The World of Wonder: The Law of the Wild

Life lessons learned in Belize's Chiquibul jungle

July 28th, 2016

It's a fool's errand to venture into the wild and expect any kind of sympathy from the environment, particularly when doing so with good intentions. Nature's beauty may be awe-inspiring, but this can be beguiling - for all her splendor, nature is utterly indifferent to your suffering.

The Good Skiff Dave

The Good Skiff Dave

Two weeks ago I was that fool aboard the good skiff "Dave," speeding along the Raspaculo River (which means 'drag ass', for all you poets), my head held high in the breeze as I made my way to help defend scarlet macaw nests in Belize's Chiquibul Nature Reservation, my hubris nowhere near in check. I was volunteering with Scarlet Six Biomonitoring, a Belizean organization that deploys teams into the dense rainforest to camp near the birds' nests to protect them from Guatemalan poachers. 

Scarlet Six works in collaboration with other conservation groups like FCD, the Friends for Conservation and Development, who use armed rangers in defense of the baby birds. Collectively Belizean animal lovers recognized that the stunningly exotic scarlet macaw was being poached to extinction in their own backyards, and took action once their population was hovering at a depressingly low 250. When Scarlet Six began their work five years ago, 90% of known macaw chicks were taken from their nests, of which a further 50% would go on to perish during the transportation process back to Guatemala. Last year, 0% of macaw chicks were poached, a trend that they are hoping to see remain through this year's fledging season, which ends in September.

I've always admired these parrots from afar, their rainbow plumage mesmerizing to take in and their squabbling and squawking almost human in its complexity. To have the opportunity to see them in their native habitat, while directly impacting their survival rates (and by extension the chance for future generations to visit them in the wild) was one I could not pass up. I first heard about it from Rebecca Coutant's personal account on The San Pedro Scoop of camping in the Chiquibul, and immediately contacted Scarlet Six founder Roni Martinez to see if I could do it, too. 


The risks were clear. The Chiquibul is pristine jungle, as untouched and alive as a modern rainforest could be. Dangers include venomous snakes, 10+ foot long Morelet's crocodiles, jaguars, biting bugs, stinging plants, and of course conflict with armed poachers who aren't thrilled about the volunteers inhibiting their ill-gotten source of income. There's the added bonus that camping in the jungle for two weeks brings, which is no contact with the outside world for the duration, and a minimum journey of three hours back to civilization should an emergency occur. That's a long time for snake venom to set in. 

I wasn't scared, I was energized. The dreams of my youth would be fulfilled in this expedition: I always imagined myself as a jungle-faring badass in her element beneath the tall, broad canopy leaves, spotting rare rainforest creatures at every turn, who would of course regard me with a mutual kind of dignity and respect. I saw this adventure as the realization of those lifelong self idealizations, as well as proof that I can handle extreme environments for the sake of my work. Talk about setting some high, unrealistic expectations...but it wouldn't be me if I didn't let my imagination get carried away at least a little bit. 

The first humbling experience that nature served me was when I misjudged the integrity of a riverside tree and it broke beneath my weight, sending me - and my brand new Canon 6D camera - into the mercurial, crocodile-infested river. Every other volunteer and employee witnessed my humiliation, some later admitting it amused them (you're welcome). I deviated from the group's grassier path walking along the river and took an alternate route, swiftly paying for it with wet socks and a heavily bruised ego. By some force of luck, my gear remained dry. 

At least I got to meet this little guy during its vet check at the end of that rough hike. This is why we're here!

At least I got to meet this little guy during its vet check at the end of that rough hike. This is why we're here!

While the others continued on, I used the excuse of drying my US Army Surplus jungle boots to quietly cry alone on the riverside. My first instinct was to be pissed, and to quit, but fortunately it occurred to me that nature is indifferent to my highs and lows, and my quitting would only reflect myself. One of my motivations for taking this journey was to strengthen my self reliance skills, to prove that I'm capable of fully taking care of myself. Until this point I had been unknowingly dependent on a non-existent being, nature, to fill in my weak spots.

Instead of cursing a jungle that does not exist for my professional or personal benefit, I reclaimed my role as manifester of my own destiny, acknowledging that I would much rather be the naturalist who keeps going despite setbacks, instead of someone who quits the moment it gets challenging. 

My next jungle-themed life lesson was more brutal; I wasn't sure if I could bear admitting it to the world at large. But the truth is that while nature is indifferent, there is nothing comparable to the feeling of reconnecting with the earth, and I want people to know that even those of us who appear capable in the outdoors struggle with issues like abject fear, feeling like an imposter, and being out of our comfort zones.

I skipped a morning birding adventure to catch up on sleep..and guess what? 

They saw a jaguar. A fully grown, fully photographable, majestic jungle cat which those who spend their life in the Central American rainforest sometimes never see. Seriously?

Come on. Of all the boat rides I took, of all the enthusiastic yes's I offered, why did the jaguar have to show up this one time? Because nature is indifferent damn it, and the jaguars aren't there for my entertainment. 

Okay, so, lesson learned. Always do everything, forever. Later there was a logistical boat ride planned, and I demanded a seat aboard. If I couldn't be party to the opportunities made available to me, then I would just have to create my own. Manifest destiny!

Photo by Louis Mai

Photo by Louis Mai

And there it was. A quamwood tree on the riverside with branches full of maybe 40 scarlet macaws, close and clear enough to get actual photos. Finally, I thought, my luck has turned! Scarlet Six field technician (and excellent wildlife photographer) Louis led the way through the tall grass, which I jokingly compared to the tall grass the velociraptors in Jurassic Park use for cover during their attacks. I mentally patted myself on the back for my clever, millennial reference until I realized my left thigh was in serious, stinging pain. I looked around for velociraptors, my attention entirely diverted away from taking photos of macaws, but instead of a fictional dinosaur I found Donald Trump's hair lounging on a leaf right at thigh-height. 

A caterpillar stung me. A Megalopyge opercularis, to be exact, which one day metamorphoses into the southern flannel moth, otherwise known as the puss moth, or tree asp. It wasn't even a butterfly's caterpillar, which would have been cooler. Give me a blue morpho caterpillar any day, that's a sting you take with honor. But the impersonator for Donald Trump's hairpiece? Come on, Chiquibul. Come on! It was a personal affront to the Democratic Party of the US. Apparently, this is what I get for trying to be adventurous. Fortunately Louis snapped a photo of the villain for me, as I was busy returning to the boat with my tail tucked between my legs.

I was assured death was not to be expected after the sting, so I could rest easy, but I was more focused on trying to learn something salient from the experience. Not only had I missed the jaguar, my subsequent boldness was met with the biggest joke of an injury one could receive.

That's the wild for you. It does not bend to your will. It cannot be conquered. It can be destroyed by activities like poaching, but even the poachers have to play by nature's rules (we just hope they lose). 

It was an incredible 14 days full of many wildlife encounters which I'll continue sharing as I synthesize the experience. Until then, I'll be sure not to forget my newfound relationship with the wild, especially if I get close to any rivers. 

Over and out,

Ali Wunderman


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