Bolivia: Inti Wara Yassi

The Project: Inti Wara Yassi is a Bolivian organization that works to help injured and illegally-traded animals, with a goal of returning them to the wild. Each location has at least one veterinarian on staff and uses the help from long- and short-term volunteers for the majority of the work. They currently have three locations in Bolivia: Parque Machia,  Ambue Ari and Jacj Cuisi.

Parque Machia cares for about 700 animals of roughly 30 species including spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys, pumas, ocelots, many species of birds, and an Andean bear. Initiated in 1996, they are the oldest of the three locations and are located near the city of Cochabamba. Volunteers have to work for a minimum of 2 weeks at the project, or a minimum of 4 if they want an opportunity to work with the large cats. Directions for getting to Machia and further details on the volunteer program can be found here.

Ambue Ari was their second location and started in 2002. It is the largest reserve, at 800 hectares, and contains the most animals. In 2014 there were 26 felines at Ambue Ari (jaguars, ocelots, and pumas), as well as howler monkeys, various birds, a tapir, coatis and deer. During my travels, I met two different couples that volunteered at this location and said that it was their favorite experience of their travels in South America. Apparently mosquitos can be quite bad, but it all comes with being deep in the Bolivian Amazon. It is probably the most difficult of their locations to get to, as it’s about a 5 hour drive from Santa Cruz. Directions for getting to Ambue Ari and further details on the volunteer program can be found here.

Jacj Cuisi was the location at which I worked for a week. It is near the town of Rurrenabaque; you have to cross the River Beni to get to the town of Buenaventura, and then it’s a 35km bus ride from there. I would have worked for longer and would have loved to work with a puma, but I didn’t have the time due to a scheduled flight. As of June 2013, they were caring for five pumas, and one more puma was due to arrive the week after I left. 19 people were working there during my stay, four of which were longer-term employees. The volunteering atmosphere was one of the best I’ve come across – the group was very diverse, yet everyone seemed to have a positive attitude.  Directions for getting to Jacj Cuisi and further details on the volunteer program can be found here.

Though cats (jaguars, pumas, and/or ocelots) are at each of their locations, there has not been a successful method developed to date to return cats to the wild once they have been kept in captivity. The biggest problem is that the cats lose their ability to hunt live prey, but there are many political and scientific obstacles that need to be resolved as well before a captive cat would be able to be released into the wild. Monkeys, birds, and other species have been successfully returned to the wild after completing their rehabilitation programs.

Taken from Inti Wara Yassi’s website, they have completed many goals to date since 1992:

  • Supported dozens of children to learn skills such as carpentry and tailoring, which increased their self-esteem and served to increase their ability to support themselves and their families
  • Saved approximately 1000 animals including birds, reptiles and mammals from the illegal wild animal trade
  • CIWY’s regional representatives of Chuquisaca have shut down and thus far prevented the reopening of an illegal wild animal market in Sucre
  • Hundreds of national and international volunteers every year
  • Many volunteers have reconsidered their career direction as a result of their work in the protection of wild fauna with CIWY
  • Protected 1000 hectares of forested land
  • Approximately 5000 supporters across the globe
  • More than 10, 000 people have contributed to CIWY’s work from all around the world
  • A number of endemic, endangered and exotic species have found refuge in CIWY’s parks
  • The creation of Friends of Inti Wara Yassi (FIWY), a British registered charity who support CIWY’s work
  • The creation of three refuges: Parque Machia, Ambue Ari and Jacj Cuisi that rescue, care for and rehabilitate where possible wild animals.
We do not own the world, but the world owns us; we are guardians of nature’s assets, not owners.
— from Inti Wara Yassi website

The Work: Every morning we were woken up for a breakfast of rice, fruit, coffee and/or tea. We then had a small amount of time before hitting the “chaco”, where we would basically do weeding and uprooting of plants for 45 minutes on areas where they plan to install future buildings. The sun usually was out in full force by the end of this, with various macaw and other bird species checking out our work from overhead. 

After the chaco, we had a small break and then went off to do our respective duties. The long-term volunteers (over a month) would head to their pumas, and the short-term volunteers would perform construction activities. I did construction during my week there including pouring concrete for new monkey cages that were being installed, installing a sign out in front of the property, and making some repairs on their water pipe system.

The volunteers who worked with cats would be required to feed, clean cages, take the cats for walks in the rainforest, and just see that the cats’ lives were as good as they could possibly be. Many would come back with occasional cuts or bruises from their cat, but they also seemed to find the experience incredibly rewarding despite the occasional rough play. Many times I would talk with volunteers who returned from working with his/her cat and they would get very excited telling me about their day and how their walks went. No serious injuries due to cats have occurred since the start of Inti Wara Yassi.

Food, cleaning and general care of all areas of the property were taken care of by the volunteers. We would take turns cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the cuisine benefited from this by having quite a lot of variation (not constant rice and lentils as at some other volunteer places). Cooking with strangers is a great way to get to know them.

How you can help: Volunteering is the best way to help Inti Wara Yassi achieve its goals. Typical volunteering ranges from a minimum of two weeks and up (though Jacj Cuisi accepts shorter term volunteers for construction). To work with jaguars, pumas, or ocelots you are required to stay for a minimum of a month, though it’s not a guarantee that you can work with them; it depends on the roles of the existing volunteers. Costs to volunteer in USD as of 2013 are roughly $12/day at Jacj Cuisi, $14/day at Machia, and $18/day at Ambue Ari, and they include three meals per day and lodging.

Inti Wara Yassi also accepts online donations here. Several projects are ongoing which require financial support, including a new vet clinic at Ambue Ari, as well as most of the required infrastructure at the new location, Jacj Cuisi.