Volunteering to walk a jaguar through the jungle will be going on your to-do list. Yes, it looks a bit dangerous, but no more so than driving the 405 through Los Angeles, in my opinion. The Ambue Ari reserve, located on a remote stretch of road in Bolivia draws an international mix of Americans, Europeans, Israelis and Australians. The adventurous travelers volunteer as caregivers and companions for some of the most exotic and savage beasts on Earth. Those who dare to can hold, pat and play with the wild animals they are caring for.
Ambue Ari is run by the Bolivian animal-rescue organization called Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY). CIWY rescues wild animals like monkeys, birds, pumas, and jaguars from Bolivia’s black market; the animals might come from abusive situations or from well-intentioned people who simply can’t care for them. One of CIWY’s goals is to rehabilitate the animals and, when possible, to release some of them within the park. They promote a practice called “direct contact.” For six to ten hours a day volunteers work directly with the animals.
It’s not your average roadside petting zoo! Volunteers here work hard in tough, isolated jungle conditions with no luxuries. There is no electricity, telephone or even medical facilities. But adventurers are drawn to the price — $10 a day for room and board — and there are no training requirements.
Many animals at Ambue Ari were orphaned, abandoned or seized as illegal pets. These can’t be returned to the wild, so they live in cages. But the idea behind Ambue Ari is to give them as much freedom as humanly possible. The big cats like Rupi get taken on walks four or five hours a day.
The organization is supported by Jane Goodall. Internationally renowned for her dedication and approach to improving the environment, she also has the unique ability to motivate and encourage others who in turn inspire her. In 2006 she chose Juan Carlos Antezana, founder and president of Comunidad Inti Wara Yassias, as one of her heroes.
Jaguarupi, or “Rupi”, (meaning Little Jaguar) is one of five jaguars on the reserve and, ironically, the largest, weighing in at nearly 300 pounds. Rupi gets daily walks in the jungle wearing a collar attached to a rope with three volunteers in tow. Read ABC news anchor, Jeffery Kofman’s, exciting firsthand story of walking with this cat here.
The organization operates five reserves with 2,000 animals, including a few dozen big cats, tropical birds and more than 1,000 monkeys. Juan Carlos says they operate on an annual budget of $1 million. That is a staggering amount in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, where most people live on just a few dollars a day.
This beer-drinking monkey provided the in-house entertainment at a local bar and was rescued by a group of kids and set free. Drunk, disoriented, and dying for a stiff drink, the monkey stumbled back to civilization. It had had no other home, but is now safe and living on the reserve.