My name is Samantha Zwicker and I’m a tropical biologist and wildlife rehabilitation specialist, and the founder and co-director of Hoja Nueva. I have a master's degree in wildlife conservation ecology, a diploma in nonprofit management, and currently completing my doctorate in Quantitative Ecology at the University of Washington.

At Hoja Nueva, our mission is the protection and fortification of Amazonian biodiversity in Madre de Dios, Peru through conserving intact ecosystems, confronting threats to wildlife, implementing biological research, and conducting environmental education. To date, we have created a protected area of over 7400 acres of rainforest in the Madre de Dios region, which is one of the most pristine unprotected areas of Amazon rainforest that is still intact. Our protected area is stewarded privately by our organization, and serves as our base of operations for our wildlife rehabilitation, ecological research, environmental education, and community outreach initiatives. 

In the new Prime Video documentary Wildcat, you can get a glimpse of some of the critical work and conservationism we’re doing at Hoja Nueva, and join our journey of rewilding a very special orphaned baby ocelot. 


Comments: 71 • Responses: 21  • Date: 

unionize_reddit_mods13 karma

Given how often people in your position are assassinated, what kind of heavy weaponry are you using?

leopardusmdd29 karma

This isn't as common in our region/in the country of Peru in general. Weapons are not permitted and are difficult to get in Peru. Luckily we've never reached this level of conflict and even though I've been in some difficult situations that could have become life-threatening, it turned out ok.

JackDa6610 karma

A bit selfish question here: I'm a wildlife biologist myself and have worked and volunteered a bit in Latin America (Mexico, Perú, Bolivia). Are you planning on hiring biologists in a close future? I have tremendous respect for the work you do and always wanted to help a project like yours, particularly now that I have graduated.

All the best !

leopardusmdd9 karma

Hey! We put a call out for research coordinator applications in Nov and recently chose 5 to join us in early Feb. We will likely be looking for 1 or 2 again in July. It's definitely a great opportunity to do your own research on our reserve!! It's not the best pay, but for recent grads, those with less than 5 years experience in the field etc. it's a good gig. Fully covered accommodations, food, everything, plus a stipend of $300 a month and costs of any research equipment for your project covered too. Keep an eye out on our socials for any announcements before summer!! xo

JackDa664 karma

I definitely will keep an eye open ! Thank you very much, and maybe see you later this year 🙂

leopardusmdd5 karma

Sounds like a plan!! :)

zNz__23214 karma

What's surprised you since completing your masters/doctorate about the field broadly or this mission in particular?

leopardusmdd13 karma

I wish I was able to apply both my masters and doctoral work more specifically to my work at Hoja Nueva but they've always remained quite separate. It wasn't really a surprise, but, not everything I learned in school was applicable to running an international nonprofit out of a place as remote as Las Piedras, Madre de Dios. If I could, I would write a book about everything I've learned to help others who might want to do something similar in the future!

DevilishlyDetermined2 karma

Hey Samantha, I recently watched wildcat and loved it. One thing I couldn’t quite understand the intentional laser focus of Harry Turners mental illness with a heavy dose of deprecation. Any comment on this?

leopardusmdd3 karma

Glad you enjoyed it!

Besides contributing some of the footage over the years, I didn't have any hand or influence in the creation of the film. Harry himself had much more influence over what he filmed of himself and shared with the filmmakers. But I think only the film team and Amazon could answer this question for you x

Mtw1221 karma

What is the most dangerous situation you have been in?

leopardusmdd10 karma

I've been in a few potentially life-threatening situations (all involving people, not animals). The jungle has been good to me.
We run into conflicts sometimes, not always with "illegal loggers" as most people would expect, but rather people trafficking wildlife. Those trafficking wild animals are often involved in other lucrative and illegal activities like the gun/drug trade, and are often armed/more dangerous and more used to intense situations. We work hand-in-hand with local governments to rescue animals, sometimes from situations where the police need to get involved and threats are made. Being a foreigner adds a layer of complexity that can be hard to manage. It is very helpful to have the almost 10-year experience with local people/communities that I do, as it adds a layer of respect and credibility to our work and also keeps us safe.

Mtw1223 karma

I actually assumed it would involve protecting animals. I’ve heard being a park ranger/security at the sanctuaries (don’t know what the actual job title is) in Africa are some one the most dangerous jobs in the world so I related it to that. People don’t like having their money threatened. The animal trade sucks, but that’s awesome work you are doing! Hope you continue to stay safe!

leopardusmdd2 karma

Thank you very much -- me too! x

ZehTorres1 karma

What motivates the animal trafficking in that region?

leopardusmdd3 karma

In our region it's very opportunistic. Those who go out deep into the forest to harvest timber, brazil nuts etc. spend months on end in the field. During that time it's most economical to collect everything you possibly can -- and that includes baby wild animals. These people are often hunting for bushmeat, but will specifically target mother animals (tapirs, spider monkeys etc) with young because they can eat the mother and take the baby to sell in Puerto Maldonado.
In other areas like Iquitos within the department of Loreto, wildlife trade and trafficking is more commercial. You can see wild animals and wildlife parts being sold in public markets. It's rampant. This is a whole other level of extraction, and why a lot of our seized animals come 2000 miles from Loreto to MDD to our center (like our baby jaguar Artemis).

Breebelle971 karma

What's your favorite animal??

leopardusmdd3 karma

I love margays and ocelots (hence Leopardus!!). However, I'd like to also add the Tayra (Eira barbara) to my list. Not only are they a beautiful, badass mesopredator, but they naturally make great cases for reintroduction.

Salty_Dig_161 karma

Hi! If I were to get a masters in wildlife sciences instead of wildlife conservation ecology, do you think I could work in the same field as you? And if I took wildlife conservation ecology, what other types of jobs would be accessible to me?

leopardusmdd5 karma

Hi! I don't want to deter you from pursuing a career in wildlife conservation (sciences/ecology, etc.), but the reality is that paid jobs are few and far between (you mentioned a job so I'm speaking to paid work :)). Most of my colleagues/labmates have found entry level jobs as professors or potentially jobs for the State in forestry/wildlife that pay well if lucky. I myself haven't been able to pay myself a salary at Hoja Nueva since founding it in 2015 -- I'm only able to pay local/Peruvians a competitive wage. I have done film work, graphic design, consulting on the side to make a living wage. Anyway I just don't want it to come across as the perfect life, fully supported, the "dream" etc. to do what I do because it's just not possible for everyone financially or otherwise. To answer your question from a broader sense though, YES, if you were to get a masters in wildlife sciences, you would be well prepared for a "job" like mine. :) xo

superspud04081 karma

What is culture shock like when you go back and forth between Seattle(USA) and the wilds of Peru? Has it gotten easier? Does America seem decadent? Also, I loved the documentary I saw with your work. You had to deal with a lot of..personality. Much love.

leopardusmdd1 karma

"Personality" is a great way to put it :) and thank you ....

I definitely get more culture shock re-entering the States after spending so much time in the jungle. America does seem decadent! Having a hot shower, the variety of food, cell signal (instead of satellite wifi that cuts out all the time!)...

Visits to society are nice every once in a while for sure. I take full advantage of being in cities (while avoiding big shopping centers/crowded places). But I prefer the jungle!! xo

cookie_addicted1 karma

Hi, I'm a huge nature lover, and I just want to thank you for your work. Here in Chile a lot nation park are in danger because drug organization are taking over it slowly, and it hurts me to know they are get ride of the trees to plant drugs there. And also, some are affected by fire very often, what do you do there with fire hazard?

leopardusmdd1 karma

We experience wildfires in the dry season due to agricultural practices. Farmers will set their land ablaze - it's the most efficient and economical way to clear large pieces of vegetation. Unfortunately, the fire can "skip" over to neighboring lands, and threaten the few intact forest patches that we do have in these areas. The issue is overall habitat destruction/deforestation - but in this particular case it's more an issue of fragmentation. The smaller the "island" of intact forest, the easier it is for fire to take it over. And of course fires have so many edge effects. Very sorry to hear about the issues in Chile -- it sounds similar to areas of the mountains here like Ayacucho, which still experience drug-related violence and land issues. :/

mir5141 karma

What was your journey like from graduating to reaching where you are today? As a fresh zoology graduate with a specialization in wildlife and fisheries biology coming from a country with very little progress made in the way of wildlife conservation, I have very limited streams of guidance for how to progress in my field, and people like you constantly inspire me to want to do more. But i feel at a loss of how and where to apply myself with zero mentoring and guidance.

leopardusmdd1 karma

Sorry to hear it.. I wonder if I have any connections where you're from?

That's a hard one, because I would love to provide mentorship but I know how specific it should be to at least your country or region. My journey from graduating to now has been... difficult to say the least and would have been made easier and more efficient with some guidance. If there's very little progress being made in terms of wildlife conservation, I commend you for wanting to stay and change that. Email me and maybe I can get more info/look for potential contacts! [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected]) xo

FamousComb36491 karma

Please tell us about your tattoos. Are they related to wildlife?

leopardusmdd1 karma

Yes! They are all related to wildlife // wild life haha. All kind of nature-y / elegant in style.

My first tattoo is my whole forearm. It is of Khan, our first ocelot, which my tattoo artist created from a photo of him climbing down a tree. In the past years I've surrounded it with more jungle foliage.

I have a tattoo of the Hoja Nueva logo, and so does our codirector Dylan.

I have a blue morpho butterfly on my hand. To me it represents hope and perseverance in the face of tragedy.

Behind my ear is a snake called the Clelia clelia. It is a very calm, beautiful snake, that eats other snakes (usually venomous ones) :)

Have you heard of Ikigai? It's about finding your reason to live. My tattoo artist recreated the venn diagram into a jungle flower and that's on my arm.

I also have the word "solace" on my neck.

On my opposite forearm is a tattoo that somewhat matches Khan's. It is of my boy, Loki, who I raised from 2 months old through release 1.5 years later. Unfortunately he was killed by an ocelot. I would use his collar to track him every 2-3 days and found his body. Since then I haven't gotten any more tattoos because, all I can think of is him and how I just want more of him/ that remind me of him. </3

FamousComb36491 karma

Oh that's sad :d was Loki an ocelot too? Do animals attack each other in your reserve often?

leopardusmdd2 karma

Loki was a margay. There is a pretty large size difference between a margay (4 kilos) and an ocelot (14 kilos). There is often intraguild predation and killing (sometimes even for energy gain) within the felid guild. When we release an ocelot, we worry about pumas and jaguars. When we release a margay or an oncilla, we worry primarily about ocelots. It's a tough world. And yes, was the saddest thing that's ever happened to me.

aeroaca91 karma

What does protecting a rainforest look like on the day to day?

leopardusmdd1 karma

Being actively present (24/7), maintaining border/beach signs and trails, and maintaining strong relationships with local stakeholders and communities (practicing holistic conservation).

CopperShrimp1 karma

what is the one thing that would make your work immediately easier?

leopardusmdd5 karma

  1. Money! We make a huge impact with a small budget - can only imagine what we could do with some serious backing.
  2. More influence within the government to address animal welfare/ wildlife trafficking country-wide.

CopperShrimp2 karma

money is always an issue what revenue streams are you using? meaning do you run on private backing, or do you have projects - development/ research? in regard to the second, is that in any way realistic - meaning to influence the government?

leopardusmdd5 karma

One of the biggest issues here is turnover in governmental positions. There are maybe 4-5 positions for "wildlife" in every region but personnel is changed sometimes every 6 months. Our team (and teams like us, conservation orgs and rescue centers) remain constant (generally). But every 6 months we are having to rebuild relationships due to the turnover, and as you can imagine, all logistics get turned upside down and it's hard to move forward with any changes or new intitiatives. Maybe "influence" isn't the right word but being recognized as more of a constant, inherently "in it" - with more say in what happens to rescued animals, where the go etc. Another issue is that these wildlife departments are usually the last to receive funding, and NGOs ourselves are usually the ones financially supporting the rescue of wildlife across the country even though it shouldn't be that way.

zNz__23211 karma

What are the economics behind this endeavor:

  • How is this funded?
  • What are the biggest costs?
  • How do you pitch the benefits? Have you noticed what stakeholders seem to be the most receptive to?

leopardusmdd5 karma

Hoja Nueva is approx 70% funded by donations and 30% by visitors. We run a research center on our reserve - separate from the wildlife rehab center - where we accept interns, student groups, etc. Profits from those visits all go to feeding our animals and paying local Peruvian staff!
Our biggest costs depend on our projects at the time, but is generally split between local salaries and animal care. Depending on the year we also have construction/maintenance costs that can get quite high, and logistics costs from being so remote (4 hours from the closest city, having to transport food and supplies by boat and car, sometimes every 3 days).
Thanks for the questions!!

zNz__23211 karma

What moral conflicts, if any, do you find yourself having to balance through this mission?

leopardusmdd6 karma

One of the biggest moral conflicts around rewilding is 1) when to start breaking free from an individual wild animal to let them become more independent and 2) choosing the right time to release them into the wild. There is no protocol as every species and even every individual are completely different. They come to us at different ages, with different backgrounds and traumas - physically and psychologically. We have to make really tough decisions about their futures. For instance, wild animals that have come from the pet trade and are extremely used to/most comfortable with human presence. It is difficult and quite emotional to turn away, but often times we have to. This is when speaking to animals would come in really handy...
We also face inter-governmental and inter-organizational issues you just wouldn't expect in this field. We are all working toward the same goal - right? What is best for animals -- right? Not always right. Some people/orgs/govs have different protocols and often times different decisions -- ones that conflict with my personal morals. In the end you have to stand up for what you believe is right, while also recognizing the bigger picture. Easier said than done!

Mintaka35790 karma

How long do you think you have left?, considering how environmentalists are hunted to extinction in South America. Note: I’m not trying to threaten or offend, I’m just being fatalistically realistic.

leopardusmdd3 karma

Hopefully a few years .. ten would be nice, to have an impact