"We came here in 1996 with a handful of monkeys, a tent to sleep in and a love of animals which grew stronger every day." Native Bolivian Nena Lugones stands dripping and defiant having secured a group of parrots and capuchin monkeys against a sudden tropical storm.
From humble beginnings in the forests of the Chapare region, Nena now manages one of Bolivia's most successful wildlife rescue centres. Here, refuge is provided for hundreds of monkeys, wild cats, turtles and tropical birds. The park and the project, founded by renowned social activist Juan Carlos Antezana, is called Inti Wara Yassi, but with the increasing pressures on Bolivian wildlife, it is fast becoming known as Nena's Ark.
Although Bolivia has signed up to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), and has laws banning the export of wild animals, countless specimens are smuggled from the country each year. The global wildlife market is worth over $5 billion annually.
In addition, animals such as spider monkeys or pumas are taken from the forests as babies and sold illegally in Bolivia as household pets. In most cases the animal either dies from poor treatment or is killed by the owner, having rapidly outgrown their living space.
The situation is already difficult, yet local government plans to relax domestic wildlife regulations look set to make matters far worse. Following this new legislation the number of unwanted pets in Bolivia is expected to increase considerably. In turn, more animals will either die or be turned over to Inti Wara Yassi for help.
"Already the animals of the forest are threatened in many ways", explains Nena. "Deforestation and the colonisation of virgin rainforest are reducing their natural habitat. Fur traders are killing many rare species of wildcat and the oil companies are contaminating the rivers from which the animals live. Now we have also this new legislation which will make it legal for Bolivians to keep a wild animal as a pet…for these already endangered species this is very bad news."
The number of animals and resulting workload at the park is already considerable, with more than 20 international students and volunteers lending a hand. As Zoologist volunteer Richard Carroll from Manchester, England explained, more animals will mean more resources needed at the park. "Giving so many animals the freedom and habitat they need is very labour-intensive and requires large areas of natural habitat. Without the knowledge brought in by specialists and the help given by national and international volunteers, far fewer animals can be saved."
After a half-hour scramble through the park to the secluded ocelot enclosures, Lisa Tully, a veterinary undergraduate from Dublin, Ireland, told of her experience with these rare wild cats and how new Bolivian legislation will affect them. "One of the ocelots, named Bodecea, was brought to the park as a severely mistreated and disturbed pet. Thanks to the tireless months of care given by one volunteer she is now taking her first steps of freedom and seeing the forest for the first time outside the bars of a cage. With this new legislation many more cats like these will arrive at the park requiring a lot more help."
Though animal rehabilitation is important, Inti Wara Yassi is also taking more direct steps against the government's new proposals. Campaigns in schools and the opening of the park for public tours have proved effective in raising awareness about the need for wildlife preservation among the country's younger generation.
"Many visitors to the Monkey Park are seeing animals in their natural habitat for the first time," explained supervisor Mili Rudick, a volunteer veterinary assistant from Tel Aviv, Israel. "Foreign visitors go back to their country with a new impression and most heart-warming is that Bolivian children are asking more and more questions, sometimes even bringing in their own wild pets, after realising this is where they belong." With over 300 specimens of spider, capuchin and squirrel monkey swinging through the trees, a visit to the park is a unique and impressive experience.
The tropical storm is now rolling into the distance and, as Nena prepares to head back into the forest, she adds enthusiastically, "These are difficult times for our wildlife but not entirely without hope. Our mission is a simple one. If we can raise the conscience of our nation's children then Bolivia's wildlife may still have a future".
With the entire project funded through donations, the future of Inti Wara Yassi itself is by no means secure. For now though, the park echoes with the rewarding sound of animals enjoying their first taste of freedom. With more help and more land, Inti Wara Yassi may yet help to save one of Bolivia's few remaining treasures.
Friends of Inti Wara Yassi (FIWY) is our sister organization in the UK. They have been a major source of support since their founding in 2008. Find out more about FIWY here.
Quest Overseas organizes gap year trips for British and international students. Since 2001, Quest has worked with CIWY to bring much needed volunteers and funds. If you are interested in the programs they have with us, find out more here.