Until last December, before everything changed, Jorge Chavez kept wild animals at home.
“We had macaws, we had parrots, we had a sloth, we had boas,” he says.
“We” describes Chavez and his family—but it also describes a town. Puerto Alegría, a tiny Peruvian community perched on the banks of the Amazon River, had long been a tourist destination for exotic wildlife encounters. Townspeople provided the animals, poached from the jungle; tourists paid them in tips.
Then, in December, the police came to confiscate the wildlife. The animals were airlifted away to rescue centers. And dozens in the town were left grappling with what to do without a primary source of income.
“Today we offer bird watching,” says Chavez, seven months after the raid. He’s now trying to lead Puerto Alegría’s quiet foray into ethical tourism experiences: a culture museum, nature walks, a traditional medicine workshop. The efforts are underscored by a cautious hope that tourists can still be satisfied by a subdued—but legal and authentic—experience of the local culture.
A deadly moneymaker
Puerto Alegría is located in the Tres Fronteras, a region on the Amazon River where Peru, Colombia, and Brazil intersect. It’s easily accessible by boat from the Colombian side, where most tourists stay.
For about 10 years, townspeople met the demands of the boatloads of tourists brought across the river by tour agencies and hotels promising a once-in-a-lifetime experience: wild animals to hold, snuggle, and drape around their necks. It made for perfect selfie fodder—a digital souvenir, primed for Instagram likes.
The enterprise, however, was illegal. In Peru, the laws on removing wild animals from the jungle are somewhat murky, but making money from a captive wild animal is explicitly prohibited. And the animals—wild, disoriented, often fed inadequate diets—were dying. In a 2017 investigation, National Geographic found an anteater slurping up pink yogurt, an underweight manatee being fed soy milk with a baby bottle, and sloths—which sleep 22 hours a day in the wild—being passed around among excited tourists.
In December 2018, Peruvian authorities raided the town. They rescued 22 animals and flew them to rehabilitation centers downriver in Iquitos. (Although some of the animals, including sloths, died after rescue, most are doing well, including a margay and a manatee, being cared for by the Centro de Rescate Amazonico. Javier Velásquez Varela, the center’s director, says he hopes the manatee will be ready for release next year).
Police told townspeople if they caught more animals, there would be fines.
In January 2019, new photos surfaced on Instagram of tour groups handling sloths. Environmental authorities noticed, and they issued a final warning: Stop for good or people would start going to jail.
They stopped. But losing the animal enterprise—and the tourists it brought—meant losing income. Tourist dollars in small Amazonian towns can make the difference between people being able to afford to remain in the communities they grew up in and leaving. Tourism is a lifeline that can buffer communities against rising living costs, resource depletion, and other challenges that force people into nearby cities like Iquitos, Peru, or Leticia, Colombia.
“We were able to provide for ourselves when we were working [with the animals],” Chavez says.
A different way
The community of 650 is not giving up on tourism—it’s just retooling. In January, Leticia-based conservation nonprofit Entropika, which had worked with Peruvian authorities to organize December’s raid, stepped in to help Puerto Alegría. The group helped community members establish a new tourism organization called the Asociación de Turismo Comunitario Puerto Alegría (The Tourism Association of the Community of Puerto Alegría). Chavez is its first president.
The town may no longer have animals, but it offers a unique sense of place. Puerto Alegría provides a taste of Peru to visitors looking to have a brief experience in the country—hop across the river from Colombia, and you can say you’ve visited Peru.
With an eye towards helping the community highlight Peruvian culture, Entropika staff brought Chavez to Iquitos to visit several projects offering sustainable tourism activities, including a culture museum. Chavez decided he wanted to build a culture museum in Puerto Alegría to help visitors learn about the indigenous Cocama, Tikuna, and Yagua peoples, from which many residents descend. Entropika brought the operator of the Iquitos museum, Kevin Huaymana, to spend two weeks in Puerto Alegría, helping the community establish its own museum. They gathered local artifacts and made placards for display, and they orchestrated workshops to learn about local horticulture and medicines.
“I think they have been very brave,” says Angela Maldonado, a conservationist at Entropika, of Chavez and the other tourism association members. “To say ‘we won’t have animals anymore,’ and trying to do something productive.”
“Our understanding of what tourism should be has changed now,” Chavez says. “But at the same time things have gotten tighter for us financially.”
Despite all his and others’ hard work to prepare the museum and cultural offerings, visitors aren’t showing up.
Many local Colombian tour agencies made money by charging tourists to bring them to Puerto Alegria’s animal enterprise, Maldonado says. (The animal handlers themselves worked for tips.) But as soon as the animals went away, “they just completely forgot the community,” she says. “I think this is shameless.”
Wild animal handling still a draw
The tours, says Maldonado, are still centered around illicit animal handling experiences. On Vacation Amazon, the resort that used to send 150 guests a day on average to take selfies with animals at Puerto Alegría, has not sent tour groups to the museum. And some in Puerto Alegría, including those loyal to On Vacation, don’t support the new endeavor, Maldonado says, making it difficult to provide a holistic tourist experience in the community, including restaurant and lodging offerings.
Resorts and tour companies have redirected visitors to other nearby animal handling spots, which have stepped in to fill the vacuum. For example, the Leticia-based tour agency Amazonas Extremo has brought tourists to a community called Aldea, where locals offered the group wild animals to hold, confirmed one person on the trip. And On Vacation Amazon brings groups of resort guests to a community called Zacambú for an animal selfie experience. Several guests, who confirmed that On Vacation arranged their tours, posted selfies with animals to Instagram between February and June 2019.
On Vacation Amazon and Amazonas Extremo had not responded to National Geographic’s request for comment by publication time.
Alberto Yusen Caraza Atoche, the environmental prosecutor for Loreto, the Peruvian province where Puerto Alegría is located, says he’s aware of the continued issues. “It’s difficult for us to be able to detect how many of these tourism companies are behind this illegal conduct,” he says. “We know that On Vacation is one of the big companies on the Colombian side that works in this illegal market.”
It’s tough to police the area, “one, because of the distance; and, two because of logistics,” Caraza Atoche says. Third: the tangled web of laws and jurisdictions when dealing with crime in a place where three countries intersect. Caraza Atoche’s Peruvian department, for example, can’t do much about the Colombian travel operators fueling the problem.
Maldonado hopes the tourists will start to come back to Puerto Alegría, so community members “can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she says, “because they are having a really bad economic time.” Providing some hope is Innative Amazon, a new project that works with Entropika to feature low-impact, eco- and animal-friendly tourist excursions in the area. The group is trying to introduce day trips to the town.
In the meantime, Chavez and others are hopeful that their efforts will pay off so they can start earning a living again—and some goodwill. “We need to rehabilitate the name of Puerto Alegría,” he says. “We need to earn back our good reputation.”