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Volunteer in Bolivia at a Wildlife Refuge

Experience the Land’s Biodiversity

Volunteer to help Capuchin monkey

Only 15 years ago, the Chapare Region of Bolivia was one of Latin America’s foremost centers for illegal coca production and cocaine processing, a “red zone” for national and international travelers alike. In the late 1980s during the cocaine boom, the small town of Villa Tunari was entirely without government presence, lacking electricity, water, and, for the most part, law enforcement. Then, in the 1990s, when the government finally made an appearance in Chapare, it was by militarizing the zone. Its aggressive coca eradication strategy was met with resistance from peasant groups who (rightly) worried that coca eradication would ruin their possibilities of economic survival. The zone remained volatile until 2003, when an agreement was reached between the government and the cocalero groups, whereby each family is legally allowed one plot of coca for traditional use.

Today, while critics worry that some Chaparian coca is still being diverted to drug-processing, net production has fallen over 80 percent. Furthermore, everyone agrees that Villa Tunari is nothing like it was even five years ago. Blessed with idyllic year-round sunshine, huge amounts of biodiversity, and good accessibility (at least on Bolivian terms), it is an international traveler’s paradise. Alongside millions of dollars of international money poured into alternative development projects—including banana, passion fruit, and pineapple production— the Bolivian state has begun to prioritize ecotourism in the region and the investment is beginning to pay off. According to government authorities, from 2005 to 2006 tourism increased 32 percent in the Chapare. The opening of new hotels and Internet cafes, as well as a restaurant that serves vegetarian food, are clues that residents are starting to embrace the tourism industry. Community-run guide services provide rafting trips and hikes to caves and waterfalls of nearby Carrasco National Park. Until now, however, the most successful ecotourism venture is that of the Inti Wari Yassi Wildlife Refuge.

The Inti Wara Yassi Wildlife Refuge

Just across the sweeping Espiritu Santo River from Villa Tunari is the Inti Wara Yassi Community, a locally-owned and managed wildlife refuge, where 38 hectares of undeveloped jungle provides a home for monkeys, tropical birds, big cats, and other native species that have been rescued from unhealthy or illegal situations of captivity. At the refuge, staff and volunteers prepare the animals for reintroduction or, in cases where reintroduction is impossible, the reserve provides a place for these wild animals to roam, forage, and interact with one another and with their native ecosystem.

Located on municipal land, the reserve has been in operation since 1996, and it began receiving international volunteers in 1998. Parque Machia, as it is called locally, was founded by Juan Carlos Antezana and Nena Balthazar Lugones, today’s president and park manager, respectively. Carlos was recently featured on Animal Planet, after receiving the Jane Goodall Hero award. Reflecting on their 10 years of work in Villa Tunari, Nena recently told me that, beyond the immediate shelter, which the reserve has provided for wild animals, she is also pleased with ecological conscientiousness that Inti Wara Yassi seems to have provoked in local residents. “Today there is less poaching and more compassion than when we arrived here,” she says. Rather than kill them, it is not uncommon for locals to alert park managers of stray animals; not long ago Nena was tipped-off about a baby spectacled-bear for sale in a nearby town.

Inti Wara Yassi’s most impressive animals are most certainly its wildcats, which include two jaguars, eight pumas, and three ocelots. Nevertheless, these majestic specimens are rarely glimpsed by visitors, since they spend their days roaming the forested mountain paths with park volunteers. More visible are the cat-sized capuchin monkeys, which entertain visitors and volunteers with their humorous antics, chasing one another around the treetops and picking pockets whenever they get the chance. Inti Wara Yassi also houses the more elusive and territorial spider monkeys, who spend their days dangling like acrobats in the high canopy. Night monkeys, howler monkeys, and squirrel monkeys—each one resembling a miniature Dr. Seuss character—round out the park’s primate ecosystem. The bird sanctuary contains toucans, macaws, and parrots, while coatis, kinkajous, and sloths roam freely amid the reserve’s lush acreage. From the summit vista point, the River Espiritu Santo, the town of Villa Tunari, and the distant mountains of Carrasco National Park can be viewed, and everyone who visits attests that Inti Wara Yassi enjoys a singular geographic location.

The cost for visiting is based on a sliding scale: 16 bolivianos (approximately $2) for foreigners, 8 bolivianos for Bolivian nationals from Cochabamba or Santa Cruz, and free for all local residents. Visitor fees provide some income, but the park also depends on outside fundraising activities to keep up its facilities and maintain its “open door” animal shelter policy. Additionally, international volunteers are crucial to keeping thereserve operational. Based on its contract with the municipal government, 51 percent of Inti Wara Yassi’s profits are channeled into government-led development projects, thus providing an important economic stimulus for Villa Tunari. Furthermore, it employs dozens of local residents in maintenance and construction, as well as contracting the services of quite a few butchers and fruit sellers to keep the animals fed each day.

Visiting this reserve is a pleasure for locals and internationals alike, and it is easy to understand how it has been successful, despite serious financial constraints and a notable lack of “environmental activism” in rural Bolivia. On the whole, the Inti Wara Yassi Community is as laudable (and hopefully replicable) model for local development based on ecotourism. Perhaps the best proof of Inti Wara Yassi’s success is the fact that the project is expanding; the community has recently purchased a large tract of land, more remote and slightly wilder than that of Villa Tunari. Ambue Ari Park is located about 350 kilometers northwest of Santa Cruz, on the road to Trinidad. While the animal population of the new reserve is still somewhat reduced, plans are underway to improve facilities and about 15 volunteers are currently working there.

Volunteering at the Inti Wara Yassi Animal Refuge

International volunteers are an important part of keeping Inti Wara Yassi’s doors open to wild animals. Every year, over 150 volunteers rotate through the reserve for anywhere from one to six months, dedicating immeasurable time and energy to the project. In return, they gain new knowledge of local conservation efforts, Bolivian culture, and Spanish language, as well as sharing in the joys of Inti Wara Yassi’s multi-ethnic community. I spoke with a number of international volunteers, most of them recently-graduated college students or young people on break from university, and many also mentioned how much the experience taught them about themselves.

Nena, the Park Manager, stresses that to be a volunteer at Inti Wara Yassi you do not need to be a professional, but you do need to love animals. You must be a hard worker, since you’ll look forward to only one day off for every 14 on. Also, you must be flexible and willing to do whatever is necessary, including the less-glamorous tasks of cleaning and construction. Volunteers begin work at around 7 a.m. and finish around 6 p.m., taking breaks for communal meals but not much else. Activities vary depending on the time of year, the number of volunteers, and the animals’ specific needs, but there is always lots to do. A typical workday may involve four to six hours of animal care, including feeding, socialization, and exercising (when working with big cats, exercising them is a challenge for even the fittest of volunteers!). A few hours may also be spent doing facilities improvement, clearing trails, reorganizing the donor database, or providing impromptu tours for park visitors. In the evening, volunteers often dine together at Inti Wara Yassi’s restaurant or walk to Villa Tunari to use the Internet or grab a cold drink.

In order to provide training and help establish trust between volunteers and animals, Inti Wara Yassi asks for a 1- month minimum time commitment. As its website says, “Little miracles happen everyday but a full rehabilitation happens only after months or even years… as a volunteer you will be able to see the outcome of your work.” Volunteers choose the area of their focus—big cats, primates, or small animals—and spend most of their time working with this group. Long-term volunteers who demonstrate leadership ability may be asked to train and supervise newer volunteers, and, for those with interest in veterinary medicine, internships in Inti Wara Yassi’s clinic are also available. For anyone set for more in fo More information on volunteering is available in both English and Spanish on the Inti Wara Yassi website on working with one particular animal group, Nena recommends contacting Inti Wara Yassi four to six weeks in advance.

The cost of volunteering at Inti Wara Yassi ($250 for the first 15 days, then $12 per night) includes basic accommodations, consisting of shared rooms with bunks and bath/shower facilities, laundry, and access to the large communal kitchen. Volunteers must cover the costs of their own meals; nearby Villa Tunari provides many options, ranging from $1 to $2 meals (on the low end) and $8 meals (at the nicest restaurants). Internet access runs about $1 per hour, and there are three Internet cafes in town. Phone calls can cost up to $1 per minute when calling internationally. There is one ATM, but it is often out of service, so it is recommended to take out cash before traveling to the park. According to recent volunteers, the average cost of a 1-month stay at Inti Wara Yassi, including accommodations, runs about $300.

Everyone who has visited rural Bolivia agrees that it is challenging but worthwhile. Luckily, overland travel is very affordable and provides a wonderful opportunity to observe the breathtaking landscape of the country and interact with local people. Arriving to Inti Wara Yassi is possible via Santa Cruz or via Cochabamba. From the Santa Cruz bus terminal, it takes about six hours to get to Villa Tunari and costs around 25 bolivianos ($3). The morning route is recommended since Bolivian transportation rarely leaves at the scheduled time and a “7 p.m. bus” is liable to leave you at the door of the refuge around 3 a.m. From Cochabamba, the provincial capital, the trip is a bit shorter (around four hours) and costs about the same.

For More Info

More information on volunteering is available in both English and Spanish on the Inti Wara Yassi website and their more frequently updated Facebook page. Paid work is also available for those qualified.

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