Conservationist and author, Paul Rosolie talks exclusively to The Style Edit about life in the Amazon, the fires in Australia and why saving the planet isn’t someone else’s responsibility.
What first sparked your interest in conservation?
Nature has always been the thing that inspired me most. Since I could walk I was drawn to streams and forests, and amazed by the creatures that lived in them. That started with salamanders, snakes, frogs, birds, deer and foxes. You know, local wildlife in New York. I’ve always had a special eye for wildlife, some special luck, and the ability to speak with animals in a way. They are calm with me. But I took it really hard when I realised that some of these things were being killed off by people so badly that they might be gone forever. It was even harder to learn that there have already been human-caused extinctions, and that our world was once even richer. I found this all really stressful and depressing. The idea that things are getting worse, the idea that the world’s of moss and wildlife that I loved could be bulldozed at any point… Very early on I decided that I would devote myself to protecting the things I love.
How would you describe what it is you do?
I explore and protect rainforests. In the Amazon I have spent the last 14 years trying to protect a crucial tributary. In India I have lived with elephant herds and tracked wild tigers. I write about these adventures in both non fiction and fiction. My first book, Mother of God is about the region of the Amazon I work in, and the early days of exploring and finding my path. My second book is a novel called The Girl and the Tiger which is an adventure, a lot like a modern day Jungle Book with strong conservation themes, and it’s strongly based on real life.
Professionally I am the Director of Junglekeepers, an NGO that protects 30,000 acres of the Amazon rainforest. I am also the founder of Tamandua Expeditions, which employs local Amazonian people who would be loggers, gold miners, or farmers, and instead helps them to become guides and boat drivers and find employment in ecotourism. I also guide people through the jungle, and do television work with documentaries for Netflix, NatGeo, Discovery, and others.
We are realising that our oxygen, our water, our resources are finite. That we are killing off all the other creatures we share our world with. So to save the rainforest, and the oceans and everything else the answer is the same; we have to wake up.
You’ve literally been eaten alive by a snake – is that the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
(Laughs) That was a stupid Discovery Channel stunt, and no, I didn’t actually get eaten. And in a sense it was scary as hell learning how devious humans can be, how far people will go for ratings and business. That whole episode was a disaster, but one I learned a lot from.
The most scared I’ve ever been? That would have to be the time in the wild I got chased by a wild bull elephant and very nearly crushed – that was the closest I came to dying (is it bad that I loved every second of it, and enjoyed the adrenaline storm that came after?). Also, once while out on solo deep in the Amazon I ran into ‘uncontacted tribes’ with bows and arrows and had to make a run for it. They are known for killing people in some pretty creative ways. That was terrifying. Yeah, mostly I’m scared of humans. The animals I understand.
What’s the biggest threat to conservation?
Well there’s that quote from Jane Goodall that the greatest threat to saving the world is believing someone else will do it. Right now there are far too many people on earth. Our population is out of control, we’ve lost more than 50% of the wild animals on this planet since 1970 and our forests and ocean ecosystems are rapidly dying. That is why we are seeing disasters like floods, Amazon fires, Australia fires, and all these things worsening. We need a shift in consciousness. A return to the time when we remembered and truly understood that all our wealth, happiness, and our very lives are only possible because of ecosystems. So we need to protect the natural world. Animals, plants, rivers, oceans. Destroying life-giving systems needs to be viewed as crimes against humanity. After 14 years working on conservation projects all over the world I’ve seen a lot first hand and I can tell you – it’s pretty bad out there. We are approaching the point of no return on a lot of things. The fight to save biodiversity and our environment is the defining issue of our time.
Our population is out of control, we’ve lost more than 50% of the wild animals on this planet since 1970 and our forests and ocean ecosystems are rapidly dying. That is why we are seeing disasters like floods, Amazon fires, Australia fires, and all these things worsening. We need a shift in consciousness. A return to the time when we remembered and truly understood that all our wealth, happiness, and our very lives are only possible because of ecosystems.
What needs to be done to save the rainforest and what are the implications if it continues to be destroyed at the current rate?
Look. Not cutting down trees isn’t rocket science. It’s just that we allow other people to destroy things for profit. We’ve been allowing it since the beginning. The thing is, now we have to reassess. There’s a lot of people here on earth. We are realising that our oxygen, our water, our resources are finite. That we are killing off all the other creatures we share our world with. So to save the rainforest, and the oceans and everything else the answer is the same; we have to wake up.
People feel helpless but we have all the power. Stop electing leaders that want to profit from the destruction of nature. Stop supporting corporations that destroy ecosystems (this is huge with the palm oil issue that is ravaging Indonesian rainforests). We have to start living what we believe in. Most people don’t want to live in a world where the rivers are filthy, elephants are extinct, and the air is toxic.
I’ll tell you a quick story. National Geographic photographer Trevor Frost and I spent some time with illegal gold miners in the Amazon. Gold mining is a huge problem there and in Peru alone over 350,000 acres have been lost. Forests completely destroyed. Mercury pollution causing birth defects in people and wildlife. It’s just apocalyptic. Well we spent time with the gold miners while investigating anacondas, and as we got to know them I floated the idea that they might enjoy being tour guides more than miners. That was two years ago. Last week I guided a Tamandua trip with the same miners who used to be destroying the forest. Only now they are the guardians of their forest. All we had to do was give them a better option, and they took it. They don’t want to be criminals. They don’t want to have mercury poisoning. They actually love and appreciate their wild jungle and all the wildlife – they just needed help. Stories like this give me hope because it shows how easy it is to change things for the better.
Do you think it’s taken the media coverage of the recent fires in Australia and the resulting smoke in Sydney for people to realise this is a mainstream issue?
Yes. When the Amazon fires’ story hit last year I was on the front of that wave because I posted that video that I filmed while I was actually in the fires. Part of every day at work for me. And it happens every year. But as things get worse we are seeing more hysteria over it, which is a good thing. We need to be worried. And my inboxes are filled with messages from people who are worried that it’s already too late. I tell them that while we might be close, it’s not too late yet. There is still so much left to save. There’s a lot of scary things happening. Our oceans are in terrible shape, our forests are being cut, we are losing species. But these are all things we have allowed, and things we have the power to stop if we truly realise what we are losing. So it’s an interesting dualism between stress and hope. That’s why it is so encouraging seeing how mainstream conservation has become. People are doing things locally in their own backyards to foster native species (like monarch butterflies and certain bird species in the US). People are fighting corporations and developers that would destroy irreplaceable forests and rivers. It’s becoming more clear and commonly accepted that when ecosystems are degraded it affects local people, local business, the health of everyone, the beauty of our world, and on and on. People are waking up in a big way and that is super encouraging. There still might be a chance to save the world, but we need all hands on deck!
‘Real life’ as we have come to call it is really abrasive compared to the wilderness.
Is social media a powerful tool in helping to spread your message?
It’s funny. People feel like technology and nature are opposed to one another. Just like people feel like science and religion are mutually exclusive. But if the jungle has taught me one thing it’s that whatever we assume is rarely the truth. Social media has been a tremendous asset in the fight to save the environment. In the past if someone began dumping toxic chemicals, or poaching, or destroying something – it often went unseen. Today there are people with cameras everywhere. Information can be spread without filters. This has a big effect on how fast and how efficiently we can discover, discuss, and address threats to the environment. It has also helped because it makes it clear that this is everywhere. The conservation community has benefited greatly from social media, and has helped my efforts with Tamandua and Junglekeepers – without social media I doubt we’d be protecting as much forest as we are.
You’re from New York but have spent the past few years between the Amazon and India; is it difficult to readjust to ‘real life’ and where do you call home?
I began this work at the age of 18. Fourteen years later I’ve spent most of my adult life in the wild. Often far off the grid. Although New York is ‘home’ and where I am from, I no longer call anywhere home. The Amazon is my heart’s home. India is my adopted home and family. And yes, it can be very hard when you spend months being woken up by birds and sung to sleep by frogs, to suddenly be thrown into society with sirens and hectic schedules. ‘Real life’ as we have come to call it is really abrasive compared to the wilderness. But the wild-life affects you deeper than I would have thought possible. I don’t fit in in cities. I get stressed out. My manners are terrible. People notice. Living out in the jungle I’ve missed out on certain things.
Also, I’ve formulated what I believe based on what Kipling called ‘jungle law’. There are indisputable truths in nature and those have become the foundation of what I believe. When I come out and see people so wrapped up in politics, religion, the economy, it all seems like a bad joke. It’s like The Matrix or something. Like cities are just these fish tanks where food is brought in and garbage carted out, where entertainment and distractions are provided and the ground smoothed over with concrete for easy walking. From inside the fish tank it’s easy to forget what is really important, how things really work, and what we are doing here.
We have to start living what we believe in.
You’ve written two books one fiction, one non fiction – which was easier to write?
Writing non-fiction is fun and exciting because I love telling stories, and I’ve survived some good ones! It’s also great because people connect with it on this really direct level. Mother of God, though it’s about the jungle, wildlife, and Amazonia – has so many other elements. It’s interesting to me how many people find it almost more useful as an account of someone finding their path, following dreams, and coming of age and purpose.
A novel is a totally different endeavour. I realise now that somehow fiction is a far more personal thing to share. Our journal and our dreams – they come from different parts of us. I realise now that even more than reading a book, writing one requires you to live deeply in the world you have created. Characters, places, moments, emotions. You live so deeply in this world that when I finished writing I was devastated. But with that startling feeling of loss I realised that I truly felt like I had done what I set out to do. They say you should write the book you always wanted to read. And that’s what I tried to do with this. The story of The Girl and the Tiger is less my own creation and more a collection of moments, truths, and legends I found over the years in the Indian jungle. It is a necklace of a book, a series of seeds and teeth, stones and bones, gathered like beads from the forest floor; I only added the string. It is the result of following elephants, searching for tigers, sitting late into the night around campfires, and becoming acquainted with the tribes of the forest, both human and animal. Living and writing that book was one of the best experiences of my life.
When I come out and see people so wrapped up in politics, religion, the economy, it all seems like a bad joke. It’s like The Matrix or something.
What does 2020 have in store for you?
I’m still riding this incredible wave that is The Girl and the Tiger. There’s talk of a movie adaptation which is really exciting (I’d love to see that movie!). And it’s just so amazing hearing from people all over the world as this story spreads. I think the fact that it explores the perspective of animals, that it has a female hero, that it is so directly the story of forests and what we stand to lose is just hitting a chord. And it’s encouraging to see that response because it means people care deeply about these things.
As always I’m working on new films and a new book on the gruesome underbelly of the conservation world – but that’s all still in the pipeline and secondary compared to what is happening in the Amazon. We are at a crucial time with the protection of the Las Piedras River. There’s so much destruction happening and I’m at the point where I’m doing all I can and need more help. The fate of this river is going to be decided in the next few years. And at this point, I’m viscerally aware that all the monkeys, birds, jaguars, ancient trees, giant anacondas, and all the millions of millions of other heartbeats, species, families of wildlife that are contained in that river – are depending on us to protect them from what is coming. It’s now or never. And this years the fires will almost certainly be worse. So this year is the big one. I doubt I’ll be home much.
Mostly I’m scared of humans. The animals I understand.