Tourism suporting conservation

Travel to Bolivia

My volunteering life. By Jie Zhou

I arrived at Madidi Travel´s private Serere Reserve with sore feet, arms, back and butt. We had stopped off along the river Beni on the way to load some seventy sacks of gravel. They weighed about twenty five kilos each. These were to be hand laid in boggy sections of walking trails within the reserve. Within minutes, my clean clothes were brown and muddy and permanently stained. It was my first day as a volunteer with Madidi Travel. I was filled with both excitement and apprehension. Jie9 Having never done prior conservation work, I may have been forgiven for having naively inaccurate preconceptions of what it entails. What I imagined drew largely from what I had seen on television, where selfless nature lovers cradled wounded animals and gently fed them milk from a little bottle, or staked out endangered animals to tranquilize, tag and later monitor via GPS tracking. Really heroic stuff. I now know that the other ninety percent of conservation work that was not often publicized was all hard labour and if it was done well, it was invisible and not so glamorous. Jie1 My ignorance was quickly dispelled by national park founder Rosa Maria. No lengthy conversations were needed for her soft spoken voice and perfect American English to reveal an exceptional intellect and altruistic personality. She shared with me the history of her organization, the many threats and incredulous problems that her conservation effort has faced and is facing. Jie13

She also explained to me many aspects of indigenous life and social problems that I had found puzzling. No skeletons were left in the closet for the sake of appearances. She spoke bluntly of many issues that impacted MJie5adidi Travel´s operation: corrupt politicians, mutinous staff, rampant alcoholism and absurdly comical displays of elitism, vanity and machismo. But not before I had observed and questioned her on these matters, so as not to indoctrinate me with her biases. Then there were the problems directly affecting conservation of natural environments such as Serere. One afternoon we found the bloated corpse of caiman floating on the lake. Its tail had been cut off and taken away for food. Our subsequent patrol spotted several lakeside dugouts used by the trespassing hunters, it had been a large group. As though I needed proof this was not an isolated incident, I saw vendors selling hunted meat from the park at local town fares. It was both excitingly eye opening and deeply frustrating to be aware of such insurmountable problems. I realized the importance of ongoing responsible tourism to displace and curtail illegal hunting, fishing and many unconscionable means of deforestation.

In light of these threats, I laboured alongside Madidi Travel’s field team eight hours a day. The scope of their work seemed boundless and always physically demanding: carting and laying gravel by hand, constructing eco friendly cabins from foraged timber, clearing weeds from our fruit plantations, transporting luggage and supplies from the river port to our eco lodges for visiting travellers each day, patrolling trails to investigate trespassing hunters and much much more. Jie4 In the evenings, I taught the staff English by candlelight. By the time I got into bed each night I was exhausted. Maybe that was why I never felt the warm fuzzy sense of self admiration that usually accompanies volunteer work. Jie7 Instead, I have gainedskills I never imagined learning: the utility of the machete, navigating dugout canoes. cooking traditional Bolivian dishes and although I could not speak the forest language as the guides did, I learned to recognize the sights and sounds of some animals. But some lessons were taught directly by the forest, not my co¬workers. Mosquitoes, horseflies, fire ants, ticks and wasps fed on my sweat and blood, reminding me that nothing can exist in this ecosystem without participating. Jie12 But the harassment of insects pales in comparison to other experiences that Serere Reserve had to offer. The wildlife worked together twenty four hours a day to keep silence at bay with an endless symphony. The spine tingling wailings of howler monkeys, the stampedes of wild pigs and the faint purrs of jaguar underscored the melody of insects and birds, whilst windswept canopies and falling fruits provided a percussive backing. Even heavy torrential rain only amplified this performance, by encouraging all to increase their volume and by welcoming the shrieks of ecstatic frogs. It was therapeutic and I slept deeply every night. But my personal favourite experience was canoeing around Lake San Fernando in the afternoons. Jie10 A variety of birdlife rested on lakeside trees and caiman drifting stealthily just below the water surface, both eagerly awaiting to feast on the brimming fish population. Dramatic displays of colour rippled on the lake surface as the hues of sunsets that painted the sky were reflected on the water. Then, as sunset transitioned into twilight, huge colonies of bats embarked across the lake. Completely unafraid, they swooped low near our canoe, letting us hear the flapping of their wings and smell their pungent odour in the gusts beneath their wings. Neither words nor pictures could do it justice, nor did the spectacle become any less awe inspiring with repeat viewings. I took a great deal of motivation from fact that we were able to conserve environments such as Serere in spite of the short sighted profiteering and egocentric zeitgeist of many Bolivians. Signs of recovery were everywhere. We spotted the first otter in the lake for a very long time, bobbing and weaving curiously around our canoe. They had not been seen in the area for many years due to aggressive poaching for fur. Animals which used to flee at the first hint of human presence for fear of hunters were now being spotted with frequency by our field team and visitors alike. Previously lifeless lakes were now seldom still as thriving fish populations dart to the surface to snatch floating fruits or hesitant insects. And in ironic recognition of their success, Madidi Travel´s trademark flying macaws and bright eyed spider monkeys decorate the walls of most tourism offices in town as they attempted to harness the public image of Madidi Travel. Jie6 My time as a volunteer at Serere Reserve was unforgettable. I took away a little piece of Bolivian culture and left a bit of my own behind in its place. I was privileged to sample a slice of indigenous Bolivian life that few tourists and even many Bolivians would never know. However I had no pretensions of becoming one with nature. I longed for the luxuries of city life: hot showers, electricity, internet and the absence of mosquitoes. Nonetheless, I would encourage any curious nature lovers to shed doubts and pitch in with Madidi Travel.

Other information:

-If you are serious about weeding out unconscionable tour companies, go into their office and ask for a hunting trip (really look like you want a hunting trip). If they tell you it can be organized, you can cross them off the list (yes they still exist).

-Yes, I did have to pay to volunteer, you can contact Madidi Travel to find out their current cost structure.

-YOU THE TOURIST CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE, irrespective of whether your company is good or bad. But you need to educate the tour companies on what you as a responsible tourist want to see. If they offer to manhandle animals, tell them how digusting you think this is. Ask to see the conservation work that they are claiming to do. For many of the guides, working in the amazon is simply a source of income, they couldn’t care less about conservation. so show them clearly how much you care to make them care.

A stay in the Bolivian jungle

Deals to discover the Amazon basin abound in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. For our stay in the jungle, we chose to put the price (€ 150 per person for three days and two nights) and rely on the team of Madidi Travel in order to discover the Serere reserve.

 A three hour ride in a sixteen meter dugout canoe with an outboard motor on the Beni river is needed to reach the Serere reserve from the town of Rurrenabaque. This river, the widest of Bolivia, ends a few hundreds of kilometres above the Amazon where it joins the Madera river.


In this dry season of the year, after having landed on the river bank, you walk about forty feet on the cracked silt to approach the edge of the woods. Very quickly, the atmosphere becomes hotter and heavier. The cries of birds resonate more and more. The trees stretch skyward and light seeps between the leaves and branches of these giants, and on the trunks and vines that appear to assault them.

Serere reserve welcomes a limited number of tourists and nature lovers who want to discover or rediscover the “jungle”. You are accompanied by Bolivian guides and staff who are very eager to preserve this threatened environment. Here, we are far from the sensational “las pampas tours” and “tours to the jungle” that promise to get you a picture with an anaconda wrapped around your neck. In the course of those tours organized and proposed by dozens of agencies in Rurrenabaque, little do they care that the insecticide carefully spread through your skin is one of the causes of the disappearance of the much-feared animal, nor do they care that the beast had been imprisoned in a woven bag for several hours so the next group can have the “possibility” of discovering an anaconda “by chance”.

carolina y mono

At Madidi Travel, which manages the Serere reserve, they have chosen to adapt human presence to this environment and not vice versa. In Serere, groups of tourists are limited to six people, the eco-lodges that house them are cleverly built and have no electricity. The cabins have two environments and are enclosed in mosquito netting in the guise of walls so the “jungle” environment is guaranteed.

The Bolivian owner of the reservation, Rosa María lives here year-round. She does not mind telling you about the time that, while bathing in the lake in front of the main lodge, she was attacked by a four meter caiman. Rene, like the other guides who work here, is a member of an indigenous community that borders the river. For twenty years, he spent most of his time living in the forest. His senses, sharp by years of practice, allow him to find the smallest of animals. And his grandfather, the village shaman, taught him to recognize and use medicinal plants.


In the jungle, there are numerous groups of monkeys such as the squirrel monkeys, recognizable by their creamy yellow fur, which, in groups of twenty or more, devour the clusters of fruits suspended tens of meters above the ground. Their cries, the murmur of leaves and the rustling of the branches indicate their position quickly. With a little attention, birds, particularly the fabulous Serere, which gives its name to the reserve, are easily visible. Other animals such as jaguar and puma are almost impossible to perceive as they mainly hunt at night and stay at safe a distance from humans. On the other hand, as soon as the sun sets, the forest becomes the favourite terrain of the insects. Their songs invade the atmosphere. Spiders come out of their hiding places to install themselves on their webs to patiently wait for their prey. On the edge of the lakes, very still, the caiman calmly wait for their prey.

monito francés

The décor of this animal theatre is the plant world. Trees are sometimes fighting to death to be the first to reach the sunny canopy and deploy their foliage. Vines climb up the sides of trees onto their branches until their weight breaks their host in a deafening noise. Nothing is lost. Minor rays of sun provide energy to dozens of species at the same time, thus supplying material to the colonies of ants and other insects which in turn feed small mammals, which are then the prey of birds and the most ferocious carnivores.

For those who know how to recognize their value, plant species that inhabit the forest are remedies to an impressive number of diseases. Fevers, rheumatism, digestive ailments, congestion, wounds… Preparations are made based on mate: infusions in hot water with the bark of the vines and properly selected trees that release their benefits. In the end, with a cure of several weeks or even months, we could cure everything.

“Some years ago, a woman treated her daughter of a judged incurable cancer by doctors. Unfortunately this woman died without having transmitted the knowledge of the species that she used to treat her daughter! “, explains our guide.

Once, during a stay in the Brazilian Amazon, René caught malaria. After two weeks of fever, a doctor diagnosed him with an incurable form of the disease. Seeing the end come, René wanted to go where his family was to spend his last days. When he arrived home in very bad shape, his grandfather went to the forest in search of a tree bark to cure him. For several months, René drank many daily infusions of quinine, the famous tree used by the pharmaceutical industry to develop anti-malaria drugs. After some time the fevers disappeared, and, ten years later, René treks through the forest as if nothing had happened.

The forest also contains a large number of hallucinogenic substances. Some species have the power to kill a man in less time than a rooster crows. Curare is possibly the most dangerous tree from Amazon. Under its crust there is a liquid that is spread through the tips of arrows used for the blowpipes of indigenous peoples to hunt and kill. Few leave unscathed by the torment of the Devil’s tree. This tree is colonized by very aggressive red ants have strong, burning bites. Formerly, as a punishment, people were tied to this tree for many hours or many days, sometimes to death.


The human being is the greatest danger for the forest: hunting, deforestation and contamination all reduce the surface and number of species of the Amazon forest each year. Only a few kilometres from the Serere reserve, the mining is poisoning lands that were recently virgin, and the remains of these industries and the polluted water from the cities are poisoning the waters. All of this is done with the support of local policies.

Text and pictures : Caroline Pothier & Grégory Salomonovitch (If you want to see more pictures and videos, please visit their web: