The first time conservationist Ángela Maldonado, 49, slept in the Amazon, she was accompanied by Matías, a primate she had rescued and was trying to return to its natural habitat. In the darkness, lying in a hammock protected by mosquito nets, they could see that the floor of the forest was covered with fluorescent mushrooms that shone like stars in a night sky. Matías was scared but Ángela knew that the biggest forest on earth was simply offering them a welcome. “The indigenous tribes know that the jungle either welcomes or rejects you,” she says. “I felt like I was home.”
Maldonado has spent 20 years exploring the humid, dense Amazon, and fighting the trafficking of its inhabitants, particularly its primates. Her work has earned her the 2020 National Geographic Society/Buffet Awards for Leadership in Conservation and the UK’s Whitley Gold Award in 2010, considered the environmental equivalent of an Oscar.
She lives in Leticia, a remote village on the banks of the Amazon where the borders of Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet. The village can only be reached by plane or boat. It is a corner of the world where the animals’ voices are joined by those of mafias and armed gangs.
The primates are just one more currency in a scenario of deforestation, coca cultivation, gold digging, tourism and science labs. Regarding the scientists, Maldonado has been waging war against the use of wild animals. Her complaints prompted the closure of the Manuel Elkin Patarroyo lab. The primate being used for experiments was the Aotus, the only nocturnal species used in experiments to find treatments for malaria.
Maldonado has had to challenge entire trafficking networks that have the support of politicians and the aid of indigenous locals and feed businesses linked to experiments, consumption and tourists in search of exotic beasts. Despite what she is up against, she has managed to get hunting bans in place in Colombia and Peru, as well as tourist projects in communities that depend on natural resources.
In 2003, she had to seek permission from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to move to the jungle. Everyone knows she’s there and, in a minefield of conflicting interests, she’s tried to protect what she can.
From her home surrounded by papaya trees, she connects to the outside world via a weak internet connection. From here, she can study the initiatives launched by her foundation, Entropika. She can also watch the magical Amazonian sunsets and open the door to whoever knocks. Sometimes the knock comes from an indigenous local seeking advice. On other occasions, it comes from primates seeking food or birds such as the Macaws with their multi-colored plumage.
Maldonado was born in the concrete jungle of Bogotá, where she felt lost. She studied business administration, but failed to find direction, until Matías came into her life. The journey she made to return him to the jungle took her to a research station run by a couple of Americans; and she left him with them. But the station was attacked and abandoned some months later and she went back to rescue her friend.
When she told her family and friends that she was going to live in the Amazon, they said she was mad, though her parents have been entirely supportive. Not long after settling in, she had an encounter she would never forget. The head of an animal was caught in a ravine. She went to its aid and when she got close, she realized she was dealing with a jaguar. They exchanged stares. “It was the most powerful stare I have received in my life,” she says. “It sent a shiver up my spine.”
She emerged unscathed. All her experiences with animals in the jungle have been positive. Not so, with human beings. Her work has not only earned her awards but also death threats and other strategies to encourage her to pack up and leave. There was a period when her photo could be seen on walls and fences next to a Nazi swastika and African children dying due to a lack of vaccinations. Until recently, she was under police protection.
“Ángela has given her life to the jungle and its people,” says Thomas Lafon, the director of the Entropika foundation. “She cannot look the other way when she sees injustice. I once saw her stop a drunk man who was abusing his wife. Her attitude has earned her both friends and enemies.”
She has not confined herself to defending just the flora and fauna but speaks out about the crimes that fail to be covered in the media — those of drug trafficking and corruption. Business grows like a cancer. The young indigenous locals work in the coca fields and are paid in coca base, with many becoming addicted.
When she speaks about this, it is as though she’s describing the same problems that pushed her to leave the city, which she is unlikely to return to despite missing the museums, the Asian food and her parents. It’s a comfort to her that she is watching over the lungs of the world.
Having ventured out on his own, Matías returned one afternoon with a family of primates. Seeing him agile and strong, she understood that they had both learned to survive. She hasn’t seen him since.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition