This month we have selected a magnificent conservation and wildlife rehabilitation centre
on the banks of the Beni River, in the heart of the Amazon, Bolivia. Taxi drivers and locals know it as “donde viven los gringos y los monos” (home of the gringos and the monkeys). Surrounded by jungle, indigenous territory and national parkland, the place appeals to those who aren't afraid of embracing nature and adventure wholeheartedly. This NGO was set up in response to the growing number of wild animals without homes or families due to deforestation and black market trading. It is currently a refuge for spider, squirrel and capuchin monkey communities, 2 jaguars (Kali and Beni) and Choti the ocelot. At the heart of this initiative is Andrés, although he insists that the project is a shared one, driven by a core team and essential volunteer participation. Because of the great feedback it has received from many Workawayers, we set up an interview with Andrés, to find out a little more about life in the jungle.
Hi there Andrés! First of all, congratulations on becoming the Host of the Month!
Thanks so much…after the year we have just had, this is delightful news! Workaway means sooo much to us here. It means that the animals get to have a second chance and can be free again in the wild once more.
Where are you from Andrés and how did you become involved in such an ambitious project?
Originally from Venezuela, but I lived in Madrid too. I studied engineering and was set to embark on a high flying career…when I decided I needed to get away from all that consumerism and technology. I escaped to the jungle and realised that this is what I wanted from my life. A complete turn around in fact. I spent 8-9 years working in wild animal rescue projects. In 2012 I bought the parkland and the project here began.
From what I have read, you seem to mainly take on babies or injured animals...
Yes, we get animals being brought to us which have been rescued or found. Sometimes the police discover them, sometimes members of the public. Adult monkeys are often hunted for meat, their young are then captured and sold to be kept as pets. This is no substitute for the life they would have in the wild with their own kind. As the babies are born from October to December, we have just received 7 young ones to rear.
What is the programme you follow for them to be able to return to the wild, and how do you know when they are ready?
This depends not only on the species of animal, but also on each individual animal itself. When an animal first arrives at the park it needs to undergo a period of quarantine, including a veterinary health check to ensure that it hasn't got any disease or parasite which could put the other animals at risk. As this means being in a cage, we try to make sure that this is no longer than necessary. Then we decide whether an animal is ready to socialise or not. At this point we need to become animal behaviour psychologists! In order for the animals to live freely, they need to interact with others and learn about hierarchical levels within a group. We need to monitor their safety and ability to integrate. Of course, their behaviour when it comes to interacting with humans is also important. They must behave themselves and respect certain limits.
A semi-released state means that they are outdoors on extended leashes, giving them certain freedom to exercise and explore. The length of the lead can be adapted. We have a programme proposed for the next 4 months to GPS track the freed capuchin monkeys to make sure that they have a clear sense of their own territorial area.
And you have two magnificent jaguars. Beni was ill, how is he doing now?
Yes, Beni was brought to us as a new-born and now he weighs around 80 kg. During the lockdown it was hard because he had an injury that wouldn’t clear up. We didn’t know why and so he needed round the clock care. Imagine, I had a 65 kilo jaguar on my porch every night! (see Beni below)
He is doing fine now. As for his return to the wild, this is problematic. We would need to be sure of the environment we would release him into and be confident in his ability to survive there as well as not disturbing any other jaguars. The difference between preparing a monkey for returning to the wild is very different. They are social animals, they learn from each other and find their place in the monkey community. They are more like us! A jaguar normally learns its behaviour by spending its infancy in the wild, and then operates alone. To find him a suitable habitat would mean drawing on the knowledge of the indigenous communities about different terrain possibilities. Before releasing him we would also have to conduct a proper in-depth assessment on his behaviour, as well as consulting with experts.
Is it difficult to achieve a balance between them being manageable whilst they are at the shelter, but still maintain their wild instincts for when they are released?
Although I decide when I think an animal is ready for each stage, we also work with them and according to their own needs. Every animal is different, for example, we have some monkeys who prefer to return to their cage to sleep and others who want to stay out in the tree. Maria, a spider monkey, has been with us a long time but we need to monitor her as she has a tendency to head off alone. She still doesn't recognize herself as being part of the group. We encourage them to search for their own food sources and monitor carefully how they interact with others. Once or twice a year we do a behavioural analysis study on each of them. It is important that only long-term volunteers, staying for at least 3 months, are able to have more direct involvement with the wild animals. This is to avoid the disruption of them being in contact with too many different people. Also, keeping them too connected to their domesticated past is counter-productive as far as their chances of returning to the wild. Training is also required for the volunteers who accompany the animals. They start learning from their first day by working with the monkeys under the supervision of the coordinator. After a few weeks of practice and training the volunteers can gain sufficient experience to interact with them more fully.
Is there any danger of animals being captured or shot by hunters?
When we suspected that Beni’s injury seemed to be a result of some night-time activity, we decided to take precautions, especially as we had been told that a poacher had been watching the animals in the park at night. We installed security cameras and movement sensors so that we are now able to monitor what is going on in the enclosures further away from the camp. The animals are now protected around the clock and as the work that we do here is recognised within the community, we can count on the collaboration of the authorities if we need it.
You have had your fair share of epic challenges over the past year: nearby forest fires, flooding, insect swarms and on top of it all Covid!
Through the floods and the forest fires we had the input of volunteers to help us through. But, because of Covid we lost all our volunteers for almost 6 months. Instead of having between 15-25 extra people, we were down to a team of 5. We worked 18 hours every single day. We were at the point of bankruptcy and it almost destroyed us.
The situation has improved a little, there are 9 of us now. We received some volunteers in the past few months and old volunteers returned as soon as the borders opened again. As far as receiving volunteers from Europe, we hope to be able to do so from mid- February.
Do the animals have an instinct to escape from natural disasters?
Yes, it is absolutely incredible how the animals react. The insects leave, the birds fly away, the animals move to shelter. Unfortunately, when the disaster is man-made they do not always respond as well.
So, what is it that gives you the drive and energy to overcome all these difficulties?
The look in their eyes every time you work with them, they are much more grateful than humans. Patience, patience, patience…oh and more patience! And, the ability to adapt in the face of all these changes is important too.
And as far as selecting Workawayers, what do you look for?
It's important to choose people who will be easy to get along with. They need to have a really strong conviction for animal welfare and wildlife too. It is no place for people who freak out every time they come across spiders, tics or mosquitoes…And the first time that you get pooed on by a spider monkey, it's pretty disgusting too…but you just get on with it. Yeah, you need to be resilient and have a spirit of adventure.
What do you think the Workawayers learn most about from their stay?
Some of them, but not all, take a few days to adapt to their new surroundings. It can be a little difficult at first. There is no internet and so the focus is on the animals and the setting. Once that shift has been made, the place begins to awaken in them a sense of wonder. They become totally absorbed by the animals and their personalities. Witnessing how, through their efforts, they can make a real difference to the animals’ lives makes a big impact upon them.
After not even a week of being here, I fell in love with the place and I’ve been here for 5 months and I wish I could stay for another 5 months more. At the end of the day you are covered in sweat, dirt and animal shit, it feels horrible! BUT it is just so rewarding seeing the animals happy and seeing progress being done…the main goal of us here is to release the animals…and to see them happy it’s the most rewarding feeling that you can ever have in this world!
How do you and the Workawayers spend their free-time?
As an unplugged community our entertainment is each other's company over a game of cards or board game perhaps. We often talk about our day and compare stories of what the animals have been up to. Sometimes we light a bonfire and sit under the stars, or head to the beach to watch the sunset. Often we are tired from a full day and just want to have a shower, enjoy a couple of beers and something to eat and then off to bed!
And the nearest town, Rurrenabaque?
Yes, once a week we head there to buy in special groceries and connect to the Internet. It’s very quiet at the moment, but when it is up and running it is rated as the second most popular tourist destination in Bolivia…and apparently the New York Times has recently listed it as one of the best in the world!
Have you had any unexpected benefits from hosting Workawayers?
Well yes in fact there is! As a surprise, a Workawayer created what I called the best video ever, based on his experiences as a volunteer at the park. It made me cry to watch it. The truth is that the Workawayers mean everything to this project. They are at its core, because without them we can’t do anything!
Thank you Andrés, it has been great meeting you and finding out more about this jungle version of “Noah’s Ark”! I really hope that after this difficult year everything works out well for you, the team of volunteers…and, most importantly, the animals in your care!
I am really happy that you thought of us…Thank you and big monkey hugs and wild cat roars to you all!
Workawayer Bindu form Germany sums up her stay beautifully:
The month and a half I spent here was one of the wildest, most challenging, and rewarding experiences of my life!!! This place is like no other on earth. Situated in lush jungle, populated by a myriad of animals and humans of such indescribably unique incredible personalities…I'm not gonna lie, it’s tough, but that is what makes it great… living with the basics of just what you need, and dealing with the harsh realities of jungle life, but you come out of it wishing you had never left and all the stronger for it (at least in my case)! You give what you have, and you give it all, and that’s amazing! Get ready to hack through jungle trails with a machete in the pouring rain (almost no point wearing a rain jacket, it gets THAT WET), getting eaten bitten and kissed by mosquitos, monkeys, and the occasional jungle cat (all in the name of food status and love of course), and falling asleep to the best aerial orchestra you will EVER hear!”