Samantha Zwicker is one of a kind by living in the Peruvian Amazon to protect threatened wildlife and preserve 7400+ acres of rainforest. Being a Wild Felid Legacy Scholar, NIH Global Health Fellow, Panthera Small Cat Action Fund Grantee, and Ph.D. candidate, Zwicker is committed to creating effective change. At the age of 31, she completes her doctorate in Quantitative Ecology, she holds a master’s degree in wildlife ecology and a diploma in nonprofit management to co-direct her non-profit organization, Hoja Nueva.
Essentially, Hoja Nueva means “new leaf.” “We chose that name because we wanted something that depicted turning a new leaf for conservation. It’s to have this overarching, all-encompassing term for conservation and what we wanted to do here in the lowland Peruvian Amazon,” said Zwicker.
Located in Madre de Dios, Peru, Hoja Nueva is a rehabilitation center that rescues key species, fights against wildlife trafficking, and runs a first-of-its-kind education and ecological research center. As Zwicker spearheads Hoja Nueva’s projects, her work emphasizes the effect of human impact on threatened animals. “Hoja Nueva has three pillars: applied conservation, ecological research, and rewilding. We’ve always been an organization that follows the need. That’s why we went down that path of rewilding. We thought it was a huge need, not only for our region but for the entire country of Peru,” said Zwicker.
International demand for wild animals as pets fuels local activity of taking baby animals from the wild. Once animals are seized from the trade, Hoja Nueva helps the government facilitate where animals go next. “It depends on who reaches out to us first. We accept mostly cats, coatis, kinkajous, peccaries, and pretty much everything that has a chance of being wild again,” said Zwicker. Currently, the feline-specialized center has jaguarundis, as well as a baby jaguar.
Hoja Nueva is especially unique. Being based in the jungle, they are different from other rescue centers. “From an economic and visitor perspective, it makes sense to be placed in a city, said Zwicker. “For us, we’re focusing on rewilding these animals. We don’t want to accept visitors”.
Integrating and embedding animals into the environment they’ll be released into is a top priority. “In these huge natural enclosures up in the jungle, they get to interact with predators. They get that up-close feel of what it’s going to be like once they’re released. That helps them be more successful.” Additionally, the center is perfect for research purposes. “Since there’s lots of disturbance, we can study how humans are modifying the landscape and its effect on wildlife populations,” she said.
Zwicker’s passion stems from her youth. Growing up, she spent a lot of time outdoors. “Every day I was in nature, probably more than most kids. Once I was old enough to start understanding what was happening in the world, it morphed into something totally different. In early college, I understood what was going on outside of the little bubble I grew up in,” said Zwicker. From her budding childhood interests to her college studies, she turned her love for nature into a meaningful career.
Establishing a one-of-its-kind rehabilitation center and relocating to Peru surely isn’t for the weak, but Zwicker rose to the challenge, exceeding her own expectations. “I was a foreigner who wanted to study wildlife populations. Then, I realized I wanted to start a long-term project here,” she said.
But there was an obstacle in Zwicker’s way: a language barrier. “In the very beginning, I couldn’t even count in Spanish. I wasn’t great, but I was really interested in learning about the culture, nature, and wildlife,” said Zwicker. Relying on spending time with nearby communities and integrating into the culture relieved the barrier, while even establishing grounds for Hoja Nueva. “It turned into something much bigger because I was part of it. This is why Hoja Nueva was formed as a community center. Our first structure was built on this land that the community had essentially offered me after the first year of living with them.”
Living in Peru doesn’t only benefit the animals, but it benefits Zwicker, an Illinois native, as well. “I have struggled with a chronic migraine my whole life. Living in an environment that doesn’t have air pollution, constant light pollution, and noise that a city would have is really important for me,” she said. “That’s one of my favorite parts: being so close to nature and able to experience everything firsthand.”
As high schoolers, there’s so much we can do to support Zwicker in her efforts. “It all starts with you. Social media is huge. People want to travel and take photos of wild animals. These types of images fuel the wildlife trade. Support good organizations with good messages, rather than supporting an organization that’s sending out the wrong idea to people,” she said.
Also, being a responsible tourist is critical. “As high schoolers explore the world, going into study abroad or colleges in different areas, being a responsible tourist can affect local wildlife populations, she said. “Buying wildlife parts can seem super common with little impact, but it does have an impact. It’s just something that many people can’t see.” These simple actions are steps toward a society free of wildlife trafficking.
Transforming the wild one day at a time, Zwicker is incredible. Although there’s been a series of challenges within her career, she always rises to the occasion. “It’s been a huge commitment, like a big leap of faith. It’s something bigger than I ever imagined, Zwicker said. “I’m hoping that as we grow, we’re able to have a bigger impact on research and wild populations. Hopefully now in the realm of wildlife trade and trafficking, I can raise awareness in Peru and globally.”