A Jungle Book
By Emily Johnson (Edinburgh)
Having grown up on David Attenborough, Animal Park and any other vaguely wildlife related programme I could find, the opportunity to experience some Attenborough-esque jungle was never going to pass me by. So upon finding out about Communidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY) and their wildlife custody centres in Bolivia where walking ocelots, pumas and jaguars daily through the jungle becomes a daily reality, I jumped at the chance to go. I scraped together every penny within my reach to fly to El Parque Ambue Ari, a promised land for the trafficked wildlife of Bolivia.
After 7 hours spent on a local bus from Santa Cruz with no idea where to get off and a very minimal grasp of Spanish we could only helplessly attempt to seek assistance; we were starting to think we’d missed our stop. Mild panic at the thought of becoming stranded in rural Bolivia late at night with no plan was just about setting in when the bus stopped and a large group boarded. “Gringos!” Someone exclaimed, “Going to Parque?” Relief washed over us as we realised we’d run into other volunteers and now had someone to follow. Arriving late Saturday night we left the bus into darkness, we were quickly found beds – straw matresses - and set up sleeping bags under mosquito nets. We were shown which taps were drinking water, others which were definitely not drinking water and we were shown where the toilet block was – ecological toilets with no flush and separate poop and pee holes. I went to bed, with a sweater as my make shift pillow, disorientated and wondering what I’d managed to get myself into.
The following morning, as the rest of camp started on their morning feeding tasks we were given the full tour - suddenly in the light of the morning everything was a little less disorientating and starting to seem a little more idyllic. During our introductory talks we learned that the majority of the animals under the care of CIWY are those who have been rescued from black market trades in wildlife. CIWY started its work when the founder, Nena, came across a tourist attraction formed of a chained monkey, smoking for photographs and the amusement of passers-by. She negotiated and the monkey was bought from its ‘owner’ and became the first and last animal CIWY ever paid for – exchanging money for the animals provides a continuing trade in them, regardless of where they are sold to. Now with three centres across Bolivia, CIWY cares for hundreds of animals of whom we would meet only a fraction.
We were assigned animals to work with within a few days of arriving - working on one area in mornings and another in afternoons for the whole month allowing us to build close bonds with animals in our care. Once assigned our animals we’d be given meticulous files about them detailing their history, health problems, care routines and unique personality quirks - nothing was missed - ensuring the best possible care to suit the individual animal.
Every morning after a routine of feeding camp animals and then feeding ourselves, the camp split off into the sweltering heat and depths of the jungle to spend time with our animals. Checklist: cage key, food, water, supplement, pocket knife, phone. Ready to go. A short trail from camp each day I’d find my ocelot, Vanesso, purring and eager for a walk through towering trees and the masses of patuhu plants that lay along his laguna trail. Layered in long trousers and an impractically thick shirt myself and my cat partner sweated our way along V’s trails as far as he pleased to stroll, sprint or snooze. A walk could entail anything from two hours of actively exploring every inch of the jungle, twice trying persuade unlucky snakes from his mouth to admiring him as he dozed lazily in the sun, stretching out, rolling around and wrapping us around his little paws.
When you’re living surrounded by so many people whose love for the animals and the work they’re doing with them makes them put up with endless mosquito bites and embrace some of the most basic living conditions, it’s hard to imagine that are other people, elsewhere, who could’ve held these beautiful creatures in the conditions from which they were rescued. Working with Vanesso, seeing him become more affectionate towards me over the month I was there as he learned to trust to me more, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that before he came into CIWYs care in 2006, he was a caged attraction in a Chinese restaurant. For some of the other cats at Ambue Ari, their previous lives have carried a more noticeable impact. One jaguar, Jauncho, limps as he walks and is completely blind having sustained an injury to his eye at his previous home in a Bolivian zoo when he was left in his cramped enclosure as it was cleaned with a flame thrower. Another monkey suffers recurring gastrointestinal problems having been fed pizza and junk food as an infant - just the start of the list and lists of animals CIWY and its volunteers endlessly dedicate their time to rehabilitating.
Over the month I spent at Ambue Ari I saw various volunteers return for their second or third visit volunteering and several others extend their stays to spend longer with the animals they’d fallen in love with. I wonder how I would’ve coped had I been there during the wet season my cat partner had experienced. In spite of endless mosquitos, rain and swamps she’d be returning again next year for the wet season when volunteer numbers hit their lowest. Although now, back in the real world after my too short month, I think that maybe I’d be fleeing back to the jungle for it as well – their veterinary internship appeals a little too much - if only I could find a way out of Christmas exams.
Tell yourself you’re over your fear of insects, try to ignore your relentless mosquito bites and learn to enjoy your showers cold because paradise is quite real, hidden away in the Bolivia jungle.