The jungle around me is a perfect luminous green. The trees are covered in orchids and the undergrowth is overflowing with the vibrant colour of red and yellow heliconia flowers. There are monkeys in the trees, along with squirrels and macaws. Huge tarantulas patrol the ground and there is the constant danger of snakes. I walk on the paths singing to myself and to my puma, Yassi.
I had no idea I would be doing this. After spending a few months living at almost 4000 metres above sea level in La Paz, I really wanted to spend some time in the Amazonian jungle. After hearing incredible stories from a friend about an animal refuge that required volunteers, I took a wild and winding bus trip into Bolivia’s southeast. The animals at Parque Ambue Ari, along with the majority of workers and volunteers at the refuge, are accustomed to the Spanish language. My own grasp of Spanish is some way short of perfecto and prior to arriving at the refuge I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the other volunteers. I feared that I would be bored and of no use to anyone. I never dreamed I would learn how to handle a wild puma with instructions in Spanish or that simple hand gestures and noises could count as understanding, such that I would be sent into a cage with a puma after a briefing that lasted 10 minutes.
Show no fear. Don’t let go. Cover your neck. When a puma jumps on you, yell “abajo”. This means ‘down’ in Spanish (and apparently in puma, too). This was the sum of the information I managed to decipher during my first day. My fears had hardly been allayed and I spent that night studying the English–Spanish dictionary for words like ‘blood’, ‘dead’, ‘help’, ‘bite’ and ‘decapitate’. Yet it seemed that my first day of induction was a success. On the second day at Parque Ambue Ari I learned I was to be in charge of three fully grown puma sisters. At six months old, they had been rescued from a poacher who had killed their mother. The volunteer who had been with them since then had left the refuge to rescue some injured monkeys and was now a good day’s travel away. With her went the only vet and permanent worker, as well as any sense of order that was to be found in this pocket of chaos.
It was an interesting social study to observe how quickly our little camp turned into scenes direct from the pages of Lord of The Flies. There were struggles for power, fights over food and the constant and obvious realisation that none of us had any idea what the hell we were doing. This became apparent when five cats escaped on our first day alone in the park together. There were seven pumas in total, five ocelots and three jaguars. The 15 volunteers at the refuge also had custody of two deer, four pigs, five racoons, four monkeys, 13 macaws, four toucans, a tortoise, two huge ostrich-like birds, more than 50 small parrots, three smaller jungle cats, three orphan children, a baby giant anteater and a lone eagle. I found an unlikely peace in this environment and treasured the time spent getting up close and personal with these wild and beautiful animals.
Yassi the puma really loved being sung to. ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, in English, was a favourite. She’d purr as we walked, wrapping her tail around my legs and hips. She would stop to nuzzle me in the face or on the leg, not unlike a regular pet cat. She was no domestic moggy however. A three-year-old puma, she stood up to my thighs and weighed about 50 kilograms. I tried not to think too much about this. One of the secrets of walking with pumas is to never show fear and to keep the right amount of tension in your lead. If the lead becomes too slack, the puma is able to turn and jump on you. If the lead is too tight, the puma might want to run faster and take you with them.
Pumas also like to play and swim. Swimming in the river with the cats was an incredible experience. In this environment, the tables were turned. While the pumas love the water, they also fear it. They became quite timid, reliant upon my ability to reassure them that they would be alright. Once in the water, I was the boss.
Wandering along the trail on the way to give the cats a dip one morning, I stared at a flock of scarlet macaws. They were a brilliant red blaze up in the trees, chattering away, paying us no attention and enjoying a morning feast. I stopped and marvelled at these majestic birds only a couple of branches above my head. So overwhelmed was I that I completely forgot I was holding on to a puma who was eager to get in the water and who also liked brightly coloured birds. Before I knew it, she had bolted part way up the tree, sending the birds screeching and dragging me forward. In the split second before she leapt back to the ground, I was certain the cat would jump me.
Later the same day, my fear of being jumped was realised. I was passing on some of the basics to a new volunteer, who, like me on arrival at Parque Ambue Ari, was completely inexperienced with wild cats. Wara, the biggest of the three puma sisters, had her ears flattened in pounce mode when I approached her. She jumped from two metres away and landed on my body – one paw on my leg, one on my hip, one on my back. I had seen a similar move in a wildlife documentary when a puma was killing a deer.
I broke into a cold sweat and went completely white. My pants and shirt were ripped and there was blood on my clothes, but I was OK. Wara was only playing. Later when I was cleaning the pumas and could hug them and nuzzle them again, I was rather proud of my new scratches. I had learned two very important lessons: never approach a cat when it has its ears flattened and always face them front on with your neck covered when they jump you.
Parque Ambue Ari is the sister park to a much larger one in the centre of Bolivia called Parque Machia. They are both run by the Community of Inti Wara Yassi, a not-for-profit organisation that rescues animals from all over the country, all illegally poached and kept in private homes, hotels, restaurants and circuses, often in disgusting conditions. Together the parks house more than a thousand animals. Conditions are basic, it’s not world’s best practice for training, the food isn’t great and you have to work hard. But it is Bolivia, so you come to expect those things anyway and the experience is richer for the fact you are providing assistance in the poorest country in South America. It may also be your only chance to ever serenade a puma.
From Australia, fly to Santa Cruz in Bolivia with LATAM.
The closest major town is Ascención de Guarayos, which is approximately five hours by bus from Santa Cruz. Transportes del Oriente is the only the company that goes direct to the park.
For more information about the park go to intiwarayassi.org