Two newborn pumas and a convalescent porcupine share a room in the home of the Zapata family, who have given up ranching cattle to focus on stewarding the Colombian Amazon and its animals uprooted by deforestation.
A little over a decade ago, the Zapatistas decided to change their ways, and instead of cutting down trees for pastures, they planted new trees.
They sold their cows and let the forest take back most of their land in San José de Guaviare in southern Colombia.
Today, a family of three works to rehabilitate animals damaged in a variety of cruel ways by humanity’s encroachment on nature.
They sacrificed part of their home and backyard, where they currently house 60 creatures, ranging from monkeys, birds, and armadillos to a spotted wild cat known as an ocelot.
said Dora Sanchez, who runs the farm-turned-reserve with her husband Hector Zapata, 57, and daughter Samantha, 23.
“Little by little, my family realized that (conservation) is a good thing,” the 48-year-old told AFP on the former farm now called the Nobana Reserve.
“We must preserve and protect the forest because it is the source of life… We are one hundred percent convinced that it is the forest,” she added. “This is the future.”
Like many others in this rural province of Guaviare, the Zapata was drawn to the dream of making a new life in “a land without men for men without land.”
When Sanchez and Zapata moved there in 1997, most of the locals ran cattle or grew coca – the raw ingredient for cocaine, of which Colombia is the world’s leading producer.
Both cattle and cocaine are jungle killers and Guaviare lost around 25,000 hectares of forest in 2021 alone, according to authorities.
The family raised cattle for 15 years before deciding this was no longer theirs. By 2012, the last cows left the farm.
“I started doing some experimentation, to create agroforestry systems and we’re starting to see the positive impact,” said Sanchez, an agroforestry engineer by training.
“The forest is starting to change, the animals are starting to come back. We’ve improved the water conditions and the soil is starting to improve.”
Sanchez said that today the reserve includes 40 hectares of forest, and its ecological trail is visited by tourists. Some “adopt” an animal and make monthly contributions for its maintenance.
Baby animals are taken care of in the family home.
A young gray fox and a capuchin monkey who has lost a leg go about comically chasing each other—among animals domesticated or too weak to return to the wild.
Other potentially more dangerous creatures have to live out their days in enclosed spaces, said Samantha Zapata, an agricultural engineering student, “because they don’t have the necessary skills, they can’t survive, they don’t realize that a predator can attack them.”
Some of the animals on the reserve have been confiscated from people who kept them as pets or tried to sell them.
Others are found injured or left behind in the ever-shrinking Amazon.
The Zapata keeps wild animals separately in cages, gives them medicine and food to get them back on their feet and, hopefully, back into the wild.
“There are many challenges, because each animal has its own characteristics and behavior,” said Hector Zapata, adding that they learned a lot through practical experience.
“Taking care of them, guiding them step by step to issue…, I think is one of the most difficult challenges we face.”
Learn to fish
Samantha’s Bottle Feeding Puma baby has mixed feelings.
“They are very beautiful and we wouldn’t normally get to see them up close, but it’s sad because (people) killed their mother,” she said.
The cubs were rescued by the environment agency CDA and brought to the farm after a citizen reported them abandoned in the woods, their eyes closed and their umbilical cords still attached.
Local residents told the CDA that some farmers were killing wild cats in the area to protect their sheep.
“At the age of four or five months we will start giving them meat…we live as prey so they can learn to hunt and they can develop normally,” said Samantha Zapata.
Hopefully, “they won’t be condemned to live in a cage.”
© 2023 AFP
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