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Meet the cattle breeders-turned-conservationists protecting Colombia's Amazon wildlife

Two day-old pumas and a recovering porcupine share a room in the house of the Zapata family
Two day-old pumas and a recovering porcupine share a room in the house of the Zapata family Copyright JUAN RESTREPO/AFP
Copyright JUAN RESTREPO/AFP
By Roselyne Min with AFP
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A family of former cattle breeders has turned their patch of Amazon rainforest into an animal sanctuary.

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In the rural area of San José de Guaviare, Colombia, is 40 hectares of reborn jungle.

Tourists visit its ecological path and sometimes contribute money for its maintenance.

Up until a decade ago, the forest looked completely different - it was a pasture full of cattle.

The co-founder of the La Nupana nature reserve, Dora Sánchez, moved from the centre of the country to the jungle region in 1997.

Like most of the settlers, her family - the Zapatas - started livestock farming in ‘the land without people for people without land’.

“When we arrived there was not a single worm, the soil was completely compact,” says Dora.

In 2012, she started planting native trees on her 56 hectares of pasture as an “experiment to set up agroforestry systems”.

She started seeing a “positive effect”.

"The forest began to change, the fauna began to return. We improved the water conditions and the soil began to improve. So, little by little, my family understood that it was a good process," Dora explains.

She sold her cows and let the jungle claim back most of their land.

A decade later, Dora runs a reserve with her daughter and husband.

What happens to the animals rescued by La Nupana nature reserve?

For the moment, Dora’s family houses 60 creatures, ranging from monkeys, birds and armadillos to puma cubs and a spotted wild cat known as an ocelot, in their home and backyard.

While most of the animals were rescued from people who kept them as pets or tried to sell them, pumas are usually victims of deforestation in a region that lost 25,000 hectares of forest in 2021.

The Zapata family rescues and protects the animals with care.

Dora massages the two-week-old orphaned puma cubs four times a day so that they are able to defecate - a job that usually requires the help of their mother.

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Her daughter Samantha Zapata takes care of feeding them.

“They are very cute and we had not had the opportunity to see them up close, but it also makes us sad because their mother was killed,” says the 23-year-old agronomy student.

For Samantha’s dad, Hector, sending the animals back to the wild is one of the tough parts of the job.

“There are many challenges because each animal has its own characteristics and behaviour. I think that being able to guide them step-by-step to an imminent release or a future release is one of the most difficult challenges we have in the reserve,” says Hector.

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Some animals are not able to return to the wild

The guidelines for release of the animals must be set according to the different characteristics of each species and case, according to Adolfo Bravo, a veterinarian doctor at the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the North and East Amazon (CDA).

But it is not guaranteed that all animals can return to the wild when the Zapatas bring them home.

“Animals that cannot return to the forest sadly stay in enclosures because they do not have the necessary skills, they do not survive, they do not recognise that a predator can attack them,” explains Samantha.

La Nupana is an ally of the local government to rehabilitate fauna in southern Colombia.

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“We must preserve and protect the forest, because it is the source of life, which will give us water in the future. We are 100 per cent convinced that it is the forest [which we should focus our work on]," says Dora.

For more on this story, watch the video above.

Video editor • Roselyne Min

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