Every wildlife enthusiast has dreamed of the opportunity to work with wild animals. So when a friend told me about her experience working with rescued wildlife in Bolivia, I knew this was the chance I had been hoping was out there.
I got on a plane to Peru and made my way to Bolivia. Destination: parque Machia in Villa Tunari, a small village about four hours down from Cochabamba. The park is part of the organisation CIWY, along with two other parks: Ambue Ari and Jac Quisi.
Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (translated to sun, moon, star in three different indigenous languages of Bolivia) was founded 25 years ago by Nena Balthazar. She started parque Machia with nothing more than a small brick house and a few rescued spider monkeys. The monkeys slept inside at night while she slept outside in a tent. Today parque Machia houses over 500 animals, and two other parks have been opened to deal with the influx of rescued wildlife and their individual needs. From aras and macaws, to capuchin monkeys and jaguars, CIWY has been a refuge for the abused and exploited victims of wildlife trafficking.
The animals come into the organisation from people’s homes, travelling circuses and illegal black markets in Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and La Paz. Many are traumatised, in poor health and unable to ever return to the wild, so the organisation tries to give them the best life possible by providing them with suitable enclosures, taking animals into the jungle whenever possible and providing the right nutrition, enrichment and medical care. CIWY also focuses on research into conservation and education to help change the way wildlife is treated and to protect the environment in Bolivia.
Why doesn’t CIWY release the animals back into the wild?
Ideally all animals would be released back into the wild, but it is not that simple. Animals born in the wild learn essential survival skills from foraging and hunting for food to social hierarchy as they grow up, and many are caught when they are very young. Many of them have spend years living an unnatural life, and a lot of the animals that come to CIWY suffer from physical and emotional trauma which complicates their rehabilitation. Another issue is that because the animals are used to people, they will not stay at a safe distance from humans if they are released and will soon end up being poached or back on the black market.
One part of surviving in the wild that all animals need is habitat space. And sadly in Bolivia habitat space is lacking due to deforestation. In addition to that, many animals occupy territories and will kill an animal of the same species if they cross each other. This is especially true for cats. Monkey troops also will kill a monkey of the same species because it would be perceived as a threat, which makes introducing a new monkey a long and difficult process with no guarantees for success.
Lastly for every animal that is released back into the wild the Bolivian government has to give permission, which can take at least six months and often much longer than that, even just for the release of a few native turtles into the nearby river. Not to mention the stacks of paperwork and bureaucracy involved. So it does happen and it is the ideal situation, but it’s not easy.
What volunteers do
To be a volunteer at CIWY you have to be dedicated, hard working and ready to get out of your comfort zone. If you are just looking to get a few selfies with a cute animal you will be in for a shock. But if you are passionate, you love animals and are excited to make a difference, everyone can’t wait to meet you. It is an amazing and rewarding experience!
The work that volunteers do in any of the three parks is very hands on. The work is hard, the mosquitoes are hungry, the days are long and it takes time to get used to working with wild animals. It is a common misconception that animals that grow up with people become domesticated and calm. A wild animal will always be that, wild, and they like to remind you of that fact. It is possible to get a bite or a scratch, and it takes time and patience to get to know the animals you are working with.
During three months at parque Machia I was lucky to work with over 50 birds, capuchin monkeys and an ocelot called Millie. My responsibilities included feeding the animals, cleaning (so much cleaning), and providing them with enrichment and nutrition, like wrapping food in packages made of leaves or giving them plants to take apart. Enrichment is a way of mimicking what the animal does in the wild when foraging for food and it keeps their minds occupied.
Aside from taking care of the birds and monkeys, I visited Millie the ocelot every day in her cage in the jungle which was about a 20 minute walk into her territory, most days with another volunteer. I would walk with her, or just sit with her outside her cage if she was feeling lazy which was the case often! Whenever she did feel up to it we would walk through the jungle sometimes for hours, and a few times she managed to hunt a snake for lunch.
I also had to keep a close eye on her health. As a kitten she was taken from her mother when she was still suckling. The vets at the park did an amazing job at nursing her back to health, but she never got enough antibodies from her mothers milk and developed a lifelong battle with cystitis, which can be very painful and dangerous. Whenever Millie started showing signs that she was uncomfortable or in pain, the vet had to be called. As a volunteer it is very important to monitor the health of the animals you are working with, as you are often the person that spends the most time with them.
Sadly two weeks after I left the park, Millie passed away. She lived to a ripe old age, much older than an ocelot in the wild would live, thanks to the loving care of all the volunteers and people at Machia that looked after her over the years.
The struggles CIWY faces
CIWY has dealt with lots of difficult situations over the years. Financial difficulties and volunteer shortages come and go, as do problems with the Bolivian government. While Ambue Ari and Jaq Cuisi are owned by CIWY, parque Machia is actually on government owned land. Some years ago, despite a lot of push back from CIWY supporters and even a visit from Dr Jane Goodall herself, the government of Bolivia decided to built a road right through the park, taking away a huge piece of habitat and dividing the park in two. This has resulted in difficulties especially for the park’s capuchin monkeys, that occupied a lot of that space. Today the road is hardly being used and constantly washed away during the rainy season.
The government also insisted on opening a tourist trail through the park up to a mirador (lookout point), charging 12 Bolivianos per entry and not giving a single penny to CIWY. The tourists often throw trash like plastic bottles in the jungle when they come to visit, and sometimes get dangerously close to the animals, although thankfully a lot of the areas that do contain animals are closed off.
Recently in Ambue Ari there have been issues with bush fires. Local farmers burn down patches of forest to farm on, however the fires are not properly controlled and sometimes escalate. The government does not help to put these fires out, instead the amazing team at Ambue Ari and reinforcements managed to do this themselves. Bush fires like these are of course not only dangerous for everyone at Ambue Ari, but also the surrounding habitat and wildlife.
CIWY thrives on the help from volunteers, and at times especially in the low season volunteer numbers are low. This puts a lot of pressure on the people already working, and also results in tricky financial times as the volunteers bring in much needed funding.
Want to help?
If you are excited to come and help out, here is some more information.
Volunteers need to commit for at least two weeks at Parque Machia, and for at least a month at Jaq Quisi and Ambue Ari. The reason for this is that the animals can be sensitive to stress and it takes time for them to get comfortable with new volunteers. To work with monkeys you have to commit for a month, to work with cats it takes two months. If you don’t have time to volunteer for that long and just want to help out for a week, there is always construction work to do which is really appreciated.
Volunteers usually don’t get to decide which animals they will be working with, the decision will be solely based on what is best for the animals. However the longer you come to volunteer, the bigger the chance you will be working with the animal of your dreams. There is usually an update on the website for each park how much they are in need of volunteers at that time.
If you are excited to work with a certain species, the best thing you can do is look at each of the parks and what they specialise in:
- Machia mostly specialises in capuchin monkeys and spider monkeys. Machia also houses coatis, over 50 birds and even a bear.
- Ambue Ari is the largest park and specialises in cats like jaguars, pumas and ocelots. Also some birds, howler monkeys and other animals.
- Jac Quisi specialises in pumas.
In my experience, in comparison to a lot of other projects the cost of volunteering with CIWY is very reasonable. It includes several meals and accommodation and is easily affordable for the budget traveller, also long term volunteers get cheaper rates. The money that CIWY receives from new volunteers goes straight into food and supplies needed for the animals, so there is no middle man making a profit. A month at Machia equals a budget travel month in Bolivia, and is probably even cheaper.
Besides volunteering you can also choose to donate, fundraise or buy a gift from their shop. For more information on that and volunteering as well visit http://www.ciwy.org
Andrew and Emily, a wonderful blogging duo by the name of Along Dusty Roads visited parque Machia when I was there. They did a great piece about CIWY, it’s so well written and their photography is unreal. To read their post click here
Have any more questions to ask, other volunteer projects to recommend or just want to send some love? Leave a comment!
Have a great day and don’t give up on your dreams