Puma walker

Trip Start Oct 12, 2010
Trip End Jun 15, 2011

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Where I stayed
Andrea Hostal

Flag of Bolivia  , Cochabamba,
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Park Machia

What a bizarre place...

Iīve been here for 7 days and I still canīt believe it. Iīm walking in the Bolivian jungle with a wild puma named Sonko (meaning ĻHeartĻ In Kechuan), whoīs attached to my waist with a 5M rope…

People here are working hard feeding birds, cleaning monkeyīs cages, walking pumas and chasing ocelots who tend to hunt anything that moves.

The park holds 1 bear, 3 pumas, many capuchins and spider monkeys, several tejons and  other small freaky animals and a whole lot of birds. Working hours are from 7:30 till 18:30 for some of the workers, others (like the lazy cat people) work from 8:30 till 16:30.

Taking a puma for a walk in the jungle is exactly as it seems. Itīs hectic, unexpected, dangerous and lots of fun. Due to obvious risks, Itīs a job for 2 people. Until now I was with Adam from Australia, now a new Australian guy named Clancy will take his place. The trails are incredibly sketchy and are very slippery in rainy days (unfortunately it is the rain season). Most of the time the trail will take you either up on a very steep hill, or down on a freaky decent. From time to time you reach a beautiful creek or a canyon with a river flowing. I canīt remember when was the last time I walked such a difficult and beautiful terrain. The scenery is amazing. Jungle trees rise up to 15 meters above your head, creating a rain-proof canopy. Veins are all around and you can (and have to) grab hold to them all the time. Strange plants like walking trees, colorful flowers and bushes with huge leaves are surrounding the trail and the ground is a mixture of mud, slippery mud and very slippery mud. Butterflies of all colors fly freely all over the place – huge blue ones, yellow and red ones and even partially transparent. Tons of mosquitoes and other flies, bugs, grasshoppers and such are all over. Small squirrel monkeys jump over your head across the trees above you, followed by packs of Capuchins and sometimes spider monkeys. Occasionally you may see a sloth or a snake, but these are rare. Oh yeah, and a huge puma is about 1 meter ahead of you all the time. Scared? Youīd better not turn around and run away, for 3 very good reasons.

1.       If you turn your back to a puma and run away – you are immediately considered pray. It will hunt you down. NEVER turn your back on a puma.

2.       The puma is much faster than you and will catch you within 2-3 seconds.

3.       Itīs attached to your body with a thick 5M rope.

This is my lifestyle for the past week (and the next 3). Walking 2 trails of 8 Km each day in the wild jungle attached to a puma.   

A puma walker routine

7:40 – wake up

8:00 – meet friends at the cafeteria, breakfast.

8:30 – take a bucket of chicken/meet/mixed and go to Sonkoīs cage – hidden in the jungle.

8:40 – arrive at Sonkoīs cage, give him some petting. Let him out of his cage, attach him to the runner rope. Clean food leftovers (bones), clean his bed of hay (if needed), scrub the wood surface with iodine.

9:00/9:30/10:00 – after Sonko relaxes – detach him from the runner, attach him to yourself. Go on to an 8Km trail in the jungle.

11:00/12:00/13:00 – return from the trail, reattach Sonko to runner, eat lunch.

14:00/14:30 – after Sonko rests - detach him from the runner, attach him to yourself. Go on to another 8Km trail in the jungle.

16:30/17:30 – return from trail, reattach Sonko to runner, put food and water in his cage, put Sonko in cage, lock cage.

17:00/17:30 – beer at the cafeteria with the other cat people (and the bear guys), later – meet everyone else and go for dinner/drinks/party.

Walking the puma is considered a comfortable job in the park, as you start late and finish early, but it takes a lot of energy, itīs dangerous and it will get you in shape really fast…

Sonko is an adorable jungle puma who weighs 40kg and is a fat lazy cat. We sometimes force him to take his walks as all he wants to do is lay around, and eat his meals. My first walk with Sonko, 4 days ago went great. But on the second one – I didnīt notice he turned his head aroundon a higher ground, and was surprised to see his face in front of me. He took advantage of my surprise and jumped me.

This would be a good time to explain that Sonko was trained in the past by stupid volunteers to jump high for his food. As a result – he jumps MUCH higher than the average jungle puma.

Sonkoīs jump was impressive, and he landed with his paws on both of my shoulders. It all felt like a slow motion, watching his big paws land on my shoulders and his wide open mouth in front of my face (he never really bites higher than the knees). His push threw me backwards, unfortunately down a 2M drop onto a creek. Lucky for me – it was all muddy and covered with leaves, so it didnīt hurt at all… After that he behaved perfectly for the rest of the walk.

Since that first jump, I had another high jump (again, shoulders push and down 2.5M towards the canyon), and he grabbed my legs twice. When he grabbed me I stayed calm and didnīt move, so the result was him letting go and just a few small holes on the legs (not even scratches).

Sonko is well capable of killing a person with ease, but he always just plays and never attacks people. As a result – most injuries are very minor and half of the time are caused due to mishandling the big cat.

I have 3 more weeks to spend here with Sonko and the other volunteers. This is an amazing experience for any animal/nature lover. The people are great and the jungle is completely wild (no tourists, no markings on the trail – just you, the puma, other jungle creatures and plants).

I will update again when I can, until then – take care and think about me running in the jungle with a giant cat!

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