from No Compromise Issue 24

By Stella Sythe

Esperanza de Libertad (or, in English, “Hope for Freedom”) is a Bolivian non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to forming an animal sanctuary in northern Bolivia. Why this is important is a true lesson on how everything is connected, from Bolivia to the U.S.

As a long-time animal rights activist, I have read about and seen videos of the wildlife trade that is devastating so many local ecosystems. I have also seen pictures of and read about the devastation of the world’s rainforests to create grazing land for cattle. But it was not until my travels to South America that I saw all this firsthand. After witnessing the reality of what people are doing to this beautiful land and its animals, I became committed to making a difference on their behalf.

While working at a primate sanctuary in Bolivia, I was lucky enough to meet Franci, another animal activist who is now Esperanza de Libertad’s Bolivian Project Coordinator. In this sanctuary, I learned more about Bolivia’s environmental crisis, and I got to know many of the animals on an intimate level. Those animals helped me decide to create a sanctuary for them—not only one that would work to rehabilitate them so they could return to the wild, but one that would protect their land.

Trading animals
Each year, about 32,000 wild-caught primates are sold on the international market. About a third of them are imported into the U.S. and sold for laboratory research, zoos, and circuses. According to Conservation International’s "Primates in Peril" report, at the current rate, one in five species of primates could become extinct within one generation.

It is crucial to remember that animals taken from Bolivian jungles end up all over the world. A monkey taken from the jungles we walked through could end up in a vivisection lab in the United States, a zoo in England, or a circus in Chile.

In Bolivia, we saw people with boxes with parrots inside, destined for the pet trade. We looked into their eyes and knew they would not last long; only one in every four birds taken from the wild survives in captivity.

Cruel capture
Hunters who capture monkeys in the wild use a horrific method: The mother is shot and the baby is taken from her. If members of the group come in and try to protect the baby or mom, they are also shot. This is all the more terrible because of the close bonds between primate mothers and their children. For example, howler monkeys stay on their mother’s backs until they are two years old and stay nearby until they are five.

In the marketplaces, we often saw baby capuchin monkeys—crying and weak-- tied to logs waiting to be transported out of northern Bolivia. In Bolivia, these animals sell for about $3.50 each. In the United States, they are sold as pets for $3,000.

One U.S. zoo is currently buying two jaguars from a zoo in Bolivia. Many of these zoo animals are ex-“pets,” whose caretakers found them to be too strong or too wild to live with. In Bolivia, people hand these animals over to the zoos or release them back into the jungles, where they cannot survive. Either way, they are doomed.

In addition to learning about the stories and lives of the animals in Bolivia, I discovered firsthand what was happening to the land. Right now, land is being sold for about $30 an acre in northern Bolivia, and large corporations are buying it up. While I was there last year, both McDonalds and Burger King bought up large portions of land for cattle.

Not only is land extremely cheap, but the government is now starting to lease the land. Corporations just pay taxes on the land, completely destroy it, and then give it back to the Bolivian government.

Northern Bolivia is full of timber mills. Everywhere in Bolivia, hillsides are being cut for grazing land. Aside from the immediate loss of life this creates, clear cutting is very dangerous because it leads to soil erosion, which eventually can precipitate landslides and flooding.

But still the loggers are cutting twelve hours a day, seven days a week. One day, we counted twenty logging trucks leaving northern Bolivia. One logger told us that they could cut 700 acres (which is the amount of land Esperanza de Libertad is planning to buy) in just two weeks.

Meaningless laws
Although Bolivia has strict laws regarding protection of the environment and the animals, we saw little actual enforcement of these laws. Illegal logging takes place on land belonging to indigenous peoples as well as on government land. Jaguar skins are illegal, but saw them hanging in restaurants everywhere.

In 1992, Bolivia passed a law (Law 1333) making it illegal to keep wild animals in captivity. But we saw no regulation of the number of animals being taken from the wild, and there is virtually no control over the illegal trafficking of animals on any of the Bolivian borders. The illegal wildlife trade is a $5-billion-a-year business, second only to drugs as a worldwide black market.

Unfortunately, industries (from the pet store industry to the animal experimentation industry) are driving the demand for these animals to be taken from their land in Bolivia. Wild animals are transported under conditions so stressful that many die in transit. Those who survive are destined for lives of boredom and suffering.

How you can help
After all of my years of activism, I realized that I might be able to help solve a problem before it becomes too large to address. In Bolivia, we might have the opportunity to make a dramatic impact on the exotic animal trade by giving the people in Bolivia a place to take rescued animals and protecting the land from further exploitation.

Esperanza de Libertad is now working to raise $20,000 to buy 700 acres of land in Bolivia. The land will be spared from deforestation and eventually will be used to rehabilitate and release animals caught in the exotic animal trade. We will also be hiring five armed guards to protect the animals and the land. Guards deter poachers, and paying people to protect the land is quite cheap—especially for animals and land that are truly priceless.

Please visit or contact to find out how you can help!