Amazon has just released a new one-of-a-kind wildlife documentary/film, WildCat, that takes you through the emotional, heart-breaking but fulfilling journey of Harry Turner, a young veteran who finds a new beginning in an infant, orphaned ocelot that brings a new sense of meaning and purpose to his life out in the Peruvian Amazon after suffering from PTSD and depression as a result of serving in Afghanistan at the age of 18. A beautiful film that takes you through an ocelot’s (Keanu) odyssey to becoming a wild ocelot again, and a heartfelt journey of emotional healing within Harry as you watch him and Keanu’s dynamic relationship blossom but also experience its frustrations as it approaches Keanu’s time of release.
Harry began as a volunteer for the NGO, Hoja Nueva, founded and directed by Samantha Zwicker, a PhD student and accomplished wildlife conservationist from the United States. Hoja Nueva is where our Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme, Peru, takes place. It focuses on rehabilitating neotropical animals and giving them a second chance in life, a chance that they all deserve. These animals may have been displaced/orphaned because of deforestation, poaching, and being sold in the illegal pet trade. Whilst rescue and rehab give animals a second chance in life, Hoja Nueva also has conservation projects. Wildlife conservation and research can help prevent animals from needing to be rescued and rehabilitated in the first place and protects the lives of countless more individuals by protecting their home, but how can this be done?
Following the release of WildCat, we at WorkingAbroad have been lucky enough to hear directly from the project founder and director Samantha Zwicker, who has shed some light on what challenges conservationists face in the Madre de Dios region of Peru and what opportunities are present in volunteering and internship positions at Hoja Nueva for aspiring young conservationists and wildlife rehab workers/veterinarians.
Conservation Challenges in Las Piedras
Unsurprisingly WildCat has brought a lot of positive attention towards Hoja Nueva. Their hope is to use this publicity to expand their project and maximise their positive impact on the forest and its wildlife.
We asked Sam about what some of the most prevalent causes are for animals being in need of rehabilitation. She highlighted that wildlife trafficking was the main issue, but not in a sense of what we are used to hearing, such as the organised trade for rhino horn and elephant ivory on a massive scale, but more opportunistic:
“Opportunistic trafficking by other resource extractors like miners, loggers and Brazil nut harvesters who also poach animals with the goal of selling them in town”.
There is a large national market for wild animals for meat or pets in Peru. Small mesopredators such as ocelots like Keanu are especially targeted as pets and are captured when very young, and typically kept for long periods of time in stressful and neglectful conditions. Sam’s rehab team will need to implement physical and behavioural rehabilitation measures to ensure that the animals are fit to return to the wild, but this can vary depending on the level of abuse and the age of the animal. This wildlife trafficking as Sam has highlighted is a result of wider issues within the Peruvian Amazon:
“The main threats facing Las Piedras are logging, poaching, slash and burn agriculture and the expansion of road networks”
With so many threats facing Las Piedras and its wildlife, now is a more urgent time than ever to start implementing conservation strategies. Hoja Nueva is the frontline of this, not just in rehabilitation and wildlife research, but engaging in with local communities to improve attitudes towards the local biodiversity.
Whilst of course there is still a lot to accomplish, Sam has already seen positive changes begin to arise in Las Piedras, specifically in attitudes towards Las Piedras and its wildlife. Attention from the government towards the region has increased, along with improving attitudes from the local communities that live in this region and rely on the forest for income.
Community involvement is growingly being utilised as a sustainable method of conservation, where locals are allowed to directly participate in the conservation work, have their say over the management of a conservation area and receive benefits from the area, such as financial income. With this in mind, we asked Sam about Hoja Nueva’s engagement with local communities in Las Piedras:
“We work closely with local communities on the river in many areas, including bringing local people in to work on our conservation projects, collaborating on sustainable agriculture projects, stimulating the local economy by purchasing sustainable agricultural products, supporting community development initiatives, and performing educational programs at the local schools.”
Through supporting the local economy, community development initiatives and involving locals in their work and education, Hoja Nueva inspires and educates the next generation of local conservationists and works to improve the financial security of their communities. In combination, these are powerful tools that give rise to new ideas, new opportunities and new leaders that can help save the planet and its biodiversity.
What Role do Volunteers/Interns play?
If you’re a passionate conservationist it makes sense that whilst you are involved in conservation volunteer projects, you want to feel you have made a difference. Sometimes it can be difficult finding a project where you feel like you are genuinely making an impact and not just a financial contribution. We asked Sam about how interns at Hoja Nueva can contribute directly to frontline conservation and wildlife rehabilitation efforts and leave a lasting impact:
“Interns on our projects in many senses are the driving force behind our larger initiatives. A lot of frontline conservation and research work is very intensive and takes a lot of people to generate larger-scale impacts, and that’s exactly what interns help us do. By assisting with our research projects and data collection, the daily operations of our rehabilitation centre, and everything else it takes to run a conservation project deep in the Amazon, interns allow us to reach larger goals and make a greater difference.”
Sam and her team also value the idea that new interns and volunteers can bring with them a wealth of new and innovative solutions to complex issues in conservation, as well as different perspectives that can help explore new ideas that could maximise Hoja Nueva’s impact in conservation.
“Depending on the project they join, interns will learn skills related to all different aspects of wildlife research, ranging from study design to data collection to analysis, skills related to wildlife management and rehabilitation including general management, nutrition, enrichment, and reintroduction, as well as the general skills related to living and working in the field which is invaluable for a career on the frontlines of conservation. Because interns are truly integrated into our workforce, they are able to learn what it is really like to have a career in research and conservation while meaningfully contributing to protecting wildlife.”
Hoja Nueva presents a diverse playground for budding new conservationists to acquire a wide range of skills in different aspects of wildlife research and rehabilitation, as well as get a true experience of what life is like working in the rugged conditions of the Amazon rainforest.
As someone who is also in the process of kick-starting my career in tropical wildlife biology, I have found it difficult to find organisations that allow you to get directly involved in the more intricate parts of conservation research, such as study design and the more complicated data analysis process, and considering we pay money to get abroad to these beautiful places, of course, we want to get the most out of the projects we join! So, the fact that Hoja Nueva (our Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme, Peru) offers these diverse opportunities in various disciplines of research and rehabilitation places it in a unique position. With the right attitude, this could be the ideal project to start your wildlife conservation journey!
Samantha Zwicker’s Advice for Aspiring Conservationists
As someone who has become an accomplished field biologist from a very young age and has spent many years working out in the Amazon protecting wildlife, we asked Sam if she had any advice for new people trying to find their feet in the challenging world of conservation. Here is what she said:
“I would say that there are so many wild spaces and species around the world in need of our help. Whether we look in our own local communities or abroad, there is work to be done to preserve what is still intact.”
After being involved in her studies and internships, the passion developed from these opportunities led Sam to the Peruvian Amazon. When she left the United States, she never expected to establish roots in Las Piedras. By joining these projects, you learn more about yourself and open new doors of opportunity that could lead you down exciting career paths in different parts of the world, so who knows where it may take you!
“Conservation as a career, especially in remote areas of the world, is all-consuming and can take immense sacrifice and persistence to succeed and make a difference. While this particular type of conservation work isn’t for everyone, every person can do their part. You just have to find your niche :)”
The fields of study in conservation are so incredibly diverse, it’s impossible to focus on everything. When involved in internships such as the projects offered by WorkingAbroad, this gives you the chance to find your niche, whether that be working with local communities, chasing frogs, nocturnal mammals, epiphytic plants, veterinary, the list goes on! All of us young conservationists are travelling the world trying to find out where we fit in, but out there somewhere, could be in the mountains of the Himalayas, the jungles of Las Piedras, the Freezing frontiers of Iceland or the scorched deserts of Namibia…. There is a cause that is calling your name!