Fighting Fires in the Amazon to Save Rescued Animals

"These fires, year after year, are only getting worse. Every year, standing against those flames, it feels like the end."

small female puma

Antoine Mellon

It was almost 15 years ago when I first understood what wildfire smelt like. I was on the edge of the Amazon basin, volunteering at a sanctuary for wild animals, run by a Bolivian NGO named Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY). I was 24 years old, and I’d planned to volunteer for two weeks before rushing back to the city, to the flushing toilets and away from the tarantulas and mosquitoes. Those two weeks however turned into a month, which turned into three, which turned into a year. 

Since then, I have returned to volunteer nearly every year–like many of the people I met there. The rest of the year raising awareness, fundraising, and trying to share CIWY’s story.

I’d been in the jungle for about five months when I first smelt the smoke. I’d been working for months with a small female puma named Wayra, and we’d just gotten back from a swim in one of the forest lagoons. Swimming was one of the best ways for Wayra to reclaim a sense of freedom, stolen from her when she was a baby. Hunters had killed her mother, and she was sold on the black market as a pet. But now, Wayra was back in her enclosure, it was getting dark, and the smoke was thickening. Roadside hawks had moved to the tops of trees, screeching eerily into a sooty orange sky. Volunteers and staff gathered in clumps, watching red flames flickering in the far distant mountains.

Being the dry season, everything was kindling; the brown leaves on the ground, the dried out bark, parched land that stretched across a continent. Even with my lack of experience, I knew what this meant: In 100-degree temperatures, the flames would roll towards the sanctuary and destroy everything in their path.

I thought of the howler monkeys, probably sitting right now on the roof of camp, watching the smoke as I was. I thought of the trees whose lifespan made ours look laughable, and bugs so evolved that they could navigate by the stars. But mostly I thought of Wayra, and the 15 or so other wild cats under our care, and how impossible it would be to move them out of the way of those flames. I choked back a sob. We spent every day trying to protect these animals. And now… 

Parque Wildfire

Benjamin Portal

The fire had most likely been started by surrounding farmers, who slashed and burned their fields. Exacerbated by burgeoning climate change, the Amazon is losing its battle against the sea of cattle and mono-crops, seeded to feed the growing global demand for beef, soy, palm oil, and timber. It is estimated the Amazon loses more than 200,000 acres of rainforest every day, 80% of which is due to agricultural deforestation. All resulting in devastating wildfires. Without meaningful legislation to curb the practice, the situation gets direr each year, and the end result—not too long from now—will be nothing less than apocalyptic.

But that day of my first wildfire, all I knew was that we had to stop the fire from getting to Wayra and the other animals. Together with other CIWY volunteers and staff, we worked all day and all night to cut a firebreak, about 10 feet wide and 4.3 miles long, around the side of the jungle that housed our animals most at risk, namely the rescued jaguars, pumas, and ocelots. It was backbreaking, slashing with machetes and broken rakes to try and create some kind of barrier between us and those advancing flames. There were days I couldn’t distinguish where I was in a landscape that I knew so well. Spinning with thoughts of Wayra, choking on ash in her enclosure.  

Thousands of hectares of jungle burnt that year, and thousands of wild animals died. But we were lucky, if you could call it that. A handful of us were able to protect the homes of the animals we had come to see as our family. Exhausted, but alive, our little group–no more than twenty of us in all–sat on the roadside and listened to the silence of half a world burnt to ash. But just behind us, where the jungle that remained was still green and vibrant, we could hear our jaguars calling. 

What I’ve learned in the Amazon is the euphoric joy of the natural world. The touch of a puma’s tongue on my arm. The scent of a sun-warmed palm tree. The passion of shared work, and purpose. But I also learned that come dry season, the palm trees would burn along with millions of others when the Amazon, yet again, became an inferno. Many of the people I fought alongside had already lost their lands and kinships to the effects of colonialism and extractivism. They have dealt with the climate apocalypse, again and again, long before I ever showed up. 

These fires, year after year, are only getting worse. Every year, standing against those flames, it feels like the end. And for many creatures, it is. But even in the face of this apocalypse, the community at CIWY is still a hopeful one. They have looked in the eyes of a puma who has just experienced the touch of the forest for the first time and seen true joy. They have heard the laugh of a new volunteer who has just had all their underwear stolen off the washing line by a marauding monkey, but who has also climbed into the trees with that same monkey and listened to them howl to the sunset. They know that that one volunteer might go on to change their lives because of this experience. And most of all, they know what might be possible to build, if you dream hard enough. What life might still grow up out of the ashes, even when you are surrounded by roaring flames. 

The Puma Years

Laura Coleman

"The Puma Years" was published by Little A on June 1, 2021. Proceeds are going to support CIWY’s work fighting the illegal wildlife trade, supporting local communities, and providing safe homes to those who need them. If you too would like to help, either by volunteering or making a donation, please visit CIWY’s website.