Georgina McDonald - High School Specials, Conservation in Peru
When I found out about a trip to Peru to do conservation in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, I knew I had to do it. In the least clichéd way possible, Taricaya really was a sort of calling for me, something I just had to do and I have never looked back.
If you love animals, strange places and meeting new people, then this trip is certainly for you. I did the High School Special program for 16-19 year olds and of course I left wishing that I had spent more time out there and seriously contemplated ringing my mum to tell her I was staying for another month!
Arriving in Peru
Before leaving I had been in contact with some of the volunteers that would being doing the 2 week project at the same time as me, so on the 3 flights that I took to get me from Heathrow to Puerto Maldonado, I started to collect a group of friends that I would get to know very well for the next fortnight. The 2 days of traveling seemed like they would never end as the anticipation of my trip escalated. Though when I started to see the vivid green rainforest canopy below me on the plane, I knew I had finally made it and it was only the start of some breath taking views.
I think I speak for everyone who has visited Taricaya when I say that the boat journey to the lodge on the Madre de Dios River is a ride you will never forget. Words don’t even begin to describe how beautiful the forests are that line the river and the wildlife that you hear from within.
When we arrived the other volunteers helped us get our bags out of the boat by creating a human chain. This is when I first realized that everyone is there to help each other and the lodge works like a well-oiled machine.
I was then put in a cabin with 3 other girls, each from a different country, and I was finally ready for my first meal in Peru. I was lucky to have a very European meal for my first night there – spaghetti bolognese! Usually the local cooks bring out amazing traditional dishes, which typically include about three different types of potato, egg and rice. With all the manual labor that you are busy doing every day, I can guarantee that you need the energy after the day’s work! Also once a week, a group of volunteers do some baking in the volunteer’s kitchen, and this is always very appreciated by the whole team.
My Conservation placement
One of my memories of Taricaya was waking up after my first night in our very basic cabin, to hear a very loud water droplet sound. Reason told me that it could not be an actual water droplet falling from somewhere nearby, so I decided it had to be a call made by some of the unique animals in the rainforest. After asking Rachel, the center’s manager, she told me it was the Oropendola, a common bird in the area with a distinctive yellow tail. The Mealy parrots also chatter away and are known to wolf whistle and shout “¡arriba!” early in the morning. However, my first animal encounter was during dinner and I looked down to see a moth about the size of my hand on my t-shirt! You quickly learn that no matter where you are, the insects will always find you, and that definitely includes mosquitos.
At the center they look after many endangered species, which have either been pets, in zoos or found on the streets. Sadly some can’t be released, as they are not indigenous to the area or are too dangerous to the local people, like Preciosa the Jaguar. They also have a breeding program for the tapirs, ocelots and jaguarondi so their young can be released into the forest to repopulate the area. While I was there we helped build an extension to the tapir cage and had to watch them over night to ensure they didn’t escape. However, we were more concerned with looking out for tarantulas crawling around where we were standing!
One of my favorite activities was animal feeding where you prepare the specific meals for each animal and then get to go in with them, if they are friendly enough! One of the center’s favorites is Irene, who is a woolly monkey rescued from a circus, and as she is not indigenous to the area, she sadly can’t be released.
Not only do you help look after the animals at the center, but you also help the local people be self-sufficient so they don’t have to rely so much on the forest to survive. The whole team went to Palma Real village, just upstream for the day to help clear the transect lines filled with crops that the team had previously planted months before. It was amazing to go into a traditional community in the heart of the rainforest. Using the machete is very hard work, especially in the 35°C heat, but it is rewarding to see how much you have done and you have the blisters to prove it! The women also put out their handmade jewelry for us to buy and we could walk around the village to see how different their life is to ours back home.
During the summer months, the turtle-breeding season is at its highest, so to prevent any eggs being stolen by the locals, everyone takes turns to stay the night on Turtle beach. Though you can guarantee you would get little sleep that night as you patrol the beach to collect any eggs, it is a great experience that is hard to miss. I watched the stunning view of the sun setting over the canopy while sitting on the beach making a rather sandy sandwich for dinner. I found that this activity really brought the whole project into perspective as I got so close to nature sleeping on the sand, and closer to my fellow volunteers.
My time at Taricaya will never be forgotten, from the water and mud fights, to seeing the rare Harpy Eagle and having siestas in a hammock. I have come back home to know that I want to pursue a career in conservation and hope to work in South America in the future. I have also gained a close group of friends in London who I have managed to see regularly since the trip.
I now have friends from all across the globe and have learnt a lot about their cultures as well as the Peruvian one. Although flying away from home to a strange place cut off from all modern communications (unless you go into the town for the day) may seem scary, it is a risk worth taking. The whole trip just felt like a dream and I can’t believe that I was given this once in a lifetime opportunity.