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Story by Ali Wunderman · Illustrations by Molly Magnell

I was the only woman on a volunteer crew sent into the jungle to defend a dwindling bird population from pet-trade poachers. And I saved my sense of self in the process.

Crouching by the side of the opaque, muddy waters of Belize’s Raspaculo River, I held back tears while wringing its muck from my socks. I had just fallen in after a failed attempt to support myself using a dead tree, which broke under my weight and sent me sidelong into the river. You can’t do this, you shouldn’t have tried, you should leave right now, I angrily thought to myself. Until I remembered: There was no way out.

Three days before this incident, I was just beginning my 14-day stint in the Chiquibul National Park as a volunteer protecting scarlet macaws from pet trade poachers. At the time, a Belizean nonprofit called Scarlet Six deployed volunteers like me into the jungle to support their efforts to rebuild the rapidly dwindling population of these birds. I had fallen in love with Belize a few months prior during my honeymoon, so when I found out I could play a tangible role in supporting their wildlife conservation efforts, I jumped at the opportunity.

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