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.
The sanctuary is run by the Bolivian NGO Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi. It’s lost in the jungle, and stays off the map for a reason: its inhabitants are vulnerable wildlife which can fetch a high price on the black market. Here, workers and volunteers from Bolivia and abroad take in and care for victims of the illegal wildlife trade, and release them into the area’s protected land where possible - though the animals' trauma means most are not so lucky. Most of the animals housed here, from parrots to monkeys and jaguars, have been rescued from exotic pet-keepers, zoos with inadequate facilities, wildlife dealers, or poachers.
But after a drop in the numbers of foreigners visiting Bolivia, Ambue Ari is falling short on volunteer workhands. How will they find the manpower and funding needed to look after their animals?
ASCENSION DE GUARAYOS, NORTH-EASTERN BOLIVIA
Driving through this landscape, what I see is cogs turning in a war machine. A war is raging all around this country, this continent, this world. A war between civilisation and nature, between man and beast. Here, the front lines are marked by smoke, or an orange glow in the night. The jungle is burning, making way for cattle pastures and orderly rows of crops. In the logging camps, the green is being eaten away by the brown of felled logs and a haze of sawdust. The sun shines not on leaves, but on the dull metal glint of battered machinery. Everywhere you look, old-growth trees are falling in the name of money.
But in the midst of all this loss, there is a place where the wild is winning: a lost patch of jungle that has stood strong for over two decades. A fortress where wildlife is safe from the hunter’s gun, the farmer’s fires and the logger’s chainsaw. Here, on an abandoned cacao plantation, the forest has reclaimed the land and animals have returned in astonishing numbers.
On the road cutting through the sanctuary, trucks rattle past loaded with huge tree trunks several metres in diameter, cut from old growth forest in one of the region’s many logging concessions.
In Ambue Ari, cacao farming has been consumed over the years by the green of the jungle, and the trees creep their way back to the sky. Many have already grown great and strong, their 30-metre canopies trailing thick masses of gnarled vines.
In the market of Ascension de Guarayos, armadillo is sold openly, sawn in half down the middle and grilled for meals in the food court by the bus station.
In Ambue Ari, I crouch in silence and watch an armadillo loudly snuffling its way through the leaf litter. Oblivious to my presence due to its poor eyesight, it meanders within a metre of me, before rushing away suddenly when I shift my foot and the leaves rustle. In a year of working in Neotropical forests, I’ve only ever seen two armadillos before Ambue Ari. But here, it’s the fifth one I’ve seen this week. Even though the area of forest AA covers is relatively small, I have never seen such a high density of animals before, and it begs to be studied as a refuge zone. Around every corner, parrots, squirrel monkeys, macaws or peccary can suddenly appear from the undergrowth in large groups.
In Bolivian rural communities, infiltrating Chinese interests have recently been exposed to be contributing to a rise in poaching of wild jaguars. Their teeth are said to be worth more by weight than cocaine in some countries, and have been discovered and confiscated in mail shipments headed for Southeast Asia.
In Ambue Ari, Research Coordinator Ollie’s camera traps have been picking up wild cats in the area, part of his research into the last remaining fragments of the nearby Panthera jaguar corridor initiative. He’s naming each new identified jaguar after Game of Thrones characters. Over breakfast anuncios (announcements) one morning, he shows us photos of Arya walking down a fire trail at night with a young cub – named Hot Pie. The camera trap images have provided proof that the cats are breeding, and are now raising young, on the sanctuary’s grounds.
Ambue Ari’s purpose, however, is to care for the casualties of war: it’s a sanctuary for animals rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. It’s run by Bolivian NGO Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY) - meaning community of the sun, stars, and moon in Spanish and three local indigenous languages. CIWY’s three centres across Bolivia take in anything from parrots and coatis to jaguars and tapirs, with specialties in caring for monkeys and wild cats. Some were caught being trafficked across borders. Many were confiscated by the authorities when they were discovered being kept illegally as exotic pets. In other cases, they were surrendered by owners who realise they cannot handle or properly care for a wild animal as a household pet. Others are even from zoos and circuses in Bolivia that couldn’t provide them with adequate welfare standards. The problem is so dire and widespread that CIWY are no longer able to take in any more animals due to lack of space.
[ Images: Some of Ambue Ari's rescued residents. ]
Development is occurring to make space for more animals at CIWY’s newest centre, Jacj Cuisij (meaning “land of dreams” in two local tongues), which currently houses three pumas. Their biggest centre, Machia, houses over 350 animals, specialising in bird and monkey rehabilitation.
Throughout South America, monkeys sit in cages, often malnourished when kept illegally as pets. They’re often taught tricks or made to wear clothes, and accumulate behavioural abnormalities over time that make it harder for them to be rehabilitated.
In Ambue Ari, rescued juvenile red howler monkey Beyonce is learning to climb trees, use her tail to grip branches, and eat leaves like her wild counterparts. “She’s making progress,” a new volunteer assigned to work with her tells me from fifteen metres up in the canopy. If all goes well, Beyo can be integrated with the rest of the howler ‘Squad’ – and the five of them have a chance at being released back into the wild together. They would join several other troops resident in the area who were successfully released by Ambue Ari’s rehabilitation projects.
[ Images: Beyonce during an enrichment loosewalk; Beyonce grips the author's finger with her tail; alpha male Biton on a loosewalk. ]
But despite CIWY’s noble goals, much of the work at Ambue Ari happens under a shroud of secrecy. The animals CIWY’s centres house are most often there because of the value they have on the black market. If knowledge of what and where they are falls into the wrong hands, they could be stolen all over again. Jaguar teeth, for example, have been estimated to be worth over USD $200 per canine when sold to Chinese exporters.
Here at Ambue Ari, a group of staff and volunteers operate out of a central camp. Every day they slip out into the jungle, carrying food, water and enrichment material (fresh branches, food-filled packages or toys made from natural materials) to the animals in their care. Most enclosures are isolated from the others, hidden in a spider-web maze of narrow trails snaking through the forest. No detailed or accurate maps are available to volunteers, and most only know the paths to the animals they work with, having been shown the way by their predecessor during their training. When entering these trails from the road, they have to wait for traffic to pass out of sight, so that no passers-by can find the route to their animals.
[ Image: As the camp wakes up, volunteers gear up and head out to their charges. ]
No visitors are allowed at Ambue Ari, and just half a handful of people work with an animal at any given time. This careful control of human contact limits the stress of human presence and changes in behaviour, prevalent in many zoos and other animal facilities. Often, it’s just one or two volunteers to an animal, and each animal has a minimum amount of time a person can work with them in order for a strong bond of trust to be formed. After two or three months at the most, the keepers must say goodbye to the animals in their care and move on, passing their knowledge on to a successor - although many volunteers stay on longer at the camp, starting work with a different animal. The often painful changeover is done to prevent animals becoming stressed or too attached to one particular keeper, causing depression when they must finally leave.
Life here is simple but busy, the work enjoyable but hard. Camp pulses with activity at human and animal mealtimes, then is silent as everybody dissolves into the jungle to see their animals, or collapse early into their straw mattresses in the evening.
During my stay, exceptionally low numbers of volunteers are having to pack in long hours to get all the work done. I ask Oso (“the Bear”), a Bolivian staff member who grew up at Ambue Ari, how many people they need to comfortably look after all fifty-five of the animals present at the time.
“Como cuarenta, mas siete estaff. Asi, todos los gatos caminan.
(Around forty, plus seven staff. That way, all the cats walk.)”
Ambue Ari is known to specialise in wild felines, going to astonishing lengths to use the best rehabilitation techniques for animals that are near-impossible to release successfully. Many of the cats can be leash-walked by their carers out of their enclosures and into their natural habitat, and each animal has its own devoted territory and trails. This method of enrichment (mental and/or physical stimulation) is as close as they can get to the lifestyle of their wild counterparts.
[Image: returning volunteer Inon cautiously walks Yuma, a small female puma, through her trails.]
Each feline would ideally get at least one carer dedicated only to them - but current numbers make this impossible. I count the people listed on the accommodation whiteboard. It’s slim pickings: although Ambue Ari’s dorms can house fifty-four people in total, most are half empty. The six staff are supported by between ten and fifteen volunteers for the duration of my six weeks there. While I’m in charge of caring for just three focal animals – a puma, a red howler monkey and a night monkey – my duties involve helping with the care of many more to make up for the shortage of people. I find myself handing out meals to at least ten animals a day, with that number sometimes rising to seventeen when we have fewer people in camp. Others have more, and with good reason. Since some animals have to be attended to up to four times a day including giving out meals, filtered water, medicines and dietary supplements, animal care has to be split between people to even out workloads and make trips into the forest more efficient.
[ Images: enrichment walks with Yuma and Inon. ]
Ambue Ari’s usual system is to assign a volunteer to just one or two animals, a social group such as a troupe of monkeys, or a subset of animals housed close together such as in quarantine. This allows workers to spend time bonding with each animal, creating and carrying out enrichment, cleaning, and maintaining enclosures. The more people there are working hard here, the better the animals’ lives are, and the more time and manpower can be spent on construction, improving enclosures or building new ones. At the time, Oso and construction coordinator Candy, another Bolivian, are working alone to build several new enclosures for the coatis (a raccoon-like mammal).
[ Image: Angela, a female coati, is a favourite among volunteers. She's one of the coatis who will benefit from the new enclosures. ]
Raising the money for building materials isn’t easy, either. Around 80% of AA’s running costs are paid for by volunteer participation fees. At $400 for the first month with three meals a day and accommodation included, they are some of the most affordable in the industry. After 30 days they drop to $12 for every subsequent night - the same price as staying in a backpacker's hostel in Santa Cruz. But this accessibility comes at a price for the organisation instead.
“We’re losing USD $20K a year just on running the place,” Research and Finance Coordinator Ollie (from England) explains frankly. Part of CIWY’s commitment to transparency involves giving Ambue Ari volunteers open access to all of its financial books.
“It costs 8000 Bolivianos [USD $1,160] a week to pay for animal and human food, gasoline for the generator, and other routine expenses. That means to break even, we need two new volunteers to turn up every week and pay for at least a month’s stay.”
I compare this to what I’ve seen so far. Sometimes four arrive in less than a week, others no one arrives for ten days or so. The unpredictable flow of people often has Ollie asking people to pay their tabs early to avoid the camp’s reserves running dry.
The constant need for new people may be part of the reason why unlike other volunteer projects, there are no fixed start dates for work at Ambue Ari. CIWY’s website encourages people to “just turn up” at the door whenever they can, allowing travellers with uncertain schedules to join more flexibly.
Another tactic I notice to make sure money and workhands don’t fall short is that staff repeatedly persuade volunteers to extend their stay, or return a few weeks after they leave. So many fall in love with the project and the animals that it’s not the hardest sell. One morning, Ollie even conducts a survey to see how volunteers feel about three- and six-month volunteering contracts. Some of us suggest a structured internship might attract more early-career wildlife workers.
Since all the volunteer fees are quickly sucked up just buying food for the animals, the staff need to find new ways to bring in extra cash, particularly when numbers are low. Beyond running a tuck shop and second-hand clothing rental for the messy work, there’s CIWY merchandise and clothing for sale, but this still brings in a trickle of just a few Bolivianos a month. Since their volunteers are budget backpackers and low-paid wildlife workers, pushing their generosity is often like drawing blood from a stone.
To raise money for the coatis’ enclosures, Ollie runs an auction on a social night in the Café, where volunteers go for drinks just outside the sanctuary on Fridays. Items for sale include a week of special gourmet breakfasts, a professional photoshoot of you working with your assigned animal, a chance to take a particularly affectionate puma for a walk, and the rights to use a volunteer as your personal slave for a whole day (the result wasn’t pretty). After enough rum and beers, the dozen or so volunteers collectively bid a staggering sum over USD $1200 – enough to keep construction going on the coatis’ enclosures for the next few weeks.
By May, further donations and crowdfunding see the enclosures completed. All four coatis are happily transferred to their brand new homes.
[ Image: volunteers raid the second-hand clothing stock for Halloween at the Cafe. ]
But money and manpower aren’t Ambue Ari’s only worries. On the way back from a night off in the local village, the chatter in the back of the pickup truck falls silent as the volunteers smell smoke, and we pass several patches of land glowing bright orange in the dark.
On both sides of the road, in the fields just minutes away from the sanctuary, fires set by farmers rage unchecked in the night. With no one to tackle them, it could be just a few hours before the jungle is aflame.
Click here to read H A V E N - Part II: A Bittersweet Hope.
Author: Raphaël Coleman is a Zoology graduate from London and one of the founders of the Wildwork. He joined CIWY as a volunteer at Ambue Ari for six weeks in September 2017, and 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.