A black tail rose above the dining table as the volunteers ate breakfast in the restaurant. As I stared at the tail and started wondering which dog had a black tail, a pair of hands reached onto the table and up swung Wara, an adult female black spider monkey.
For a second everyone just stared at her until she dunked her head into the student vets cereal and suddenly everyone was up, standing and shouting, “Wara! No, no! Get out!”
As some people tried to get her outside, others grabbed at breakfast bowls, desperately trying to stop her from ruining everyone’s meal.
Welcome to La Senda Verde animal refuge in Bolivia, and the place I called home for five weeks when I was a volunteer there earlier this year. The refuge is home to over two hundred animals that have been rescued from the black market animal trade or from being kept as pets. They are given back their freedom at La Senda.
I was travelling through South America when I heard about a lot of the environmental volunteering opportunities in Bolivia.
I researched online and found La Senda Verde. After emailing back and forth, I decided to spend at least a month volunteering in the jungle of Bolivia. I am passionate about protecting the environment so the opportunity to volunteer with wildlife protection during my travels was too good to pass up.
Every single day at the refuge was different with new challenges from monkeys breaking into the restaurant to steal food, tortoises trying to escape their enclosures and a whole heap of hairy creepy crawlies finding their way into the volunteer dormitory. For a girl from Australia, I am still mighty afraid of spiders!
During my time at the refuge, I was one of the “bear care volunteers” working with the two Andean Spectacle Bears as well as the monkeys, birds, turtles and tortoises. A typical volunteer day started at 7am, when we trekked over the river to the main grounds of the refuge from the volunteer house and ended at around 4pm.
Typical volunteer tasks at the refuge included:
Feeding the animals three times a day
Cleaning the enclosures
Carrying out fence maintenance
Brainstorming and creating enrichment items for the animals
Research and observation
Maintaining food log books
Assisting in food prep
There were also other miscellaneous tasks such as leading tours around the refuge, cleaning up the grounds, translating text from Spanish to English and rescuing one of the younger monkeys who often became stuck in a tree.
From monkeys pulling my hair out to being shocked by an electric fence in the Bear enclosure, my time volunteering was always exciting!
For me being able to volunteer on environmental conservation overseas was an incredibly rewarding experience but also some days it was challenging. Dealing with the facts of life at the refuge was sometimes hard, being in a remote location with no Internet, dealing with other volunteers’ bad moods and facing the realities of sick and injured animals.
But for a long-term traveler, volunteering added some meaning to my wandering and allowed me to connect with Bolivia in a more meaningful way. It also allowed me to learn new skills such as animal enrichment, feeding, enclosure maintenance and how to get over the embarrassment when a monkey pulls your pants down.
Volunteering overseas on a conservation project is such a rewarding way of seeing the world and having a unique experience and something that I will do again.
*This article was originally posted on the Travel Go Girl online magazine as part of a monthly column I am writing. You can read the original here*