In the jungle, the quiet jungle the volunteers sleep tonight…
Welcome to Bolivia.
After some nice days of acclimation in La Paz we headed off to our next volunteering in the middle of the Bolivian jungle. There are two options to get to Rurrenabaque from La Paz. The cheapest way is by bus and the fastest way is by plane. Cause of time and some different stories about the conditions of the road up to Rurrenabaque (they call it “the death road”) we decided to fly. For us it was probably the most expensive flight ever. 90 € per person for 30 min of flight instead of 10€ per person for 12 hours with the bus. Because we hadn’t the time for a proper research we decided to fly and arrive on time. The flight was an amazing experience: departing from the mountains of La Paz cross the snow peaks covered in clouds and arriving after just 30 min in the middle of the rainforest of Bolivia on time with a perfect sunset and landing with a propeller plane on a gravel road.
After we arrived we were transferred to the baggage claim, more a small house where the manager said that non of our luggage was delivered with the plane. For us it was ok because we knew that we are going to stay in Rurrenabaque for the next month but other people just flew there to go on a 3 days jungle tour- now without any equipment.
After a lot of discussion, we took a taxi into the town for 20 Bolivianos (ca. 2€) and checked out some hostels for one night. After we arrived at the hostel we thought about the whole flight thing. We will never fly again with amazonas because it´s just way to expensive. Losing luggage is normal for them after some research and our plane was cancelled 2 times one day before. The best way in our opinion is to take the bus. It´s much more cheaper and the road isn’t so bad as everybody say. For us the road was not worse than others in South America.
After the first day in Rurrenabaque we got all the more excited to go into the jungle. Around 1 pm we walked to a café where we were going to meet Andres. To our surprise there were a lot off new volunteers. Andres and master John welcomed us very lovely. After a short talk we went directly to ONCA. On the way to the boat we bought some snacks for our first week in the jungle and Andres talked to Amazonas that they manage to bring our luggage in the next days to the camp. To get to the ONCA camp we jumped on a wooden boat, drove along the river and felt like going on an Indiana Jones adventure. After 15 min we arrived at a muddy water bank grabbed our hand luggage and walked along a small path until we arrived in an open area where we saw some wooden houses and already peoples waiting.
After we arrived some of the volunteers showed us our dormitory for the next couple of weeks. It was super simple, made out of bamboo and with straw mattresses. But the volunteers were not here for comfort, it was about the animals and give them a good life. After some general talk Andres showed us a little bit around ONCA so that we know in the next days where we can find everything. From the clinic, quarantine, Spider monkey area over the toilettes, shower and so on. After that we were introduced to the general ONCA rules which were very important that the whole micro cosmos there works well and that the animals get the best treatment. It included for example the daily working schedule were every night in advance the caretakers of the animals were set for the next day including the daily maintenance with means cleaning the bathrooms, preparing the animal food or helping with cooking the meal for all the people of ONCA.
Later Andres and all the Animal Masters (people who stayed at ONCA very long time and are now guiding new people how to treat and take care of the animals) lay out the new shift schedule for the next day. Because of all the new volunteers they had to decide which volunteer will work with which animal. Because we stayed 4 weeks we were lucky and had enough time to work with cats and monkeys. Lisa was assigned to the baby jaguar Beni and the spider monkeys and I was assigned to the ocelot Choti and the quarantine, where I worked with capuchin monkeys.
As you see a lot of information’s and impressions on the first day but we were all super motivated for the work with the animals and we didn’t expect to see the animals on the day of our arrival. But we were lucky, Lisa was allowed to bring jaguar baby Beni his dinner and ocelot Choti was allowed to sniff me at the fence.
All in all, we stayed 4 weeks at ONCA and had the opportunity to support them each with 2 types of animals. In the following parts we will present you the work with the different animals, our amazing experiences and our daily routines to make their life better and help them to get back to a free life in the future.
Choti the beautiful Ocelot
Franz’s first week was totally focused on the training with Choti, the ocelot. It was all about learning his routine and making friends with him. Our work started every morning at 8am. Before that we had breakfast with homemade bread made from John and hot coffee. Then we put on our old work clothes, checked if there were tarantulas in our rubber boots and filled up our water bottles.
For about 10 minutes the secret trail went through the jungle to Choti’s enclosure. Only his caretakers know where he is. 100m before the cage they started to call him and whistle for him, so he wouldn’t get scared. On the first day with Franz he was very excited because he was still new. So, he first sniffed at Franz while he was still in the cage. He was also excited because he knew that he could go for a walk for 4 hours right away. But before this was possible the collar had to be put on him. For this purpose, a person went through one of the double doors and he came by himself to have the collar put on. Depending on the mood of the day this was sometimes relaxed and sometimes connected with excited cat cries.
Then it went off into the jungle. Choti always went ahead and decided for himself where to sniff, which tree to climb, which puddle to play with, which things to hunt or which corner to chill in. The two volunteers, who are always present, have the task to take care of him, that his line doesn’t get tangled, that he doesn’t hunt snakes or other wild animals in the vicinity.
It was a mix of totally chaotic freestyle and super relaxed chilling. Sometimes he also had to be equipped with leaves and animated to his natural instincts. He and his handlers always had a lot of fun with that. Apart from his incomparably beautiful fur, Franz also marveled at his hunting mode again and again. Sometimes one of the volunteers even went ahead and hid so that Choti would then look for him and of course find him.
After the fat lunch there was a short break followed by another walk. Working with Choti is certainly very nice, especially for cat lovers, but you also have to be prepared that he is the boss, decides which way he wants to go and that cat scratches are completely normal here.
Quarantine Capuchin Monkey
After a week with Choti, Franz was transferred to the quarantine because John the quarantine Master needed help there. Until then he did not know what to expect there. The quarantine is the first stop for every animal that arrives at ONCA. There they are checked medically, their nutrition and their reaction to people.
The room of the quarantine was a 4 x 10 meter, where the animals were cared for individually or in groups. Before anything happened, John introduced Franz to Lola and Gilberto, the two Capuchin monkeys which were currently being cared for there. In the end the animals decide whether they want to „work“ with a person or not. On the first day there was a general briefing from John concerning the general daily routine. Every morning the monkeys were taken out of the room so that baby jaguar Beni could get his milk. After that the real work with the two Capuchin monkeys began. They got 2 small bananas for breakfast and were set free to jump around a bit and be monkeys. John and Franz sat down in a corner of the room and gave the animals snacks from time to time so that they could get used to the two. With time the animals dared to approach John and Franz. Little touches, taking snacks (nuts, sunflower seeds)from their hands or even sitting on their shoulders. The men also tried to behave like monkeys, imitate their sounds and move like monkeys (Franz was always good at that ;)). The aim of this was later to gain the trust of the animals that they would listen to them even in the open-air. In addition, the animals in the camp need a person of trust so that they do not run away in an emergency situation. Like this, Franz sat in this room for 6 hours a day for the whole week, making monkey sounds and cracking nuts until the two monkeys sat on his shoulder without any problems.
Little Lola was a bit newer in the camp, but she quickly became friends with Franz. She had just come from a local family that had kept her as a pet and was now overstrained with increasing age and bite. By the way, the keeping of wild animals as pets is forbidden in Bolivia, but there are countless people who nevertheless find it funny to keep a monkey or similar wild animals.
This is also reflected by the second monkey Gilberto. He also came from a local family and was kept exclusively indoors. When he came into the camp, it was found out that he only ate leftovers of food and was given beer to drink in the family. So he didn’t know any bananas (which can be freely picked in the jungle in Bolivia) and was also addicted to alcohol. Therefore it took him a little longer to change to a normal monkey life and diet.
Then it was ready for phase 2. The jungle.
Both monkeys were previously put on a kind of belt with a leash so that they couldn’t run away in case of danger. Monkeys that were previously in families are not able to survive in nature, this instinct has to be awakened or learned in them. In order to make everything safe, both animals were taken one by one on Franz’s shoulder at the first „exit“ and were observed and secured by John in case wild monkeys could pass by accidentally. This situation was super fascinating for Franz. According to his stories Gilberto was always hyperactive in the quarantine and at the exit his jaw dropped, he was completely silent and calm or made lucky noises and probably felt that this was the place where he belonged. He immediately started to explore his surroundings, touching leaves and the ground and picked a banana from the tree by himself. It was similar with Lola, but she was rather overwhelmed by his situation and reacted anxiously to her environment. She wasn’t sure whether she was allowed to touch trees or what she should do, and for safety’s sake always stayed close to Franz.
So, after it had become clear that both monkeys were „ready“ for the jungle, a new area was created for them. For this purpose, Franz ploughed an area for a whole day, cut up rotten trees and chopped up the bushes with his machete. The aim was to build up so-called „runners“, i.e. ropes stretched between two trees to which the animals‘ lines were attached. So, they can move freely and explore the jungle.
More and more runners emerged and the animals developed their instincts all by themselves. They climbed trees, found and ate insects and leaves, searched the ground and jumped from tree to tree. Franz even caught Gilberto making a kind of swing out of his leash and cheerfully pushing himself off the tree and swinging around. During the next weeks it was super interesting to see how the animals see nature as their natural nature bit by bit. Then also an outside cage followed, so that both could be also at night outside in the nature. In the end John and Franz were very proud of their work for this new little Capuchin monkey family, which was also growing on Franz’s last day. Little Freya was rescued from the bush fires of the Bolivian Amazon by ONCA boss Andres and integrated directly into the group. In the future, this group should of course continue to grow and later be able to move around completely free. Once a closed family of monkeys is consolidated with a leader, they will be released back into the wild.
Beni the baby jaguar
On the first day Lisa was allowed to give baby jaguar Beni his food together with with Tom (Aussie Volunteer). They took the labelled tin from the fridge with 1kg of meat and went to the clinic where Beni was accommodated at that time. And there the small pile of fur sat in his cage between banana leaves and was already waiting for us. Since she had never seen a wild animal so close before, she was very impressed and immediately fell in love.
On the following days Lisa was assigned to Beni all day and was trained by Tom and Beth. At first little Beni used to jump at her a lot because she was like a new toy for him. The little rascal got his milk in the quarantine in the morning, then the cage was cleaned and they went for a walk with him. This walk was either along the river or in the jungle on marked paths. Beni of course already knew these paths and knew exactly where he wanted to sniff along and which banana tree he wanted to fight with. He loved it when they knotted a kind of ball from one of the jungle plants that he could chase. As if hypnotized, he ran after this chicken made of leaves and only gave up when he had it and could take it with him as a trophy. Funny but also amazing how many instincts were awakened in him there.
Beni was found by the Bolivian military in a nearby nature reserve. Apparently, poachers killed his mother and left him with less than 3 months behind. The military brought him to Andres, where he was obviously well, had a medical checkup and was visibly gaining strength. Within the 4 weeks that we stayed he grew up very fast, from 12 to 18 kg. So, he got a bigger outside cage, which Lisa and Beth prepared. They were like two mums on the first day of kindergarten when he moved into his new enclosure and admired how he sniffed around his new home. Unfortunately, he also screamed/cried when they left. He quickly got used to the new situation and visibly felt comfortable in his territory. He had also accepted Lisa relatively quickly and sometimes he cuddled along her leg like a kitten. Most of the time he just faked it and bit her into the thigh – wild animals remain wild animals. The work with Beni and Beth was one of the best times her life, which she will probably never be able to repeat. Looking into the eyes of a jaguar baby, feeling its fur and watching its movements in the jungle are unique and unforgettable. Also, the time with Beth was unforgettable and we admire that she is still at ONCA and sacrifices her time and strength for the welfare of the animals. Beth you are a very inspiring person and I miss your songs and jokes.
After all this we keep asking ourselfes how it can be that wild animals are kept as pets or hunted, killed and their skins or body parts are kept as trophies. This is not right, not natural, exterminates animal species and should be prohibited all over the world to safe nature and animal species.
Lisa was allowed to support the Spider Monkeys in the second week, for which she was assigned there for a few days for familiarization. There was also a fixed daily routine. In the morning the (at that time) 12 animals, 4 young animals, 2 teenagers and 6 adult monkeys, were lined up and brought to their runners. Their outside area was huge and their runners very long, so that they could climb up to the top of the trees. While some of the team cleaned the cage from droppings and mealtimes, the rest of the team prepared breakfast and milk for the 4 babies. Granted, cleaning the cage involved some overcoming and controlling the vomiting stimulus, but the rest of the work with the animals compensated for all this. So Alpha lady Maria first got her banana for breakfast and the babies last got their milk, so that the hierarchy is kept and nobody steals the food from the little ones. After that it was playtime. We were allowed to climb trees with the monkeys, make them toys, swings or lianas and went with them to other „playgrounds“ to play and climb. Each of the 3 to 5 volunteers got 1 to 4 monkeys on their shoulders and head. Since the monkeys had to climb on the volunteers themselves, it sometimes takes a lot of patience until they join you. It was important that the group always stays together, it is clear that Maria is the boss and goes at the beginning and no monkey may be cuddled. In fact, some of the animals could be seen to come from human families or even the circus. Lying on the ground and sunbathing or walking on their hind paws would never be done by a wild Spider Monkey. Therefore, their natural instinct to climb and chill in the tree should be revived in the camp.
Lisa´s favorite task was to feed the 4 babies, which were romping around in the trees without a leash. So, you had to look in which tree they were and call: „Apa! Soka! Boira! Mite!“ and they came down and curled their strong little monkey tails around our neck and clawed into Lisa´s bun. They each got a bowl of milk, which they drank diligently and then had a milk beard. Unfortunately, we found out a few months later that little Mite died due to a heart defect. So again, my condolences to the ONCA team, because I know how much work and love is put into every single animal, especially from Andres, Ale and Claire. I will never forget how one evening little Mite didn’t want to join the others in the cage and then, through the excitement, crapped on Beth’s hair.
Speaking of pi-pi and pooh-pooh. Spider Monkeys don’t care if they’re sitting on top of you or above you in the tree when they have to relieve themselves. So, it was normal to have to clean your clothes after a Spider Monkey shift. Otherwise they are very social animals and also very human, only the thumb is missing on their hand. Lisa´s second favorite memory is that they cuddled together and made funny „huh, huh, huh“ sounds to express their joy. During the last week of our volunteer, a small newcomer also reached the Spider Monkey group. Nana aka. Mau was found in the city where children were playing with her. After she was brought to the camp and medically checked, she integrated very quickly into the group. The adult monkey ladies got very excited and each one wanted to take care of the little one. In the beginning, little Mau was even afraid to touch trees, so French volunteer Nicolas built her a small course made of branches where she hanged herself from day to day. It’s great to carry all these memories inside and probably never to forget them again.
Donations & Volunteer
If you would like to get a taste of volunteer air and above all have a big heart for animals, we can warmly recommend ONCA. Besides a great team, the overnight stays in the middle of the jungle and the animals, you even have 1.5 days off a week to go to the city. That is what we have always done. Our favorite accommodation was Jasmine, because they made a great prize for volunteers and had the best pancake breakfast in town. What other advantages are there to volunteering for ONCA? You will not have internet in the camp and you will not need it or miss it. But you will have a great community that gets creative, playing cards (Cambio) or games (Werewolf). You will appreciate the little things in life when you live with 20 other people in a small room with only one toilet and shower. Nobody said it would be easy and we had bad days once, but now we are proud of ourselves and think that this experience is the best of our lives. It opened our eyes to the deforestation of forests and rainforests, the consumption of meat and the killing of endangered species for selling their fur or body parts.
How do you become a volunteer and how can you help now?
If you want to volunteer the best way is to contact them directly over their Website or over Workaway. When the distance is too far for you or right now you don’t have the time to help directly at ONCA in Rurrenabaque you can support them over there Patreon page with some donation. Also check out their YouTube Channel. Follow them so they can earn money in the future with YouTube and you never will miss a new video update from them 🙂
Thanks for your support!!!
P.S.: If you want to see more amazing pictures of the animals check out our Photoinspiration of Bolivia.
When you go to ONCA soon, you should know these useful phrases 😉 :
Fuck you motherfucker
Jungle Juice (Ceibo with water)
I’m a fucking villager
I’m not the fucking wolf
Gracias por cocinar!
Don’t be sorry! Never be sorry!
Mac and Cheese! Mac and Cheese!
No mas (chico/ chica)!
Hola mis amores!
Uuuuuuuh huh huh huh
Apa! Soka! Boira! Mite!