For Western backpackers accustomed to the steadfast regulations of their home countries, the reality of Parque Ambue Ari in Bolivia can be hard to believe.
But the closer one gets, the more word-of-mouth testaments and faded hostel flyers confirm that some 348km north of Santa Cruz is an animal refuge where volunteers ‘walk’ jaguars, pumas and ocelots, no qualifications necessary.
“I got hooked,” says Christian, a 21-year-old North American volunteer who ended up staying 14 months and working with every cat in the park as a cat coordinator. “You can’t do that anywhere else in the world for that cheap … it was definitely a crazy experience.”
Ambue Ari was set up in 2002 by the NGO Communidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY) with the support of British gap year organisation Quest Overseas. To work with one of its 26 jungle cats – typically abandoned or seized from illegal traffickers – volunteers need only commit to a 30-day minimum and pay 3400 bolivianos (around AU$17). That’s not to say it’s an easy ride; something my girlfriend Nicole and I found out when we decided to volunteer after hearing about the program in Argentina.
The park has no phone, internet or electricity. Volunteers sleep on hay mattresses and work 6 ½ days a week in tropical heat, tormented by hungry mosquitoes. The day after we arrived, we were each assigned a puma: I was to look after a young, energetic cat named Koru, while Nicole would take Leo, an older animal known for keeping handlers out in the jungle until after sundown.
Every day except Sunday, I would walk out to Koru’s cage with my co-handler, Camila. After clipping two thick leads onto his collar, the three of us would walk a busy, mosquito-ridden jungle trail. There, Koru would watch capuchins leap dramatically from tree to tree, drag us in vain pursuit of scampering jungle animals, or simply tear the surrounding flora to shreds.
The prospect of being ‘jumped’ by overexcited cats was part of the job for many volunteers, especially when it came to Rupi, a large and boisterous jaguar known to knock people to the ground on a regular basis.
“We did some training and were giving a few points to watch out for,” says Martin, 30, the Irish backpacker once charged with escorting Rupi through the rainforest. “But nothing prepares you for a 9-foot, 180kg [sic] beast coming at you.”
While restraining a jaguar as powerful and strong-willed as Rupi – who “escaped” his cage more than once, according to Christian – isn’t a realistic option, we were instructed to be extra cautious with Koru. Amorphous rumours about Koru taking a chunk out of an ex-volunteer’s leg circulated the park, although that was surely an exaggeration. Surely.
One day in particular involved a few close calls. Koru first darted into the patuju (a native flower) then leapt out at me for a narrowly avoided waist-high tackle, and later bolted up a tree for an aerial attack, only to jump down sheepishly upon realising we were out of range.
Then, wising up, he walked slowly into the scrub to one of his resting spots. Camila couldn’t see him and asked me what he was doing.
”Nothing,” I said. ”He’s just sort of … staring at you.” Of course, the moment I said that Koru bolted from the bushes with intense speed and purpose. I jolted forward as he hit the end of his line, about a meter from Camila.
But, aside from one (terrifying) warning bite as I fumbled to unclip him for his dinner one afternoon, Koru never touched me in aggression. Surprisingly, one of the few incidents that occurred during my time involved Nicole’s puma, Leo, who had become agitated after too many changes in his routine.
“I have no idea how it was considered to be alright for [two] females, one with limited experience and the other with no experience, to be out on their own walking one of the biggest pumas in the park who is known to ‘jump’ its carers,” says Jesse, 28, who walked away from the incident with puncture wounds up her forearm. “It was completely irresponsible.”
After being treated by the resident vet – the nearest hospital is 48km from the park – Jesse stopped working with Leo. Despite her criticisms, she maintains she had a “a great time” and enjoyed experiencing something “almost unfathomable to my friends and family in Aus.”
Indeed, Australia is predictably strict in this regard. The Standards for Exhibiting Carnivores in NSW at least demand “adequately trained” persons handle such animals, a luxury Ambue Ari can’t afford any more than the Bolivian government can currently enforce.
But Fundraiser and Administrator of CIWY Emily Jesshope says Ambue Ari takes volunteer safety “extremely seriously”. “[Over the past year or so] we have formalised our emergency procedures, protocols and requirements,” says Jesshope. “If we deem that the risk to a volunteer becomes too high … then will stop that activity – e.g. it will become a non-contact cat.”
In an era characterised by what the World Wide Fund for Nature calls an “unprecedented spike” in the global illegal wildlife trade, it’s clear South America’s poorest country depends on CIWY, which receives no government support. And, while the Bolivian government has signalled it wants to stop Ambue Ari from letting inexperienced volunteers ‘walk’ unpredictable jungle animals, it remains to be seen whether this will come to fruition.
For now, Ambue Ari continues to provide both its volunteers and its cats a rehabilitation program only a place like Bolivia can offer.