We will be spending time at a Volunteering Project in Chile: 'Save The Wild Chinchillas' - Habitat Re-establishment

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Volunteering in Illapel - The Valley of the Cactus!

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We have recently returned from our time working as volunteers at the 'Save The Wild Chinchillas' project  in Illapel, 5 hours north of Santiago, in Chile.

We didn't spend as long as we had planned at the project, but we still feel we got quite a bit done in the time we were there. Before I begin, here is some info about 'Save The Wild Chinchillas':

Save the Wild Chinchillas, Inc. is a not-for-profit organization formed to aid in conservation of wild chinchillas. Its goal is to ensure that these endangered animals do not become extinct. In order to meet this goal we have three objectives: educate people of all ages, collect funds to protect land and create sustainable preserves, promote awareness, and foster research.

About half of the wild population is located within a fenced reserve. About 5,000 individuals are located on private unprotected land.

Excessive hunting greatly reduced the number of wild chinchillas. Today hunting is forbidden and the animals are protected by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Animals (CITES). Although these animals are protected, their habitat continues to be destroyed. Grazing animals, collection of wood and mining harm this endangered animals last known habitat.
Our nursery began growing native plants for restoration in the year 2000. We have created circular restoration plots in areas connecting existing chinchilla habitat or enhancing it. Our nursery, volunteer cabin, and restoration plots are located within the local communal landholding. Local landholders help us in collecting seeds and seedlings, growing them and planting them into restoration areas. We have planted more than 5000 seedlings so far, and with the help of local workers and international volunteers, we are continuing to stabilize this ecosystem.

By creating habitat for chinchillas, we aid in the preservation of at least 9 flora species and 17 faunal species of conservation concern. These include woody shrubs and trees as well as amphibians, birds and mammals such as the puma, another smaller cat species and two fox species. At an ecosystem scale, regeneration of local flora is expected to offset desertification and restore biodiversity.

The view from the hill above the town, Illapel

Now, when we arrived, any of our ideas about what to expect had come directly from the website of the project and correspondance with the lady who runs it, who now actually lives in California (I think?)

We also knew another volunteer, James, was already there. When we stepped off the 5 hour bus ride from Santiago we found ourselves in the small mining town of Illapel, the nearest town to where the project is based. James had given us the phone number of a friend of his to call on our arrival. After a short wait at the bus stop, he arrived and off we went in a taxi to the project.

Now, in the taxi we learnt that things were not all as we'd anticipated. 

James had been there for 5 months, and in his first week up at the volunteer cabin he had found himself not only alone, but somewhat overwhelmed by how much re-organisation and re-establishment actually needed to take place.

No one had been working at the project since the last volunteers, in June 2011. The place had been left to it's own devices for a few months at least. The nursery beds had all dried up, the irrigation system was no longer in existence, the volunteer cabin itself was in disarray (James had been greeted by a dead rat on his arrival) along with filth, mouldy food, dirty blankets, a giant rubbish pile and just general disfunction! Rumour has it that some volunteers along the way had been somewhat problematic, unfortunately.

The lady who runs the project has all the best intentions for the project, but we both felt that her absence was clearly evident and no matter how many volunteers come and go, the project can only be fully successful if someone is there all year round. Any good work carried out by volunteers is quickly erased if much time passes by without someone there to keep up the work and maintain the nurseries, water system, cabin and so on. It seemed a bit hopeless to us (well, until her eventual return to sort it all out, which is meant to be soon).

So, James didn't stay there much longer than a week. Instead he found himself living with some friends of the project owner, a Chilean family who live nearer to Illapel, and trying to grow seedlings on their land in the hope of transferring them to the project nurseries at a later date (once it was functioning again!)

Our first couple of nights were actually spent with James at the families home, where we gathered supplies such as food, water and tools to take to the project area, which is a good half hour drive into the desert and can only be reached by vehicle. In our case, taxis or hitch-hiking!

The house we stayed at for the first two nights

I must also mention that upon our arrival James warned us that there were two types of native spiders that were poisionous and if we were to ever come across any, we were to squish them! He informed us that a bite from one of them would give a person about 7 hours to live, time to get to the hospital where they have the anti-venom. A bite from the other, smaller spider would kill a person within 20 minutes! 

I think all the colour must have drained from my face with this new information. He'd seen a few of them in his time there apprently. I had no idea such deadly things would be around us. He also managed to freak me even more by telling us a small child had been bitten and killed at Christmas time, but that it was so rare it had made the headlines. All of this was enough to make me seriously reconsider running back to the bus! I was genuinely terrified by the mere idea!!

I finally resigned myself to stay as he reassured me the child hadn't died locally, but somewhere else in Chile. I can't say I slept easy that first night, that's for sure!
The family had LOTS of kittens, though slightly feral and thus flea-ridden :( 

Domino, the family dog, he followed us everywhere

Teeny little kitkat!

There were so many cats and kittens at the house. They weren't pets as such, but the family did give them left-overs if they could. I found it heartbreaking to see some of the little kittens in ill health though. The smaller ones especially. There was one that was particularly poorly and it looked like it was on it's way out. Jack and I just wanted to scoop them all up and nurse them back to health, give them fat little bellies full of milk and help them live long and healthy lives! We didn't have the option though of course, which I found extremely painful to deal with. It's just not how things are over here in some places, animals have to fend for themselves and the weakest ones get filtered out.

Made us so, so sad.

Cat in a Pot
Pet Chinchillas (the only Chinchillas we actually saw)

Winking Chinchilla


The Volunteer Cabin. Isolated hey!

The location of the cabin was pretty cool! Literally in the middle of nowhere, which was something we had been looking forward to! However, the fact that the connected water was totally out of order made life there quite a bit more difficult. Without water there is of course no life, no way to water any plants, never mind wash our dishes or ourselves. We had taken plenty of drinking water, an essential in the desert obviously, but there was little we could do in regards to actual 'conservation' work without any water! It was frustrating to say the least.

Also, we found that there was little information left available to volunteers who don't know what needed to be done, or how to do it. We kind of expected a set of instructions to inform us of what seeds to collect, how to plant them, when and where to transfer them to etc, but we didn't find anything like that unfortunately. It all soon became irrelevant once we learned there was no water anyway!

The dried up nurseries
All dried up

The nasty pile of old rubbish

When we first arrived at the cabin we tried our best to blizt it. We took everything out of it, cleaned it (finding a dead bird under the bed in the process!) scrubbed it, swept it, disinfected it, you name it. We slung out all the rat-pee ridden bed sheets to be washed and tried to inject some organisation back into the cabin, which was difficult as it was just full of 'stuff'!

Jack and James and myself heading off to fill up bottles of water
 James had spent some time there prior to our arrival and had a good idea about where the problem lay, something to do with re-connecting the pipes that ran to the nurseries from the source, which could be found about half a mile away tucked away in the nooks and crannys of the valley.

The boys trying to fix the water problem (I had no idea)
Inside the cabin

On the first afternoon at the cabin we all sat down to have  a cup of tea, when  a thunderous lorry or truck passed by causing the cabin to shake, but then hang on a minute, no lorries or trucks or anyone for that matter ever passes by the cabin (execpt the farmer on horseback)! I turned to James wide eyed, as he calmly said, "Earthquake"

Both Jack and I were like, "NO WAY!"

We stepped outside as I was freaked it was going to get worse, but it quickly stopped. James told us they feel them all the time in the area and call them only 'tremors', though that particular one felt a little stronger than usual. After that it became the norm, we often awoke bleary eyed in the night to the tremors, which felt like a strong vibration, and the books on the shelves would shake a little, very bizarre feeling! Only seconds would pass before I'd fall straight back to sleep again.

It turns out that to the West of Illapel, near the coast, a 6.1 earthquake had taken place, which must've been what we'd felt a touch of.

I just washed, lots!

The toilet! Where a little lizard had taken residency, freaking Jack out when he went to use the 'ammenities'

Jack chopping off dead branches
Yanking down a big dead branch
More chopping of dead (and dangerous) branches
Burning of branches
James and Jack working 

Jack doing a dance :)
Tribal Jack

The boys organising the tools

Every tool has a home now
Me washing all the stinky bed sheets

Jack batting the horrible horse flies away, they just  dive bomb for you!
Where we slept

The first night was not a great nights sleep. Jack and I shared a single-ish sized bed, but we had our own sleeping bags which made it a little easier. I found it difficult to doze off as every little creak or scuttle made me feel uneasy and I had the worst fear that a rat would crawl over me in the night, or a bug (god forbid a spider) would find its way over to me. Thankfully it was fine and the rest of the time I slept pretty well! Though I did decide to use ear-plugs and hide inside my sleeping bag liner :)

The water situation seemed really tricky, James seemed to have a really good idea about how to solve it, it was just actually solving it that was the problem. I also had no idea about plumbing or anything of the kind, and neither did Jack really. Thankfully James had learnt a lot of Spanish in his five months of being there, and he was able to talk to the local farmer, who so very kindly hooked it up for us! We just had to finish off the piping, which wasn't too difficult. The boys did most of the work anyway, like I said, what do I know about pipes!?
The boys have water!

Dragging lots of hose back towards the cabin

The shower the boys constructed! Very impressed! :)
Cactus plants as far as the eye can see

James making another fire for the rubbish etc

Sun set
Jack being prehistoric

Happy all the rubbish has been burnt!

Gathering some seeds for others to use in the future

The last supper (bread and avacado and tomatos)

The morning mist
A fence of Cactus plants that surround the farmers land

We did have fun at the project, and we wouldn't change our experience! It was great to meet James and to make some kind of beneficial difference to the situation there, even though it wasn't directly related to conservation as such. Some more volunteers are due in a week or so, and we hope our efforts will help them to actually get started on growing some plants and get the project functional once again!
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