Yolosa: It’s quite difficult to conduct a professional interview with someone when there’s a capuchin monkey sitting on your shoulder grabbing at your pen, but I give it my best shot. Vicky Ossio, the owner of one of Bolivia’s four animal refuges, is gamely ignoring the monkey’s antics and giving my questions her full focus. But when a second – this time, a red howler monkey – leaps over to join the pen wrestling, flipping its tail around my neck to hang on, I concede defeat, and put away my pen and pad.
Spider monkeys are cartwheeling across the lawn, leaping on each other’s backs in a black spaghetti of gangly limbs and stringy prehensile tails. Joining the furry entanglement are golden capuchins, one of whom rides in on the back of Vicky’s very tolerant labrador.
The trees surrounding the lawn are dripping with other monkeys of various sorts, and interspersed with primary coloured macaws, which shout encouragement at the lawn monkeys like spectators at a variety show.
It’s a pretty incredible sight. Vicky, me and the couple of European volunteer workers become human props to be scrambled over or surmounted for a better vantage point. The labrador seeks short-lived refuge between Vicky’s legs and a domestic cat slinks past, hissing at curious monkeys in its path. A spider monkey hangs off Nick, pulling faces and generally showing off, making everyone laugh.
This haven of liberated animals began life 6 years ago, when Vicky and her husband Marcelo Levy, originally from La Paz, bought a plot of land in the Amazon basin in Yosola at the foot of the old Death Road. It was intended to be their refuge from the pollution and noise of La Paz, but before long they had extended their home to an assortment of native animals. Their land meets the Death Road – formerly, the only route between the Amazon and La Paz – at a wide layby used by truckers to break the long and dangerous journey. Among the illegally chopped logs, coca leaves for cocaine and bushmeat, their cargo often contains live animals from the Amazon to be sold as pets in El Alto’s markets or exported from the country.
“One day, I spent hours persuading a truck driver to give me the baby spider monkey he intended to sell. I just kept on and on at him until I was such annoyance that he gave in,” Vicky says. “We nursed the creature back to health and that became our first animal. After that, people would alert us to other rainforest animals being kept as pets. Animal SOS, a Bolivian NGO that works with street dogs and cats, started sending us wild animals it confiscated from owners and found in the markets.”
Now, the couple’s La Senda Verde animal refuge has everything from monkeys to snakes to a margay – a small wild cat with jaguar markings and enormous eyes (the largest of any cat) and hips that revolve 180 degrees. Most of the animals are free to roam around once they have been treated for their horrific injuries and neutered. But some, including the margay need to be confined. “The margay was free, but it ate some of the rescue macaws and a baby monkey, so we thought it was best to cage it,” Vicky explains.
Bolivian law forbids the reintroduction of animals to their natural habitat. Most reintroduced animals, especially cats, die within a week, and there is also a fear that human diseases may be carried by the animals to infect their wild counterparts. But much of it is to do with a lack of resources – reintroducing an animal takes enormous amounts of time and preparation, and the country lacks the expertise, according to the government’s wildlife services.
Trade in wild animals is the third biggest illegal economy after arms and drugs, and the problem is growing. Deforestation has accelerated over the past five years as farmers slash and burn forest to grow coca to supply the cocaine industry. Once a coca field is exhausted, farmers burn larger areas in rapid succession. “There used to be forest here with clearings for fruit trees. No there is not enough shade for the orange trees to survive and when it rains, all the soil gets washed away in big floods,” Vicky says.
Cocaine used to be produced in neighbouring countries apart from a few remote factories where workers would tread the leaves by foot, but new imported machinery now enables production even in small apartments in La Paz or Potosí, ramping up supply and demand for the lucrative export drug.
Much of the cocaine industry is run out of La Paz’s notorious San Pedro prison, a complex ‘city’ of criminals who pay rent for their cells and control much of the country’s crime. One trick, is to send scouts to steal the computer-brains of high-end cars, after which the owner gets a call on his cellphone informing him where the item is and how much ransom to bring. Insurance companies rapidly pay the ransom because it’s a factor cheaper than importing an expensive car part. Cocaine produced in the prison is so cheap that anything people choose to cut it with, from baking soda to sugar, is more expensive than cocaine itself.
The industry is linked with the traffic in wild animals: deforested lands lead to a number of casualties – burned animals with surviving young – and increase the vulnerability of those animals left. The animals can be quickly hunted and piled into trucks, in which one in every ten animals caught will survive to be sold. There are said to be three powerful families in La Paz who control the bulk of the country’s wild animal trade. They employ hunters and truck drivers and export to countries including the US, in Europe and the Far East, especially China.
Bolivia’s laws protecting indigenous culture are also helping deplete the country’s wildlife. Communities are allowed to hunt bushmeat for food, to chop forest trees for their own use, but not to sell or trade in forest resources. This would have been a fine plan 50 years ago, but with the increase in guns, in roads connecting remote villages to the possibilities of trade, and a fast-disappearing rainforest, what is happening is a systematic slaughter of everything from monkeys to jaguars to tapirs, not to mention the wholesale destruction of any mahogany still standing. Little of this is actually eaten by the community. Instead, the adults are skinned, their flesh sold as bushmeat, their skins racking a good price, and surviving babies are sold as pets. A spider monkey goes for as little as $100 in the market in El Alto, although the villager who captures it will only get a fraction of that.
Vicky acquires these in various states. Often, the tips of a monkey’s fingers will have been blown off by a shotgun while it was clinging to its mother; many of he rescue animals have bullets still lodged in their bodies or other missing anatomy from eyes to ears.
Walking around the refuge, I see different species of tortoise and turtle – “these come to me with cracked and bleeding mouths, because they can’t cope with the dry altitude in La Paz where they were kept as pets” – and even a caiman.
Crossing a stream, we reach Vicky’s 3000 square metre, spectacled bear enclosure. Inside, the big, 120 kilo Andean bear lumbers around playfully, chasing sticks and eating corn.
He’s 3 years old now, 10 times the size he was when he was rescued from El Alto market as a teddy bear cub, but still not fully grown. Bears are hunted for food and also for their claws, which are hung outside houses as good luck charms. Vicky’s planning to expand his already substantial enclosure so that he can cross the stream. In the wild, spectacled bears roam for 15 kilometres a day. She’s getting advice from Münster Zoo in Germany, which keeps Andean bears, and an expert in the US. There is no one who can advise her in Bolivia.
We watch the bear for a while. Unlike Goldilock’s friends, this one is off his porridge. Paddington Bear liked marmalade sandwiches, I offer, helpfully. But Vicky’s bear is very fussy. He likes bromeliads and mandarins, but turns his nose up at most other fruits.
Vicky and her husband get no support from the government for what has become a full-time job for them both. She has recently opened delightful cabins and built a swimming pool so guests can stay, which helps fund a vet and provide food for the animals. But it’s unsure for how long she can keep accepting animals before she runs out of space and energy. “We were going to enlarge the margay enclosure and build more exciting platforms for he, but I’ve just learnt that two foxes are coming, so we have to build something for them more urgently,” she says.
With enormous reluctance, we leave La Senda Verde, to head further north, to the Amazon proper. Vicky is always short of volunteers to stay at the refuge and help care for the animals. If you’re interested, contact La Senda Verde.