jumping the gun, I’m already thinking about how this can involve the local community more in CIWY’s work. “So you’ll pay people from Santa Maria to work the harvest, right? Then they can learn more about Ambue Ari and the good you’re doing. It’ll help form a better relationship with the locals.”
Ollie falters, and admits that at first they would be asking volunteers to participate in the harvest – they simply didn’t have enough to pay locals. I voice my disappointment, but see his point.
“How many volunteers do you need?” I ask.
“If we have sixteen people harvesting three hundred pods per hour each, we can get 250kg of end-product out.”
I raise an eyebrow. We have less volunteers than that now, and this is supposed to be the time of year when numbers peak. The harvest is around January, when the rain is heavy and the mosquitoes are rampant.
“How are you going to find that many people in wet season?”
There’s no hard and fast answer to that question.
It’s not until after I leave Bolivia that I think of another potential solution: pay Bolivian workers in cacao, a share of what they harvest each day. When I contact head veterinarian Alejandra (a Bolivian) with my suggestion in early February, and ask about how the harvest is going, she has good news.
“They’re harvesting once a week, and fermentation is going well. Three locals have been contracted to help out. I’ll pass on your suggestion, it could also be a good option.
The volunteers are providing a lot of support, many have signed up to work on the cacao more than once a week. We’re very hopeful about the results.”
Ollie describes a plan to conduct surveys of the wildlife in the harvested and unharvested areas of the forest, comparing them to make sure the agroforestry project isn’t affecting any other species. Many of the wild animals in the sanctuary also eat cacao fruit. But between managing AA’s finances and volunteers, applying for grants, and carrying out the research on the resident wild jaguar and ocelot populations, he admits he could use some jungle-hardy research assistants to help him out. “The problem is, I can’t pay them.”
A couple of months later, I hear he's managed to find one - a Belgian volunteer has returned twice, and agreed to help him with his camera trapping research for a few months. But the task at hand is gigantic, and he'll need still more people for the cacao research.
Ambue Ari is struck by the same affliction as most other wildlife-oriented projects: constant lack of at least one thing they need to function at the height of their potential. Like so many bases I’ve visited, I find myself thinking that they need more. More people, more money, more time, more resources, and more publicity. In this case, I’m stumped for what could function as quick fixes. They’re living on a knife’s edge, and that makes it all the more admirable that they’ve lasted this long. And although every day here may be a struggle, there is no question who’s winning.
All around Ambue Ari, trees are falling, animals are being taken dead or alive, and people are making money. Inside the sanctuary, people give time, money and energy to keep the project afloat and running, and to keep wildlife alive, healthy and happy. By capitalism’s standards, they may be on the brink of failure. But the riches they grow and protect are the type money cannot buy, and that will last generations.
When the volunteers slip their boots on to blistered feet and lift water, meat and fruit with weary arms, to them it may just seem like another long day at work. But to me, as they walk out to care for their charges, they are patrolling the battlements of a fortress that has stood strong against years of siege. Its walls may be pockmarked with age and black-burnt scars of war. Its skeleton crew may be tense, exhausted, at times on the verge of breaking. But Ambue Ari, and every animal in it, still stands. Here, nature is winning, and will do so for the foreseeable future.
You can be a part of this enduring victory.
Raphaël Coleman (from London) joined CIWY as a volunteer at Ambue Ari for six weeks in September 2017. He was in charge of caring for Francis the night monkey, Yuma the puma, and Biton the red howler monkey (pictured).
Raph works and volunteers on conservation projects and in animal sanctuaries around the world, connecting passionate nature protectors via the Wildwork.