February 2015

The Battle to Save Bolivia’s Wildlife

The ongoing fight against animal trafficking is perhaps one Bolivia’s lesser known struggles; but it inspires intense passion in those who join it. The trade itself, however, is only one battle. Rescued animals must not only be nursed back to health, but taken care of, with the ultimate goal being to reintroduce them back in to the wild - a goal which is not always achieved. I spoke with an animal rights organisation and the government office to see how big this problem has become, and what is being done about it.

By: Patrick Hebbert
Projects Abroad Volunteer
West Yorkshire - United Kingdom

Spider monkey that lives in the refuge in Chapare for a long time.
Photo: Patrick Hebbert

Susanna del Carpio tells me many harrowing stories about the plight of trafficked animals in Bolivia, but one the most tragic is of a monkey who was forced to drink alcohol. This monkey had found its way in to a chicheria, and the drinkers there, thinking it would be funny, gave it some chicha to drink. The result was a drunken and disorientated monkey, a sight they enjoyed so much that its owner rented it out to them, with the sole purpose of it drinking chicha for their amusement.

These tales of abuse are hard to listen to, but sadly there are many of them in such a potentially lucrative business, with animals on sale ranging from monkeys, to wombats, parrots and even condors. The stories often begin with the animal being snatched from its natural habitat. In a land like Bolivia, with its jungles and diverse flora and fauna, many hunters can track down animals and capture them, often whilst they are still very young. From here they are taken to the markets to be sold, though www.bolivianexpress.org says that many die in transit from causes such as asphyxiation, stress, rough handling and dehydration.

Susanna is a member of the Asociacion para la Defenda de los Derechos de Los Animales (ADDA), an organisation that began in 1995 to protect animal rights. They rescue animals and care for them, before passing them to the government office or conservation areas. As a result of this she has many stories to tell.

Parrot lives in the refuge for a long time.
Photo: Patrick Hebbert

Though the animal markets are hidden, Susanna says that they are not difficult to find if you ask the right questions. The conditions they are kept in are often dirty and cramped. I’m also told that, whilst the police are quick to come down on thieves and fighting, they are reluctant to go after animal traders.

“You’re not going to find a single one in jail”, Susanna says “the law is not respected”

Many of the locals who buy these wild animals underestimate the difficulties of keeping them as pets. Monkeys, for example, sometimes escape and sneak in to neighbouring houses to cause havoc, and wombats can become destructive house guests as they get older. Many find that they cannot handle keeping the animal, so they give them away to organisations like ADDA or the government office. Some are also seized by the police, but Susanna believes that the seizure process is too difficult. The police cannot go inside the house as it is private property, so they require a prosecutor to get an order from a judge to enter it.

Once the animals are in the care of a rescue organisation or the government office, the real work begins. Firstly, finding space to store the animals can be a major issue. ADDA used to pass animals to parks such as La Senda Verde; however these places are experiencing problems with housing them, and are currently not accepting any more. ADDA are looking for an 8 hectare area for their work, and hope that with this they would be able to help these organisations too – particularly with keeping domestic and wild animals separated. The government office does have an area by the lake; however Susanna says that the climate can be unsuitable for some animals.

Ferret in the shelter in Chapare.
Photo: Patrick Hebbert

Reintroduction to the wild is also a large part of their work, and it is not always easy. Susanna feels that current methods don’t push the animal to return, giving me the example of a monkey recovered from a zoo that was so used to living with humans that he lacked the skills he needed to survive in the wild. Susanna cared for him for a while and later passed him to a botanical garden, but he didn’t lose his bond with humans. He stayed close to the visitors, ate from their hands, and even, when Susanna visited, brought her a mixture of leaves and flowers to eat. Sadly, he later died, killed by another animal when he was taken to a different part of the park.

Susanna believes that the country is not dealing with animal trafficking in the right way, with the main problem being a lack of training. She tells me that whilst many people do have a commitment and desire to help, they are simply not sufficiently qualified, and that medical professionals in this field aren’t familiar enough with wild animals to give them proper care. She thinks that if a qualified organisation could come and help train people in Bolivia, then it may be possible to make reintroduction work. However, she finishes the interview by saying that there is not an ecological cause in Bolivia and no real interest in these problems.

After meeting Susannah, I go to the government office to talk with Gaviota Barde, who is responsible for wild flora and fauna there.

Started in 2011, the lakeside government office is a temporary animal refuge supported by the mayor’s office, staffed with vets, a biologist and an animal cleaner. It is here that animals seized from houses and markets are taken or, like ADDA, handed in. After arrival animals are checked for injury, malnutrition, and tested for diseases to ensure they don’t infect other animals or humans. A decision is then made on whether to send the animal to a wildlife park or release it back in to the wild.

Photo: Patrick Hebbert

Though most who bring animals in say they found them, this is apparently not always the case.

“They never say ‘we had this animal as our pet’, they always say ‘we found this animal on the street’. But we know [sometimes] they are lying” Gaviota tells me.

The office generally recover monkeys and wombats from houses, whilst at the markets the mainly find parrots. They also come across humanised animals, making reintroduction difficult. Many that they send to animal centres stay there, never to be released back to nature.

Gaviota believes the Bolivian government is taking the right steps to address the issues of animal trafficking. The ministry and the mayor’s office are giving seminars on how to avoid trafficking, working on a protocol on animal liberation, and preparing a law to control Bolivian boarders - there are huge amounts of money to be made by selling exotic animals abroad. She also believes it is important to have private and public institutions work together to tackle animal trafficking. Another one of the main priorities is a new building as well, one with a better micro climate and more trees.

Though they may have differing views on how well animal trafficking is being addressed, one thing that both Gaviota and Susanna agree on is education. Susanna says that education is one of ADDA’s main goals, to put out a seed with the hope that it will grow and become a strong movement in Bolivian society for future generations. For Gaviota there is a lack of environmental education amongst people. She would like to do more work with students - who would hopefully pass on what they’ve learned to their parents - as well as teach people generally about the dangers of buying wild animals. She also remarks on the need to work with indigenous people too, and give them a means of earning money so that they don’t have to rely on selling wild animals.

Animal trafficking doesn’t appear to be a problem that will disappear soon, and the issues to confront range from how to stop trafficking to properly caring for the animals that are rescued. There is a lot of work to be done, but with a focus on education, and teaching young people about the importance of the environment, there is hope that future generations will be better equipped face the problems of the past.

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