Last year, I had spent an enthralling week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. So, during my brief stop off in London in January, I spent more time researching volunteer schemes in South America than any other travel planning task. Funnily enough, even with all that time spent, I hadn’t come across La Senda Verde. Instead, it was a tip off from another traveller who had heard from another traveller about the animal refuge, that gave me the pointer I needed.
After a read through the wealth of information on their web site, I dropped Vicky (one of the owners) an email and a week later I was walking across the beautiful bridge entrance into the eco reserve. As a volunteer, I would be spending two weeks caring for wild animals ranging from tropical birds, tree-climbing bears, astoundingly smart monkeys and head butting tortoises.
What is La Senda Verde?
La Senda Verde is a privately run animal refuge in the in Yungas area of Bolivia. Co-founded by Vicky Ossio and Marcelo Levy in 2003, its mission is to provide the best care possible to animals rescued from illegal traffic in a natural environment under technical and scientific conditions.
At the time of writing, the refuge is home to several species of primates (spider, capuchin, howler, squirrel, owl and tamarin monkeys), birds (macaw, amazon, parrot, parakeet and toucan), bear (spectacled), cat (ocelot), tortoises, turtles, caiman, boa constrictor, tayra, coati and four loving dogs.
As a volunteer, you’re given a chance to work with most animals in the refuge. The tasks are split into the four animal groups that exist in the park. Monkeys, Birds, Quarantine and Misc. Quarantine is mostly a wide selection of animals that have been recently received, but need to be separate from others until they can be introduced. Misc includes the two bears, turtles, tortoises and the domestic dogs. Depending how long you intend to stay, will dictate how long you spend on each.
La Senda Verde ask that volunteers stay a minimum of two weeks and whilst I was there, I came across volunteers who had been at the refuge several months. If you’re there two weeks (which is most common), you’ll get around 3-4 days on each section.
What is a typical day like for a volunteer?
As a volunteer, your main duty is to clean and feed the animals, starting at 08:00 in the morning and typically finishing at 17:30. Cleaning means leftover food and poo, so be prepared to get dirty. With most animals needing feeding twice, maybe three times a day, you’re left with a handful of hours outside of cleaning and feeding.
Those hours are used to enrich the lives of the animals. That could include:
- Monitoring eating habits (to ensure animals are getting enough food and have a balanced diet)
- Building or repairing facilities (feeding platforms, cages or anything you believe an animal needs)
- Teaching animals skills (they may have forgotten or never learned being in captivity)
- Cleaning the food preparation room or dishes after dinner
- Carry fruit and vegetable deliveries from the entrance to storage (believe me, running through the refuge as fast as you can, pushing a wheelbarrow full of bananas, hotly pursued by a group of hungry monkeys is not easy)
I started my time at La Senda Verde working with the birds. I’ve always thought of them as not the most intelligent of animals on this earth, but I was pleasantly surprised. Enter exhibit A, which is a bird having a bath in a sink, having turned on the tap itself.
When you step into one of the main bird areas, you met with a chorus of “Ola” (hello in Spanish), wolf whistles, laughs, computer game noises and even an alarm clock. All are the result of a sad past for the birds, most being taken as a pet in the home illegally only to find out they couldn’t cope with the caring chores of these animals. Some of the birds are flightless, having had certain feathers cut in the past or just never having learned how to fly properly.
Macaws are the biggest bird residents in the refuge and are naturally very territorial. When it comes to cleaning their area (or other birds for that matter), they screech, flare their feathers, run at you and try to break anything in their strong mouth that’s in the way. Here’s an example of an “angry” macaw…
With all animals at first, you’re wise to keep your distance, until you can understand them and what they’re trying to communicate or do. The macaws, are just trying to stake their claim on their area, so if you don’t overstep the mark, they’re happy with your presence. Funnier still, once the food comes out, they act all docile and want your help to be moved (using sticks) from their sitting area to where the food is laid. That’s because many are flightless, so you can’t help but take pity as they clamber over using their claws and beaks as fast as they can.
After I had got to grips with the birds, I decided to build the macaws a new pyramid structure to eat from. The reason was to move the macaw’s area and alleviate a bunch of other birds that were being tormented by them. Machete, saw, nails, pliers and some steel wire were needed for this. I spent an afternoon chopping down some good bamboos, then another afternoon putting together the “pyramid”. Whilst I was working on the structure, one of the macaws decided to follow me everywhere. Bit by bit, this macaw got himself in the thick of the work.
I’d raise a hammer to bang in a nail and he’d be holding onto the end of it with his beak. Every time a new bamboo was in place, he’d insist on testing it out. By the time the new structure was finished I’d built up enough trust with “Macca” that he was happy to sit on my arm. After being called the “Bird Whisperer”, I got the feeling it was pretty rare to get on with a macaw like that, so I was pretty chuffed. It was great being able to build something and take the refuge forward in some small way, rather than simply being involved in “maintenance” tasks.
After working with the birds, I spent some time with the “Misc” area, which included bears, tortoises and the turtles. The two bears in the park are one of the main attractions. They have a large area to roam, so when it comes to feeding, your first task is to spot them. The younger of the two bears, called Tipnis, is more energetic and it wasn’t surprising to find her high up in a tree…
After spending ages coaxing her down, my job was to feed her monkey nuts (one at a time) whilst the other bear volunteer went into the area and put the food in. It was amazing watching how this bear could smell nuts inside the shells, carefully crack it open with its teeth and devour the nut.
For Aruma, the older bear, some of the food would have to be thrown in, so that she would learn to find food, like she would have to in the wild.
The tortoises were more entertaining than I thought. After stepping into one of the enclosures to clean up some mess, I felt a bump on my leg. I looked down and there was a tortoise doing it’s best to try to “move” me – butting its head against my leg and scrabbling on the ground with its back legs. I looked at it and thought “this is a joke right?”.
I moved to another area in the pen and 30 seconds later (essentially, the time it took “Shellbutt” to race over to me again) there he was, doing his best to move me. If I had the patience, I could have him tearing around all day after me. However, only a fool would play a game of patience with a tortoise.
The turtles in the refuge were cool too. Not as big as the tortoises, but beautiful all the same. Of the different varieties, these were the most brightly coloured…
On the whole, they were pretty docile, until the day I fed them fish tails. They all fought over them for the rest of that day.
After that, I worked in Quarantine. The main attraction here were three tethered young capuchin monkeys. Of all the monkey species, capuchins have the largest brain-to-body ratio, so are effectively the most intelligent. That means, when you worked with them, EVERYTHING must be out of your pockets. It wasn’t uncommon for glasses and hats to be taken from volunteers, so the last thing you’d want is your camera or phone lifted out of a pocket (zipped or unzipped it wouldn’t matter).
Of three, “Pepe” was the most mischievous and playful. He’d often investigate and follow your actions to “learn”. That’s one of the most important tasks with the monkeys. To intrigue and teach them whatever you can. How to smash stones together, how to untangle themselves from the tether. They’re all things an elder monkey would teach them in the wild.
With all small places, you’re likely to get involved with other tasks. Whilst I was at the refuge, there were an unusually high number of male volunteers and five huge logs which had been sitting at the entrance since their delivery several months ago.
After carrying the logs into the refuge, they needed to be lifted into a tree for later use as pillars for a new enclosure. They needed to be in the tree, so that they didn’t get damage from water on the ground. The wet season there lasts months with some heavy rain.
With some volunteers taking weight with a rope and pulley and others carefully lifting and guiding the logs, we managed to lift them neatly into the tree.
There was plenty to see and do outside of the allotted tasks, that meant I got to see other wildlife too. Here’s some examples of the monkeys roaming around the common refuge areas –
Here’s one of “Elvis”, the squirrel monkey running off with a tube of toothpaste (which I came to realise is their favourite item to steal)â€¦
How much does it cost to volunteer?
At the time I volunteered, it cost 1190 Bolivianos per week. The cost included accommodation (with hot showers and linen), three meals a day food and free laundry. There are reductions for volunteers who stay longer term.
Most of the volunteers, reside in one of the volunteer houses five minutes up the road from the refuge. You can be in anything from sharing in a dorm, to a room to yourself depending on the number of volunteers and the length of stay.
There’s often a debate from backpackers whether volunteer scheme should or shouldn’t charge its volunteers. Personally, with the facilities and the average cost of stay in Bolivia, I think good schemes should charge something and I didn’t think the cost of La Senda Verde was bad at all.
I believe for a young refuge like La Senda Verde, the support from the volunteers (both time and money) goes to building a better environment for everyone.
In the evenings, the volunteers can hang out in the Arca building in the refuge, which includes a television, bar and pool table.
What’s the best way to reach La Senda Verde?
From La Paz, you can take a 2.5hr mini bus to Coroico (the nearest town) and from there, a short taxi ride (any driver there would know of La Senda Verde).
The alternative way, is via one of the mountain bike companies that take tourists down the infamous Death Road. The end of the Death Road is near La Senda Verde, so the way I got to the refuge, was to cycle down the Death Road (another blog post, don’t you worry) then afterwards, take my backpack from the mini bus that followed the cyclists down and jumped out at La Senda Verde. The three companies you could use for that are Gravity (who finish in La Senda Verde), Altitude (who pass by La Senda Verde after) and Barracuda (who finish next door to La Senda Verde).
5 things I learned at La Senda Verde
- Hierarchy is so important with the animals, especially with the monkeys. Understanding the role of the alpha male monkey in the group and how the volunteers would work around it was really interesting. How they come about being the alpha and maintaining status is so similar to humans and worth a background read if you’re interested in sociology.
- Sometimes, the animals just “choose” you. The relationship with “Macca” was pretty unique – he was happy to peck at others who should have been seemingly ok with him. Likewise, there were other animals who didn’t take to me, but took to others. I have no idea why it happens, but perhaps it’s like humans where sometimes you just “click” with someone.
- Having been my second wildlife volunteer scheme, I couldn’t help but contrast them in my head. La Senda Verde was a much smaller and younger place compared to the Elephant Nature Park and it was a great insight into the changes that would occur over the next several years as La Senda Verde grows. It made me realise that the stage of a volunteer scheme can really dictate the amount of support that a volunteer gets (not saying that a small amount of support is bad, in some ways it gives freedom to do more) and the amount of support a volunteer gives back.
- Don’t assume the wildlife is tame. You soon realise that understanding the animals is the most important step in dealing with any animal. No one will ever guarantee complete safety working with animals, but if you ignore some of the obvious signs of communication, you will increase the chance of something happening unnecessarily.
- Volunteer schemes are a great place to learn new skills. No once did I rely on computer skills during my time there, so instead all the extra “building” tasks was great for practicing the everyday craftsman skills that I only got to use through home DIY jobs.
Tips for Volunteering at La Senda Verde
- Get yourself a Bolivian sim card before you get to the refuge. There’s no wifi and just a scrap of mobile data in certain areas of the refuge. Luckily, I had a pay-as-you-go sim card with the network operator TIGO (all over any small town). It will save you a three hour round trip into Coroico to do a simple task like checking emails or Facebook.
- Long pants and sturdy shoes are a must. Whilst you get given a fresh volunteer shirt to wear every couple of days (or sooner if needed), you need to be prepared from the waist down to get all sorts of mess on you. Sturdy shoes are useful for attacking birds too.
- A headtorch and bottle of water are useful for the walk back to the volunteer house. Unfortunately, there’s a territorial dog you need to walk passed at night. Although the dog probably doesn’t want to cause harm, the water is a great “gentle” deterrent should he overstep the line.
- Cheap caps are useful when working with the monkeys. Monkeys are very happy to clamber over your head. If it’s been raining and/or they’ve been running around in the mud (or worse), you be thankful you had a cap. I say cheap, because there’s always a chance it can be stolen by a furry thief.
- Have a snack stash. Although you get fed three times a day, the first meal is after the morning chores and it’s common to get a little peckish in-between meals in the day. You can pick up simple items in Coroico, but you’re better off bring a small stash from La Paz on your arrival at La Senda Verde
For more information on volunteering or supporting La Senda Verde, you can visit their web site at http://www.sendaverde.com/