Parque Ambue Ari

What an amazing month. You probably already know that for the past month I´ve been volunteering at a wildlife park in Bolivia. This has been an experience like no other in my life.
Parque Ambue Ari is situated in the middle of nowhere. Halfway between the cities of Trinidad and Santa Cruz, well off the “gringo” trail and in the middle of the jungle. It has been open for about 3.5 years and encompasses an area of 806 acres. Juan Carlos, the founder, and Nena are the back bones of Ambue Ari and Parque Macchia, the original park. Juan Carlos spends his days promoting animal welfare and the devestation of the rainforest. He seeks out illegally kept animals, and pursuades people to give them to the park. Sometimes with the help of the authorities. He has a huge heart and an amazing passion for wildlife, the environment, children and Bolivia. Nena is like minded in her passions, manages Parque Macchia and keeps things running as smoothly as possible (sometimes pretty difficult in Bolivia). This is the only organisation of it´s kind in South America.
I came to Ambue Ari through the recommendation of my sister Zoe, who spent a month here in April/May. The chance to work with big cats was luring enough, but it turned out to be so much more than just this. Their is a real soul in the park. The people, the animals, the rainforest, they all bond together and the place has this amazing pulsating beat.
The conditions are primitive. No electricity, a generator is run twice a day to pump the water up from underground. At night we use candles for light or torches we´ve brought. There are 26 bunk beds in sketcherly built dorms. The mattresses are filled with hay. Keeping you and belongings clean is mission impossible. Dirt, dust and mud covers everything. The showers and toilets work well, but the floors are covered in mud except when they´re cleaned each morning. Cold showers are very refreshing after a hot, sweaty day. But some days have been pretty cold, so I just skipped them altogether and dreamed about hot water.
Mosquitoes and other biting insects wreak havoc on any exposed skin. They´re bad enough in the dry season to turn your legs and hands into a scab fest, I can´t imagine what they´re like in the wet season. As a matter of fact everything I´ve just explained is said to be 10 times worse in the wet season.
Our 3 meals a day are taken the “comodor”, a communal eating area. Breakfast being rock hard bread. Lunch is the main meal of the day with lots of rice, pasta, potatoes, some vegies and salad if we´re lucky. Dinner is usually soup made out of left overs from lunch. With some special, locally made, salsa added it tastes pretty good.
It´s difficult to explain what a normal day is like at the park because everyday is different. But we usually worked from 6.30am to 6pm with 2 hours off for lunch.
Everyone works together for the first 1.5 hours feeding the house animals which involves grating and cutting fruits and vegies. We would also do a general clean up of everything for about 15 mins. The hours either side of lunch are spent doing your permanent job, which for me was looking after my Jaguar. Only people staying for a month or more got to work with the cats. If you come for the minimum saty of 2 weeks you look after all the house animals – birds, monkeys, a tapir, a deer, Chanchoes (pigs) and a fox.
Some of my most memorable moments happened at the house. Coco and Faustino, 2 howler monkeys waking everyone up at 6.30am with their incredible howling; Lorenzo, a maccaw, learning to fly again after having new feathers attached; the yelling of “no Panchie, no Panchie”, as Panchie the pig eats used toilet paper or snouts through someones washing; trying to avoid being pecked by the toucans as you feed them; having the new capuchin monkey massage your neck; getting kisses from Herbie the Tapir or an inner thigh rub from Panchie. But No. 1 for me was hanging out with Nano the demon monkey. This little guy is a treasure and I can see why someone would want him as a pet. He´d sit on my neck or shoulder as I cruised around or sat on the sun being curious about everything. He loved to play hide and seek behind trees, wrestle my hand, eat scabs off my sores, occassionally pee on me and hump my arm! Of all the animals, he was my second love, after my Jaguar.
I met some wonderful people. It takes a special person to give up their time, pay money to volunteer and live outside their comfort zone. But everyone there is like minded, wanting to play their part in creating a bit better life for an animal that has been mistreated in the past. Local Bolivians also make a huge contribution, and everyone mixes together. There is a great work ethic amoung the volunteers and the Bolivians, everyone helps each other out, there´s little complaining and a fantastic comraderie bonds us all together. I´ll miss them all.
As for the cats of the park, the pride and joy of anyone who works with them. There are 5 ocelots (a miniture version of a Jaguar), 8 pumas and 4 Jaguars. Each cat is different and requires it´s own special needs. They all live in cages and unfortunately can never be released.
Meet Yaguaru, a 100kg, 5 year old mature jaguar male. His mother was killed for her pelt and he was bought off the black market by 2 teenage boys who use to play rough with him. Juan Carlos talked the boys into giving him up to the park at 10 months old and he has been there ever since. He lives in the best cage in the park, roughly the size of an average housing block, full of trees and jungle. But unfortunately he will live here for his remaining life (average jaguar life is 18 to 20 years).
When I first saw “Ru” come out of the banana leaves to the fence to greet us (we work in a team of 3) I was overwhelmed. His size, stature, beauty, composure and confidence shined through, and i´ll admitt I was a little intimidated. Ru had a reputation for liking to play, and sometimes playing hard.
Now when I say play this means he likes to jump people. Think about how a house cat springs from the ground up a tree or into your lap. Now try to imagine a cat that´s 100kg´s whose soul intention is to knock you down and wrestle a while. Throw into the mix claws that easily tear through leather gloves, and teeth and a jaw that could snap your arm or leg like a tooth pick. Okay, now that you´ve imagined that, alter the image to another of his favourite games where the person wrestling manages to get out of his grasp and, in his fustration, turns and sees you and charges at you from a few metres away, leaping at your chest! You can´t run, he´s to fast. You just have to stand there, brace yourself, fend as best you can and wait to be knocked fair and square on your arse!
So my first day was full of anxieties waiting to find out what it´s like to be jumped, everyone said it would happen. Out of the 28 days I walked Ru this was the only day he didn´t jump! Over the week I received a couple of light playful jumps, easy to fend off and watched Matt and Keith wrestle and take the hits. By the end of my first week the anxieties had faded and was beginning to think he would leave me be. How wrong I was!
Day 7, I found out what it meant to be jumped hard. In the same place as the video footage, he took me down and wasn´t keen to let me go. The claws came out in a big way, he shredded the arms of my 2 shirts and I obtained my first, of what would become many, holes and scratches. It´s a seriously adrenalin pumping experience!
So I went from no attention at all to becoming his regular play toy. It wasn´t hard play all the time, most of the time it was gentle and lots of fun. But on the few occassions where he turned up the heat I always came out second best. I ended up with a couple of stitches in my hand, 2 holes in my head and over 20 markings on my back, legs and arms. I got plenty of sympathy from everyone!
But I wouldn´t have changed things for the world. To hold on to a rope with South Americas biggest predator on the end of it; to have his sandpaper like tongue lick the sweat off my arms and graze my skin; to go against your natural instincts and move closer to a much more powerful animal as he´s about to pounce you; to have him nuzzle his head into your legs looking for affection. These are incredibly surreal experiences.
It was sad to say goodbye yesterday. But at the same time it was probably the most satisfying. Being that both my hands have stitches in them I wasn´t able to walk Ru. So I went out towards the end of the day to see him. The 3 boys were struggling to get Ru walk up his runner and into his cage. After about 15 minutes of watching next to his cage, I yelled “Ru, Ru, vamos aqui amigo, hay comida” (Ru, Ru, come here mate, there is food). He stopped playing, looked up at me and came straight up his runner to me, gave a couple of sniffs and went into his cage. I´d like to think he did it because he knew my voice and did my request out of a mutual respect and friendship for each other. On the other hand he could have seen it as a last chance to wrestle me, but I was just out of reach, and thought bugger it I´ll go eat instead!!!!
So now it´s back on the road again to do some exploring. This experience though will rank highly amoung the most amazing experiences of my life

Journal Comments

  • Alessandro Pinto
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