A Travellerspoint blog

Jungle. Part 3. Sama.

I was pretty content working with my puma. But when one of the organisers approached me at the end of our second week to inform me Koru would have to go to half days so that I could take on a second cat in the afternoons I was pretty darn excited. I tried to play it cool but I was over the moon to be given a jaguar to look after as well. I had thought Koru was the coolest cat in the park but Sama is some pretty tough competition. I couldn’t choose a favourite between them if I tried.

Sama has been at the park for a long time, since 1999 when he was less than a year old. I’m not entirely sure where he came from (I think a wealthy family may have been involved who then decided he wasn’t suitable pet material). The Inti Wara Yassi community wanted to release Sama back into the wild, and began the process of getting him ready. They found a nice suitable patch of jungle on the Brazil/Bolivian border where other jaguars were present and obtained permission from both governments for the release. He met all the requirements: could climb, swim and hunt, had all his teeth in good condition, all claws present etc. The last part of the process was to de-humanise him. For this he was transferred to a small cage and essentially terrorised for 6 months so that he would fear humans. Sticks were banged against his cage, loud noises disturbed his sleep – that sort of thing. At the end of the 6 month period Inti Wara Yassi informed the Bolivian government he was ready to go and they turned around and refused to let him out of the country. The Bolivian government basically let him down. Inti Wara Yassi then had to keep a jaguar that was as wild as could be, and terrified of humans.

That was 13 years ago. He’s now in a decent sized cage, but permanently caged nonetheless. At one point a long term volunteer did get Sama out and about onto a runner system and I think also got him walking (without major incident) but when that volunteer left Sama went back into the cage full time.

I certainly wouldn’t want to be attached to him. At times he’s the gentlest creature possible. But at others he’s the fiercest wildest animal I have ever encountered; the fence between us seemingly too flexible and too thin to contain him. He’s got a great jaguar purr and sometimes looks so adorable, but at other times his growls are terrifyingly loud and he’s super quick (despite his age) charging and biting the cage.

Sama likes only one person to be at his cage at any one time, so I didn’t really have a lot of training with the previous volunteer. He showed me how to get to the cage, what path to take and a few other things like what he ate, which key unlocked his sleeping cage and how to isolate him in the main cage so I could clean his sleeping area but that was all that time permitted. When I arrived on my first actual day alone with him I realised I had no idea what the other 5 keys opened on the keychain, or if I was even allowed to go into his main cage (obviously when he’s safely locked in another part). I had spent about an hour with the previous volunteer but it wasn’t until I was by myself that I suddenly thought of tons of questions to ask. So I just got on with it and did what I thought was best.

Sama gets about 3-4 hours of human interaction a day. I tried to make it as interesting as possible. Our “stalk the human” game (his favourite) was really to give him some exercise, running and walking around the cage but I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, him or me. He’s an old boy now, probably older than he would have survived in the wild, but in captivity might have another 10 years in him. Some-days he was more active than others but every day we did at least 5-6 circuits around the cage. Often he would just walk by my side, almost affectionately, rubbing his head against the cage. Other times he would be feisty, running ahead or falling back to stalk up on me. Occasionally he would charge the cage with his claws coming through with his jaw locked onto the wire. He’s lost three teeth doing this in the past. That was the one point that stood out the most from my training with the previous volunteers: “we don’t want him to lose his last big canine”. Luckily I was only worried about that happening a few times. I definitely didn’t want to have to tell the vet that Sama had damaged his last remaining canine on my watch. The vet has a soft spot for Sama: it’s easy to see why.

Sama’s cage is divided into 3 sections:
1. Main cage, where he spends his days. It’s large, has loads of trees and putuhu bushes, a two tired platform and fallen logs. It’s so overgrown I couldn’t actually see more than about 7-8 meters into it at best, so who knows what else is hidden deep inside.
2. Sleeping cage where he gets fed, where his water bowl is and has a wooded house for sleeping. There’s a ladder up to the roof of the house where he likes to gnaw bones.
3. Night time cage – a much smaller version of the main cage that he can assess when locked in the sleeping cage.

At camp if you didn’t have an early morning cat to go to you did a morning task. Both Mike and I were busy with Roy and Koru in the mornings so avoided all manner of unpleasant jobs like cleaning the toilets (score), but someone had the very pleasant task of waking Sama up. Over the years he’s calmed down somewhat, mellowed, but he’s still practically a wild cat and the park take his security very seriously. Every morning a volunteer had to walk the entire way around his main cage to check that no trees or large branches had fallen overnight. It’s possible that if a tree falls onto the cage Sama can climb up the truck and escape. Only when the perimeter had been deemed secure is Sama let out for the day. This is particularly important after heavy rain, heavy wind, lightening or around August time when fires are apparently common. At the end of the day he gets fed in the sleeping cage so while he devours whole chickens or crunches entire joints of meat I would slide down the barrier to his main cage preventing him from going back out there. Not until the morning walk around does he get access to his main cage again. At night time though he has a pond with a log bridge across it and plenty of trees and bushes to roam around in. I always wondered what he got up to when no-one was there, what he did at night? I would have loved to set up a video camera to find out.

One day to entertain Sama I put a cardboard box on his platform as I had read in his “information folder” that he liked them. I only saw him play with it once, and that was to stick his head through the closed part so he looked like he was wearing a lampshade on his head. After that it rained a lot and got all soggy so I’m not sure if he did like it or not? I also read from previous volunteers that he would have the occasional down day and get a bit grumpy. Repeatedly pace up and down in the same spot. Several volunteers wrote he was prone to “grumpy old man” syndrome but I never saw this grumpy jaguar. Cheeky and playful, aggressive and ferocious, but never grumpy.

Before I arrived at the cage I left the meat bucket down the path a bit so he couldn’t smell the meat. Sama would be waiting on his platform, perched, all his attention focused on me. I would call out “hola chico” but he probably heard me several minutes before I emerged from the trail. He could probably smell the meat too; I never knew how far away it needed to be left. I will never forget the first time I approached his cage – suddenly the jungle opened up to reveal the cage and there he was just staring at me. I haven’t seen that many jaguars close up, but he’s one good looking animal. After the initial greetings Sama would come up to the cage for a head scratch. This only started happening in my second week, the first week it was usually growls and cage biting. After that we would walk or run for a bit until he got tired. Eventually he would only go one or two laps then re-treat back onto his platform to rest. I would either take the opportunity to take photos of him or clean up around the cage. Before the end of the day I needed to clean his sleeping cage, replace his hay, scrub or disinfect his eating platform, clean and re-fill his water bowl, remove old bones and sweep the floor. I also obviously had to put his food in there. I would walk back down the trail to retrieve the meat bucket, and every day without fail he would be waiting as close to the cage as possible, body close to the ground staring intently at the bucket. Then he would do the cutest little skip with me down to the sleeping cage, clearly excited. He would wait (rather patiently I thought) while I arranged whatever was on the menu that day on leaves and then close/lock/secure all the necessary trapdoors. Once I had opened the door to the main cage he was straight in. The previous volunteer had told me never to get too close to him while he’s eating as he may think I’m going to steal his food, panic, eat too fast, not chew and therefore choke. Again I didn’t want to have to report on my watch that Sama had chocked on a chicken head so I kept my distance. I learnt the hard way just how close was too close. One day I was packing up and grabbed the empty water bottle which I had left outside the trapdoor to his sleeping cage. Within a tenth of a second he was growling at the cage bars. He was so quick and so loud and so aggressive I actually stumbled backwards completely startled and for a split second forgetting the cage would protect me. A small scream may have escaped from my mouth before I could get “tranquillo” out. Lesson (well and truly) learnt. From then on I sat on a log until he was done and then packed up.

This is fast becoming another very long blog entry. There’s still a lot I haven’t talked about, but I hope you get the general idea of what it was like to look after a caged cat, my jaguar Sama. He's an amazing cat and I absolutely loved looking after and playing with him.

Mike will be following this up with part 4 of the jungle: his story about Roy (another very long entry but again with so much left unsaid). Then back to the business of travelling north: leaving Bolivia, arriving in Peru and the long anticipated visit to Machu Picchu.

Keely

Sama

Sama

Posted by Mike.Keely 05:58 Archived in Bolivia Comments (2)

Jungle. Part 2. Koru

Koru was rescued from the military when he was about 6 months old. His exact age is a bit uncertain but he’s estimated to be about 5-6 years old now. The military kept him on a short leash and fed him only pasta; the fact that puma’s are carnivores completely escaping their attention. Because of this he has long term problems with digestion, requiring daily medication. Apart from that he is one of the youngest, fittest and healthiest cats in the park (and definitely one of the better looking too, but I’m a bit biased I suppose). A typical day will see him running, stalking animals, climbing trees, jumping over logs or crossing water ways. Other days he will be more ‘tranquillo’ (calm), but no two days are ever the same. We affectionately call him “KoruKat” and sometimes “chico”, “amigo”, or “buddy”. He’s one of the most active cats in the park, sometimes walking 6, 7 or 8 hours a day so anyone assigned to him needs to be on top form.

6. Adorable

6. Adorable

7. He's paw-fect

7. He's paw-fect

I was actually very surprised to be given a puma, and a walking puma to boot. Not all the cats in the park are walking cats, some only have runner systems and some are permanently caged so I scored big time with Koru. I had assumed I would be given a smaller ‘easier’ to handle cat and when I say assumed I really mean “desperately hoped” for. Any cat, didn’t have to be a walking cat, or an active cat, just a cat. To spend a month in the jungle and not be assigned a cat would have been a cruel cruel torture.

Koru is Maori for “new beginning” or “new start”, and that’s just what the park has given him. His cage, if I’m completely honest, is way too small for him, but his trails are the best in the park. Most cats have a circular trail, maybe even two or three different ones, but Koru has 8 different trails, all inter-connecting. Learning which was which was one of the most challenging aspects of working with Koru: when you first start one part of the jungle looks exactly the same as another. But over time I began to recognise certain features of different trails. Loop 3 became my favourite, because of 3 fallen logs all positioned over the top of each other creating a tree jungle gym. New fire was my least favourite because of the swamp like undergrowth and mosquitoes. I also liked the mountain trail, and not just because Koru liked to rest, and sometimes even sleep up there, but because I liked to think of Koru as the king of the jungle, sitting on his rock surveying his kingdom. It’s perhaps a title he will one day grow into – at the moment he displays too many adolescent and goofy qualities, typical of the youngster he is. Just a giant house cat really: one giant adorable cat.

8. Top log on loop 3

8. Top log on loop 3

9. More loop 3 logs

9. More loop 3 logs

Koru is no-where near as affectionate as you would think, after having been around people for most of his life at the park. On arrival at this cage every morning we sit quietly with our hands through the cage wire and wait for him to come over and say hello. He will walk back and forth so that we can brush our hands over his head, body and tail as he passes. Sometimes he’ll only come over once or twice, other times quite a few times. Sometimes he’ll stop for a head scratch, or a wee tickle under the chin, sometimes even a lick but these moments, although frequent, are always short. When he starts pacing along one side of the cage we know he’s ready and wants to come out for walking. Then it’s a process of opening up the double doors and attaching two carabiners/ropes to him.

Koru can go from ‘affectionate’ to ‘excited’ in the blink of an eye. Never aggressive, just super playful and enthusiastic. Outside of the cage giving Koru affection is on a “at your own risk” basis. We pick and choose our moments when we’re walking. If his tail is flicking but he looks pretty chilled, he’s probably not, if he’s lying down but not sleeping it’s probably safe to approach. It took me until the second week to catch and hold his tail while walking, the third week to pat his back and the fourth to scratch his head and under his chin. All the time though I was cautions and watching, with my partner having a tight grip on the ropes (just in case).

11. Ready to pounce ....

11. Ready to pounce ....

12. Play time

12. Play time

13. I'm watching you

13. I'm watching you

The Koru we all know and love is a bit of a numpty though. He has amazing ball skills; he can grab a ball out of a tree but then can’t finish in style. He either just drops and looks stunned for a second or simply crash lands onto his back. Even when you take the ball element away his finishing skills are still lacking. I’ve seen him climb a tree (admittedly quite a narrow one), perhaps on a 60 degree angle and then not know how to climb back down again. Turning around and walking back down wasn’t going to happen – he’s not that talented in the balance department yet – so he flopped upside down for a few seconds dangling by all four paws, then the back ones fell away so he’s just dangling by his front claws. When this got too much he simple fell, landing on his back. He might have used up one of his nine lives but I hope not because I saw him do the exact same thing not once but twice, and in the same tree too. Like I said, a numpty, but an adorable numpty none the less.

1. He looks .....

1. He looks .....

2. He jumps .....

2. He jumps .....

3. But how will he land

3. But how will he land

4. Flying through the air

4. Flying through the air

5. How are you going to get down KoruKat

5. How are you going to get down KoruKat

Koru is always attached to two people on ropes that are about 7 meters long. We walk fairly close behind him normally but give him the full length of the rope if he wants to go exploring either side of the trail, into bushes, or up trees. He has certain places that he likes to sharpen his claws on, or sniff around in. He’s only allowed to climb trees that have no braches otherwise the danger of him hanging himself is too high. The only time we ever ‘pull’ the rope is to stop him climbing the wrong tree, or if he takes a liking to your partner and wants to ‘play’ which actually means wants to ‘jump’. With Koru though this is extremely infrequent – he was only overly excited and ‘jumpy’ on one day and that followed three days of no walking because of extremely heavy rain. When Koru rushes into the bushes we split apart, one person going forward, one going backward, thus preventing him from running straight into one of us. When he re-emerges we coil the rope back up until he passes the person who went forward, giving him the lead once again. It’s a safety thing and he’s one of only a few cats in the park on a constant two rope, split protocol. The jungle is his domain – he’s free to walk any trail as many times as he likes: there are only two rules. 1. If he starts a trail he must finish it, and 2. He can’t turnaround. The only exception is if he kills something or encounters something odd in the jungle – then you can turn around immediately and head back to the cage. Koru will most likely take hours to either finish playing with said kill and/or not want to leave the strange area so turning around as soon as possible is vital in getting back to camp before dark.

When Koru gets interested in something that we can neither hear nor see it's both a frightening and exciting experience. He stops, poised, tail down, ears forward twitching, ready to charge. Before we really know what’s happening we’re tearing off down the trail jumping over logs and swerving past trees, water usually splashing everywhere. If Koru stops, we stop. If an animal tears off away from the trail we have to be super quick to split the ropes and make sure we don’t allow him to pull us off trail, or turn back and attack one of us. He can run a hell of a lot faster than I can – I was terrified I would fall over but luckily I never did. He’s only ever caught one animal in his life – a tejone – but came close on a few other occasions when I was around. Without a doubt we’re a huge pain in the butt to him, slowing him down and preventing him from going too far from the trail.

In my second week, Koru had a great opportunity to practice his hunting skills. We couldn’t see the animal at first, but then two eyes straight ahead appeared on the trail. I thought it was another cat, albeit a very small one, but it was actually a fox. Koru and the fox stared at each other for a few seconds before Koru gave chase. We tore after him (luckily more or less in a straight line along the trail) at full speed. I was running literally as fast as I could, the ropes at full length taut, straining and propelling me forward. The fox made a lucky escape, aided by a patch of water. Koru doesn’t like water – the patch of water and reeds the fox escaped into we had already nicknamed “protest puddle” because of the performances Koru makes before eventually going into the water. Sometimes he would pace up and down, sometimes he would rip nearby bushes out in frustration, sometimes he would try to go around or use any tree or log to his advantage before finally submitting and getting his paws wet. Every day was the same. Two or three days later we were approaching the same area but from the other side, Koru doing his usual protest. However that day turned out to be unlike any other. When we were still in the water, almost at the other side, Koru became excited. By water? What was going on? That was strange. I saw the fox before my partner did, but not before Koru did. Koru fished the fox, now dead and bloated, out of the puddle triumphantly. He seemed to think he had killed it himself and proceeded to play with it. My first reaction was that perhaps the fox had died from poison (not sure where that idea came from) because surely any other wild animal in the jungle would eat something it killed? Right? The fox had some kind of wound on his head but was otherwise whole. We dragged Koru off the fox, just in case, but Koru had already become petrified of it, backing away from it. We then had the ordeal of getting Koru back to his cage; this took us just under 3 hours. First we had to cross protest puddle again (difficult on even a good day), then he didn’t want to leave the general area, then he insisted on resting and licking himself clean for minutes on end repeatedly the entire way home. At one point he curled himself into a tight little ball and dozed off. The fox we threw into the jungle so Koru didn’t have to walk past it again. Well Lock (my partner) did. The next day we (well Lock) retrieved the fox and carried it back to camp for disposal. So ‘protest puddle’ became ‘fox puddle’ from then on. It didn’t make crossing any easier for Koru. Lock and I were both a bit freaked out that the fox turned up dead in the exact same place that we say it only days earlier. But the question is? What killed it? Was it a wild cat? And was it still in the area?

10. Protest or fox puddle

10. Protest or fox puddle

If we needed more evidence that wild cats roam the jungle, and probably circle Koru’s cage at night, then this is it: Koru loves poo! He can spend minutes rolling around in it, sniffing it. Mostly he only encounters monkey poo but on two occasions he found some wild ocelot poo, apparently his favourite. I have a video of Koru not just rolling in cat poo, but getting his face in there, rubbing the poo all over himself, his head, neck, ears, paws. Everywhere. All over his collar and the carabiners we have to clip on and off his collar. We showed the video to the vet in camp and he thought it was probably an ocelot’s business. It’s quite a gross video, and unfortunately too long to upload for the blog. Koru rolled in the cat poo for well over 10 minutes. The second time he got his tongue in there and licked it all up. I would hate to think what would happen if Koru ever met a wild cat while out walking in the jungle: I suspect he would run away and hide, but still I wouldn’t want to be attached to him and find out.

Just when I was starting to really enjoy myself it was time to leave. Had we not had places to go and only 3 ½ weeks left we might have even extended our stay. Once we got over the initial shock of living in the jungle it wasn’t really that bad and time just flew in the 3rd and 4th weeks.

Koru is an amazing cat and I definitely enjoyed working with him. I think about him all the time and hope he’s doing good, behaving for the next volunteers. I wonder if he’s made another kill, or if that wild ocelot has left him alone yet. I hope he gets a new, larger cage soon and that his digestion problems resolve. I hope to see him again one day, and perhaps for him to remember me. I will certainly remember him, and all his little quirks.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvN0Jf2rds4
Koru walking across logs, getting his paws wet and jumping

Big eyes means he's interested

Big eyes means he's interested

Cat walker, typical junlge scene

Cat walker, typical junlge scene

What the jungle looks like

What the jungle looks like

What are you sniffing KoruKat

What are you sniffing KoruKat

Not a cat to be messed with

Not a cat to be messed with

Keely

P.S. Again can't take all the credit for the photos - thanks Lock (aka Sledgend)

Posted by Mike.Keely 17:14 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Jungle. Part 1. Highlights and lowlights

30 days at Ambue Ari Animal Park, Bolivia

Describing what the past month has been like for us is going to be an impossible task. So many good experiences, but so many bad ones as well. With no experience necessary, volunteers always needed and everybody welcome we never really thought about NOT giving it a go. That is, until we met a traveller who had recently been kicked out of the park. He had quite a few bad things to say, but then again he also broke the rules by smoking weed, so he was an absolute idiot anyway. We had no idea what to expect but for the chance to work with and look after a puma or an ocelot or even a jaguar we were prepared to put up with a few hardships, forgo a few luxuries and do the odd bit of manual labour. Neither of us was quite prepared for what we found at Ambue Ari Park, even allowing for having the absolute lowest of expectations. It certainly didn’t help that our arrival coincided with the end of 3 days of continual torrential rain. Absolutely everything was covered with mud or dripping wet and that included all the people, all the dorm rooms, every single item of clothing and a fair few of the animals also. Little did we know at the start, but torrential rain would be an almost constant companion for at least half of our stay. The dry season it most definitely was not.

But first let me explain where we’ve been: 6 hours north of Santa Cruz, deep in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon jungle is an animal rehabilitation park called Ambue Ari, one of three parks that make up the Inti Wara Yassi community. The nearest town (and by this we really mean a collection of small shacks and shops) is a 45 minute bus ride away. There’s no electricity (well apart from a generator that runs a couple of hours a day to charge phones/ipods etc), no hot water, dorms rooms with no walls – just netting supports, no alcohol, and no flushing toilets. But it is also home to 26 cats; mostly pumas, 6 jaguars, a few ocelots and one Brazilian wildcat. It was for this reason alone that we chose this particular park over the other two where the conditions are certainly better but can’t offer the same feline experiences that we were after. Inti Wara Yassi provides home to a variety of abandoned, abused and neglected animals, not just cats. Almost every cat in the park had a difficult start in life before finding a loving and care-free home at the park. Cats rescued from the circus, the military, the wealthy and even some zoos are cared for, as well as an assortment of other animals. My favourite non-feline animal was most definitely Herbie the tapier; a cross between an elephant and a hippopotamus. Mike’s favourite non-feline animal was a close tie between the night monkeys and a parrot called Gordo, see the video of Mike talking “parrot” with him below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzdO1tT4gyc
Mike speaks Parrot

We arrived at the park on a Friday night but had to wait until Sunday to find out what cats (if any, nothing is guaranteed) we would be working with. Those first few days were a strange mixture of nervous excitement, apprehension, intense anxiety, adjustment and learning the ways of the jungle.

For every incredible “pinch me, is this real?” moment there was an equally devastating “get me out of here” moment in the month that followed. It seems unlikely I can do the experience justice here; I can barely organise my thoughts on the whole month in my own head, let along record them with any sense or skill here. So what follows are some of the highs and lows, in no particular order:

High: Receiving a lick from mu puma Koru on my second day. It meant he had accepted me, in record time, and I could continue to look after him. Over time I was able to hand feed him grass, pat his head and tickle him under the chin and, my favourite, hold his tail as we walked through the jungle together.

KoruKat

KoruKat

High: We met some fantastic people, all at the park for the same reason we were: the cats. Friday night was party night – a chance to have a few drinks and unwind away from camp. Our first Friday was a bit of a shock – it seemed the object was to get as drunk as possible as fast as possible. Alcohol is banned in the park so all the drinking is done in a place called Santa Maria, a 15 minute hitchhike ride away. We kinda thought it would be a dry month but could not have been more wrong. Friday nights were great fun and by our last one we were swigging back the rum with the best of them. All part of keeping one’s sanity in the jungle. A proper full size bottle of rum (if you can call it that) cost about 14bs (that’s a wopping £1.40!), so at least it was a cheap night. One Friday night will be remembered for the auction the park held – all manner of stuff was up for grabs such as a visit to a cat you don’t work with, cooked breakfast for a week, no jobs for a week, not having to clean the toilet ever, or a personal slave for a day etc. Another Friday night will be remembered for the “cup competition”. Essentially a team of 8 all skull a drink, then flip the cup from an upright position to an upside down position on a table edge. The second person in line can’t start until the person in front has completed the task. The teams were America/Israel/French Canada vs. Australasia and Britain/Europe vs. Australasia. The ANZAC’s lost both times although Mike and I each got complemented on the speed of our drinking skills.

Ambue Ari - The gang on auction night

Ambue Ari - The gang on auction night

Friday night, party night

Friday night, party night

Low: Rats. Firstly finding poo absolutely everywhere: on the ladder up to my bunk, on my bed, on food containers, on the tables, in bags and all over the kitchen; literally everywhere. Secondly hearing rats all night long as they scurry along beams, across floors or over our mosquito nets and let’s not forget the frequent baby making attempts which was definitely the worst noise of all! All in all this led to many a sleepless night. Thirdly actually feeling a rat crawl across my shoulder; true event, but luckily only happened the once. Fourthly knowing a rat attacked one of the house Toucan’s but luckily the bird lives on. And finally finding chewed holes in clothes, back packs and even a dry-bag, even when no food had ever been anywhere near these items; frustrating and gross. The only ‘good’ rat news we have is an awesome video of the Brazilian wildcat being fed and playing with a baby rat – one of five that was found in a nest outside our dorm.

High: Playing “stalk the human” with my caged jaguar Sama. I would walk around his cage while he crept up behind me. If I waited at the corners he would ever so slowly advance, and at the last moment charge the cage. Then we would run together down the next section but if he got too far ahead of me, he would look back, realise I’m not right behind him and wait for me to catch up. Then we would walk side by side for a while until the “stalk the human” game started again. In this manner Sama and I would do perhaps 7 laps of his cage every afternoon. I never got tired of it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUtFGn8z2kI
Stalk the human with Sama, bear with the video - it gets good at about the 1 minute stage

High: Seeing Mike at the end of each day, and sharing with each other stories about our respective cats. What they had done that day, affection given, trees climbed, animals chased, injuries sustained, paths walked etc. After over 6 months of practically spending every minute of every day together it was nice to have different experiences to share with one another. At the park you only have contact with the cat or cats you are responsible for, so I didn’t meet Roy or see the river he swam in. Likewise Mike was unable to even see Koru, let alone play football with him. But I looked forward to hearing Mike’s accounts of Roy and the progress he made day by day.

Low: Not being able to wear insect repellent was pretty tough. The cats react badly to the chemicals; some have even had bad reactions to citronella so to avoid any toxicity we either wear two or sometimes three layers of clothing or get hundreds of bites. Even with multiple layers, a head net, gloves and gumboots we both got eaten alive. Luckily there hasn’t been a case of malaria in the area for a few years now, but even still we took our beloved Lariam anti-malarial medication just to be on the safe side. Our hands suffered the most – they still look horrendous. Applying alcohol gel before meals was torture indeed.

High: Every now and then it became necessary to “walk the trails” before taking the cats out in the jungle to make sure no trees or vines had fallen overnight and the trail was still passable for the animals. This happened twice while we were there after some pretty bad storms. The first time this happened, myself and two other people headed out to Koru’s trails to discover an enormous tree, probably close on 12 meters long had fallen across the path. It took the best part of two hours for the three of us to hack away at the surrounding jungle with machetes to create a new path through that area. In the end we were able to use the fallen log as part of the trail; Koru would be able to walk the length of the fallen log jumping over it at the end. The first time Koru went down that trail and seeing him jump up and along the tree was so awesome. I had helped to create a new “feature” for him, to enrich his environment and to encourage him to improve his climbing skills.

Koru sees one of his toys in the distance and comes over to check it out

Koru sees one of his toys in the distance and comes over to check it out

High: Each cat has different needs. Most cats are on some sort of medication, to remedy the effects of past ill-treatment, mal nourishment or simply old age, as the cats often live much longer in the park than they would in the wild (up to around 20 in captivity, whilst 12-13 in the wild for a Puma). Mike’s puma Roy needed medication for arthritis and the way Mike gave it to him was ground up and disguised in mince balls. These he hand-fed through the cage wire, Roy gently licking any left-over mince from his fingers. I was, and still am, so incredible jealous of this. Had I tried to hand feed Koru anything other than grass I would have lost a hand for sure. But Roy was different and for Mike this was a real highlight.

Roy

Roy

Low: A Norwegian guy at camp, Stig (that’s his real name but we were sadly disappointed to see he did not wear a helmet!) was working with a puma called Yuma. On his third day he went into the jungle for the mornings work. Yuma was a half day cat, and only required a single volunteer so Stig should have been back at camp for lunch at 12.30. By 1pm the search began. By 3pm the search party had increased to 10 people. By 6pm everyone was pretty worried, it getting dark and all. The jungle is not a friendly place to be lost or injured or both, especially with a puma attached to you. It took over 6 hours to find him; he was more than 5km away from where he should have been. He had been lost in the jungle for 8 hours, but both he and Yuma were totally fine, if slightly shaken by the whole experience. Yuma had charged after an animal off trail and Stig couldn’t find the trail again. After walking through the jungle for more than an hour he realised he was lost. That was at 10am in the morning. When Stig got back to camp, exhausted, dirty, tired and hungry he said he “had made peace with death in the jungle”. I will never forget that moment; the look on his face, the relief, the gratitude. I can’t even begin to imagine what thoughts were running through his head, and of his girlfriend’s, for those hours.

High: Playing football with a Puma. Koru would chase after the ball if you kicked it to him; sometimes he even pawed it back! We placed the ball 4 meters high in a tree, and he could jump up to get it down. So agile, so fast, so playful. Koru had three main “toys”: the football, a bottle attached to a long stick, and another bottle that we could throw to him. At first it was the most un-nerving thing to get Koru interested in the toy in your hand, to see him come stalking or charging at you at full speed. His eyes would be locked on you until the very last second before the “toy” in question became his primary focus. As we got to know each other better, I became more confident with the toys, but it still made me a little nervous. Koru is attached to a ‘runner’ when we play with him like this, a long rope attached to two trees with a second rope attached to him. He can roam about 6 meters either side of the runner, more if he uses the bungie elasticity to his advantage. Going into his “runner space” always requires extreme caution.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pWl9dwn9hY
Koru's ball skills

Low: Tragedy occurred in our third week. Not wanting to go into too much detail, suffice to say that one of the pumas died. After a life of constant battles and medical problems, a miscommunication basically resulted in a fatal medical complication. I think it was the first time anything like that had happened in the park, everyone was naturally devastated by the news. The sight of Marco, the head chief of the park at the time, breaking down into tears when trying to tell us will stay with me forever. Needless to say camp morale took a hammering for a few days afterwards.

High: Gaining the trust and affection of my jaguar Sama. He’s the wildest and fiercest cat in the park so to be able to pat his head through the cage, very quickly before retracting my hand, and one time being able to stroke his back, was incredible. I didn’t think that would be possible but he seemed to really like me. Probably wanted to eat me, but he had a real gentle side to him also. He even allowed me to squirt some medication onto his chin, where a scar from a chin operation was failing to heal. As a special treat I would give him an egg every now and then – he could rip my throat apart in seconds but to crack an egg he very gently pressed his nose against the shell – it was the cutest thing to see. Every afternoon at 2pm he would be waiting for me, perched on his platform, watching me emerge from the jungle surrounding his cage. The first thing I would do when I saw him was call out “hola Sama, hola chico”, then sit on a little wooden seat a previous volunteer had constructed. After a few minutes of initial growling, Sama would eventually come and say hello, allowing me to reach in and pat his head.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KOqzBVW5Dk
Sama: Growl vs Purr

Low: It was meant to be the dry season but Mother Nature had other ideas. It was raining when we arrived, it was raining when we left but we did get some great weather in-between. Unfortunately the jungle is a wet environment so many of the trails we walked were flooded and stayed flooded for the whole time. To even get to Koru’s cage required a 30 minute walk, some of it down the road before turning off into the jungle for a bit. Most days the water level would be above gumboot height though. Having wet feet for 30 days was not ideal, walking around with puddles of water in the gumboots for 6 + hours at a time was not ideal, nor was the infected blister that required daily dressings and antibiotics that I got on the 3rd day (before I found the perfect pair of gumboots). Talcum powder and buying new socks made all the difference though. Mike had a bit of a problem finding the perfect pair of gumboots, what with him having rather large feet. He managed to inherit a pair off another volunteer Paul who had to leave early. They were almost the right size – bit of a performance to get them on every day though! Lol. (Paul, he fell off the roof of a taxi on his way back from the pub on a Friday night, aka party night destroying most of the skin down one side of his body. Riding on the roof of a taxi was a common occurrence, at least until Paul’s accident. Don’t worry Mum; I never rode on the roof). Also my foot infection was preferable to the countless fungal infections others suffered from. Anti-fungal cream was worth gold in camp, but luckily neither Mike or I needed to beg, borrow or steal any. Checking ourselves for ticks was another part of the jungle we could have lived without. At final count Mike: 2, Me: 1. Gross!

Mike off to see Roy in the rain

Mike off to see Roy in the rain


Typical camp scene, gumboots and dirty wet clothes

Typical camp scene, gumboots and dirty wet clothes

High: The volunteers who introduced Mike to Roy were a little wary to give him affection and advised Mike to be cautious also. Roy had been a difficult cat in the past, un-predicable and at times aggressive – getting “jumped” was just part of working with him apparently. It was for this reason that only men are assigned to Roy. However, Mike and his walking partner Cedric made a distinct effort to, in certain places/times, increase the amount of affection given to Roy. It took a few days, but eventually Roy really responded to the affection and by the end of their month was often initiating the patting episodes himself. Not to be under-estimated though, Roy got the last laugh by pushing Mike into the river towards the end of our month. As Mike tells the story Roy had come in for some affection, so Mike willing gave him a pat. Roy got a bit excited though and started to jump up, which would have been perfectly OK had the water level not been so high. Instead of merely stumbling a bit down the bank, Mike lost his footing and fell backwards, completely submerging himself in the water. When Mike came up for air Roy was looking down at him, for Mike a truly vulnerable position to be in, but Mike swears Roy had a very crafty look on his puma face. Cheeky bugger! I thought it was hilarious, wished I could have seen it happen, and was gutted to find out that Cedric (Mike’s partner) had been filming the affection and patting bit, but dropped the camera instantly when he realised Roy was about to jump Mike and so missed the best bit.

There's a good kitty cat, Mike with Roy

There's a good kitty cat, Mike with Roy

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AA8biJLYokg
Roy goes swimming

Low: Bolivia has a problem with Yellow Fever with an outbreak of the disease killing three of the park’s monkey’s (one while we were there, two just before we arrived). Any monkey found dead in the jungle had to be brought back to camp for testing. Pretty grim stuff. Luckily both Mike and I never found any dead monkeys.

High: DIY. Sama doesn’t like having more than one person at his cage at any one time. Two people make him aggressive and it’s difficult to calm him down afterwards. He also likes seeing the same person each day, so when some maintenance needed to be done on his cage it was me, and me alone who had to deal with it. To any-one else this would probably be a simple task, but let’s be honest – I’m not really the handy kind of girl. So check me out: I used a bolt cutter, replaced a rusty lock, removed corrugated iron from his cage (we wrap it around trees so he can’t climb up and escape), cleaned carabinas and cleared fallen vines. It might not sound like much, but for me it’s so far removed from my usual skill set and I felt good doing everything that was needed.

Sama's platform and cage

Sama's platform and cage

Dinner time for Sama

Dinner time for Sama

High and low: The jungle can be both a blessing and a curse. On a good day, early in the morning, sunlight streamed through the canopy above reflecting off dew. Brilliant blue cobalt or orange butterflies fluttered around. Every shade of green represented, from a dull dark to a vivid florescent. The jungle humming with the sounds of insects, monkeys and birds. The temperature just perfect and the puma attached to me behaving perfectly. At these times, most of my mind would be on the Puma, but the rest would be free to wander and enjoy the peace and serenity of it all. The jungle can have a certain magical fairy-tale feel to it; like the jungle book only Bolivian style. On a bad day, when we’re running behind schedule and really need to get the puma back to the cage so we can have some lunch, finally, the jungle is not so magical. When it’s raining and every layer I’m wearing is soaked, or when the constant ‘buzz’ of hundreds of mosquitos is driving me mad, or after I’ve wiped my face for the millionth time because I’ve walked through another spider’s web. Or after almost stepping on a tarantula. At these times the jungle is nothing but frustrating. But we took the good with the bad and all things considered the good far outweighed the bad.

There’s still so much more to say. Noticeably absent are descriptions of our respective cats, their personalities, problems or how they came to be at the park in the first place. These will be in the next blogs: what it was like to walk a puma, how to use the ropes, learning the trails, and what it felt like to be attached to a puma when it decided to climb a tree or chase after an animal. There’s also a great story which I will let Mike tell about Roy that involves a snake.

The jungle was an incredible experience. We got to work with, care for and walk puma’s. I got to pat a wild (but caged jaguar). No-where else in the world would this be possible, but in Bolivia, a county we have fallen in love with. Fact – it was difficult at times. The first week was really tough, but the second week we found ourselves enjoying more and more, and the last two weeks just sped by. If we didn’t have places to go and flights to catch hundreds and hundreds of miles north, we MAY have been persuaded to stay longer. True: we were delighted when our 30 days were up, even more delighted with we reached civilisation again. But also true: the jungle will always have a special place in our hearts, as will our beautiful cats Koru, Roy and Sama.

Keely

P.S. Can't take credit for any of the Koru videos or photos - thanks Lock!

P.P.S We tried not to double up with the photos on Facebook. We will add a few more photos here of our cats in the next few blog entries, promise.

Posted by Mike.Keely 16:12 Archived in Bolivia Comments (2)

Fun times in La Paz

Bikes, parties and immigration

all seasons in one day

Day 1 was spent recovering from another horrifically long and uncomfortable over-night bus. Uyuni to La Paz took 11 hours on what was supposed to be a mostly paved road but was actually 90% ginormous pot holed dirt roads, and 10% badly paved roads. Added to this misery was one of our seats not reclining to the proper ‘semi-cama’ position. 3 hours of hauling on the handle and a few sore fingers later and the seat finally was behaving!

Day 2 was spent doing what we always do first in a new city – go for a walking tour of the main tourist areas. This is somewhat more difficult in La Paz than in other cities due to its staggering 3660m altitude. Just breathing was noticeably difficult, and the number of steep streets far outnumbers the flat ones. Who builds a city inside a canyon anyway? Of particular interest was the witches market (declined the temptation to buy a llama foetus) and the craft market (very colourful). It felt good to be back in a large(ish) city again although La Paz isn’t as big as we thought it would be. You see some strange things on the streets: a balaclava clad jewellery seller takes the cake though. So dodgy! In the evening we headed to the movies and for £2.30 why not? Love Bolivia. Then it was time to see what the night-life situation was like, rolling into bed well past 3am.

9. Sleeping on the job

9. Sleeping on the job

10. What colour trousers do you want

10. What colour trousers do you want

Day 3 was largely spent at the tourist police station, British Embassy and immigration office as we sorted out our visas. We got 30 days on arrival but to do our volunteering in the jungle needed to extend this to 90 days. Normally this would be a relatively easy process but seeing how we had managed to misplace our immigration forms had a few days of anxiety while we contemplated just how much of a ‘fine’ we would have to pay to get new immigration forms. Getting a police report for our lost forms was easy enough (we (think we) left them in the immigration office in Sucre trying to sort the visas there). Getting new immigration forms was also really easy. And finally extending our visas was surprisingly really easy. No problem, no questions, no hassle and no fine. Result. After that we had a celebratory “Gonzo” ice-cream as we were so pleased with ourselves followed in the evening by quite possibly the best steak I’ve ever had (and yes that does include the steaks we had in Argentina!). 400g of flame grilled Jack Daniels goodness. Delicious!

8. We love Gonzo

8. We love Gonzo

Day 4 was all about adrenaline, adventure and awesome-ness. Biking down the ‘world’s most dangerous road’ doesn’t seem like a good idea but let me tell you it was great fun. Decked out in waterproof jackets and trousers, elbow pads, knee pads, full face helmets and gloves we were ready to go biking. The highlight of the day was cycling underneath waterfalls (the quality of the video is less than perfect, but you get the general idea. Mike is the 2nd rider, I’m the 5th). Our only slight disappointment was the terrible weather which prevented us from seeing the valley views in all their splendour. But the mist obscuring the 300-400m sheer drop off may have been a blessing in disguise; not being able to see how far we would plummet to our deaths had we gone over the side probably made the biking down the narrow rocky road that much easier. The bikes were excellent though, dual suspension and top quality brakes. Just what was needed. Didn’t stop Mike from getting a puncture but one of our guides had to all patched up in less than 5 minutes.

The photos and video were taken by our guides; the quality is a bit suspect but I hope you get the general idea. The videos will have to wait - not enough time to wait for them to upload!!!! Grr!!!!

1. Before

1. Before

2. My 'small helmut' padded with extra foam still feels massive

2. My 'small helmut' padded with extra foam still feels massive

3. Half way down

3. Half way down

4. The scariest bit

4. The scariest bit

5. After, I'm on the left, Mike's MIA

5. After, I'm on the left, Mike's MIA

6. Back view, covered with mud

6. Back view, covered with mud

7. Front view, covered with mud

7. Front view, covered with mud

Day 5 we didn’t achieve much, being the day after another huge night out, this time rolling into bed just before 5am. The night life in La Paz isn’t particularly awesome but the people we were hanging out with are. So thanks to Matt, Max, Sharne, Trish, Kath and Pete for another great night out. Good times with good people.

Day 6 saw us recommencing our tourist activities. First with a hike to a viewpoint with stunning views of the city and mountains, followed by a spot of shopping (we need clothes we can destroy working in the jungle). We walked by the famous San Pedro prison but weren’t tempted (at all) to go for a ‘tour’ inside. It probably would have been perfectly legitimate but I for one wasn’t about to test it.

11. Typical La Paz street

11. Typical La Paz street

12. La Paz

12. La Paz

13. More La Paz

13. More La Paz

Day 7 (how had a week gone by already?) was another day of achieving next to nothing; mainly because we were both feeling decidedly average. Nooooooo – we absolutely can’t get sick before going to the jungle for a month. With bus tickets already bought we soldiered on, checked out and waited for the 16 hour overnight bus journey to begin. Wah!!!!

L – Lazy days (hanging out with friends in the hostel garden, drinking mate and chatting).
A – Alcohol (the strongest drinks EVER, in all of South America).

P – Protests (every day, police with riot shields, crazy streets, dynamite explosions but totally peaceful).
A – Altitude (a week spent at 3660m).
Z – Zzzzzzzz (some of the most comfortable beds in South America can be found at ‘Bacoo’ Hostel).

Keely

P.S. This will be our last update for a month. Tomorrow we head deep deep into the Bolivian jungle for what will hopefully be one of the highlights of our trip. Never fear though, I’ve got a notebook and a pencil and every intention of taking notes; the better to recall what life looking after a Puma is like. Stay tuned, and see you back here soon…………….

Posted by Mike.Keely 16:47 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Un-Bolivia-Able Part 2

Are we still even on Earth?!

To be honest I’m not sure the following words of mine are really all that necessary, as they simply won’t do the experience justice BUT I’ll give it a shot anyway. This trip involved spending the best part of four days in southern Bolivia, starting in Tupiza and finishing in Uyuni which is located on the perimeter of the famous salt plains, or Salar de Uyuni to refer to them by their proper name.

We departed Tupiza in the early morning in a 4x4 jeep, along with 3 other ladies that had been grouped with us by the tour agency. As soon as the tour commenced, we started climbing some fairly steep mountains and before we had reached 4,500m and were all feeling just a little light headed and woozy in the jeep! The scenery and landscapes encountered on the first day weren’t actually all that spectacular, well certainly not in relation to what we would see on the remaining days anyway. The highlight of the first day was probably ascending a rather sketchy road that skirted the edge of a fairly steep canyon, and chasing numerous llamas and alpacas off the roads! We also visited the ruins of an old mining village that is now deserted apart from some strange rodent/rabbit things running around. According to our guide (Spanish speaking only) some sort of tragic accident occurred which is why the village was abandoned. Unfortunately none of our tour could understand Spanish well enough to understand exactly what he was saying, but judging by the state of the ruins it happened quite some time ago. We eventually arrived at our very basic accommodation well after sundown, and hit the sack after a quick dinner.

Day two commenced with us visiting a small but perfectly heated thermal pool! Having a spa whilst at 4,000m was a fantastic experience, but sadly we only had about 20mins with which to enjoy the water. Even though it was a very quick spa, we all left feeling extremely relaxed and ready for some new scenery. This area contains quite a few lagoons, and we shortly arrived at a rather large lagoon which was home to approx 1,000 flamencos. En route to the lagoon we drove along a road flanked by landscapes which felt almost alien. Having not been to the moon yet I can’t say this for sure, but it felt distinctly lunar here, well apart from the snow-capped mountains in the background that is. The next stop reminded us of home a lot, well Rotorua at least, as we arrived at an area with geysers. To be fair they weren’t as good as Rotorua as the geysers only seemed to emit steam rather than tall jets of water, but you could walk right amidst the pools which was a nice touch, and you could even stand right in the middle of the steam clouds. Keely took some convincing, which is why the photo below has her running away from the steam! After the geysers we reached firstly Lagoona Verde, which had amazing turquoise coloured water, followed by Lagoona Colorada, which was a deep red colour. Contrary to my explanation which was tons of flamenco shit, the colour actually comes from an algae that resides on the surface. Colorada was the last stop of the day, so we had dinner and went to bed, sad to see the back of a day which has to be the best landscape viewing day of my life, but also excited about what would come tomorrow.

Day three commenced with a visit to some fantastic rock formations which appear out of nowhere and yet more lagoons flanked by snow-capped mountains. We stopped for lunch at some more rock formations, but these ones resembled much more the scenery you would expect to see in the wild west of the US. From there we drove to the town of Uyuni where our accommodation was, but not before stopping at the train cemetery where you are allowed to climb all over rusting old train wrecks – got to love Bolivian health & safety, or lack thereof! If I was ten I would have thought this was the coolest place on earth! Again we had a fairly early night, especially as we would be up at 5am to watch the sunrise over the salt plains in the morning.

So after waking up at 5am and getting dressed in our warm gear, the jeep headed out to the famous salt flats to watch the sunrise. It was bitterly cold, but awesome to finally get to what is the highlight of the trip for many, and watching the sun rise over the plains is certainly an experience we won’t be forgetting any time soon. Once the sun was up, it was silly photo time! As the plains are so flat, you can take “perspective photos” which basically involve making people / things look bigger or smaller than they really are. Once you introduce a couple of props such as toy dinosaurs, wine bottles etc, you can really have a whole heap of fun playing around. The best pic of the day was actually a video that our guide setup, where it looks like we are all miniature people emerging from a box of hot chocolate to dance! Upon finishing with the silly photos (almost covered from head to toe in salt!), we drove over the flats to a small salt mining village. The salt digging is still done manually with a shovel, so there are hundreds of salt pyramids made by the workers, which are then shovelled onto the back of trucks and transported to the mining facility. After a little shopping at the local market, it was back to Uyuni and the end of the tour.

Keely and I both instantly agreed that this trip had been the absolute highlight of South America so far, and can only see it being knocked off the top perch by Maccu Pichu in Peru - although I’m not sure even Maccu Pichu can do that!! Only time will tell….

Mike

In no particular order:

Hope the video works? If not, try this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gn2nltvOlfI

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Posted by Mike.Keely 12:48 Archived in Bolivia Comments (2)

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