Wild Thing: Conservationist Paul Rosolie Talks Life In The Amazon And Why Climate Change Is Not Someone Else’s Problem

The Style Edit caught up with conservationist and author, Paul Rosolie to talk about the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on nature, why there has never been a more important time in history to be alive and why we need to start demanding change now.

©Gowri Varanashi

We last spoke to you at the start of 2020; what has the last year been like for you and what projects are you currently working on?
The last year has been complete insanity! The last time we spoke it was 2020 and the world had just witnessed the devastating fires in the Amazon. The wildfires have continued to rage, but the media attention had already moved on. This problem of human-caused fires has gone on for decades and now we are reaching a tipping point where soon it might be too late to save Amazonia. My focus of the last year has been to document this issue—which often means running into a hellscape of burning forest. In November, Mohsin Kazmi and I were on assignment for Age of Union to document the fires and got surrounded by seventy-foot walls of flames. We came out singed and gasping. It’s rough work physically and emotionally, we’ve had to watch some of the most beautiful, vibrant forest on earth be turned to black nothing.

The good news is nature is incredibly resilient and there’s still a narrow window of time left.

One of the most exciting things I’m doing with Junglekeepers Peru is working on protecting this incredible swath of ancient forest that is packed with wildlife and threatened by loggers. A few months ago it looked like we were going to lose the forest, the trees, and all the incredible wildlife that lives there; it’s 20,000 acres of pristine Amazonia (monkeys, birds, jaguars, anacondas, ancient trees). The possibility of losing it is terrifying, but we are fighting as hard as we can with some pretty innovative tools, and might be close to a big win for the forest.

©Mohsin Kazmi

What are these innovative tools? I’ve heard you have some new allies in the fight…
We have been hiring and training people local to the region to protect and appreciate the forest. Some of these are native people, others are ex-loggers that are now working to protect the forest. We are using satellite imagery, drones, and social media. Storytelling is a powerful force in letting the world know what we are losing and how quickly we are losing it. You can hear numbers all day but to see it is different. This new level of connectivity, visibility, and social awareness across the globe has been changing what has traditionally been a really tragic trajectory.

One of the most exciting things has been Junglekeepers teaming up with Age of Union, a movement started by Dax Dasilva, a leading tech CEO, arts entrepreneur and LGBTQ ambassador, who is using his love of the natural world to ignite a movement of unseparation, meaning a united front across all people, cultures, and living things. He’s forming a global alliance of conservation initiatives and the result is going to be some stunning last-minute-saves of threatened habitat, endangered species, and indigenous cultures across the globe. In a few months the world is going to see something that hasn’t been seen before—and a lot of incredible, positive, things are about to happen. Dax saw firsthand with me the incredible biodiversity at stake, met with the people, and saw the burning forests. I can tell you this man is committed to changing things on a global scale.

“This new level of connectivity, visibility, and social awareness across the globe has been changing what has traditionally been a really tragic trajectory.”

Deep Jungle by Paul Rosolie: In the early morning the jungle mist is thick and rises as the heat of the day burns it condenses into thunderheads and rains down again, in this way the Amazon rainforest produces its own moisture cycle. The increased area of burned/degraded forest that occurs each year could jeopardise this cycle to the point that there is not enough moisture and the cycle breaks. 

The impact of Covid has been felt around the world but what affect would you say it has had on conservation and the environment?
Wildlife tourism keeps local people employed and habitat protected all over the globe— just think of Costa Rica, Africa, India, the Amazon etc. So in this way wildlife and the people who work in conservation were hit hard. A lot of great and important projects didn’t survive. In the Peruvian Amazon, it was locked down and quarantined and the loggers and miners got away with some serious damage to the forest without worry of being caught.

In a different perspective, it did force people to look at, ok, we are very much at the whim of nature, and reliant on our relationship with the natural world. But for the animals, we’ve all seen the stories of habitats improving for them. How Co2 levels dropped. Water cleared, air quality improved, and I think that’s a powerful demonstration for change. We now know that we have the capacity to change the course of history, the environment, and our legacy on earth. Whether we will is a question that will call us together as a global society, as a species, and require us to think not only scientifically, but also spiritually.

Dax Dasilva and Paul Rosolie by Sterling Bennett: Montreal based entrepreneur Dax Dasilva has taken it as his calling to create an alliance of conservation changemakers. He has called the movement Age of Union. His philosophy is based on four essential pillars: Leadership, Culture, Spirituality and Nature. Dax and Paul both believe that we are at a crucial moment in history, and that we are responsible for writing the future. The story of the earth doesn't have to be a tragedy. There is still hope, and so much left to save. 

Do you think perceptions surrounding climate change and conservation are shifting? What more needs to be done in terms of raising awareness?
Look…climate change is a hard one for some people because they cant ‘see it’. That’s why I usually start with hard numbers on the deteriorating health of our oceans, deforestation rates, or the terrifying extinction crisis we are currently in. These things are real problems. But for people more connected with nature, their livelihoods are really being impacted by these changes. The shifts in the seasons, the symptoms of a globally altered climate. Even though nearly half of us now live in cities, it’s becoming apparent to everyone that the health of natural systems is something that transcends race, geography, political affiliations. The fact that wildlife is crucial, benefits us, and these other organisms have a right to be here too.

“We need to demand change. People are going to buy water bottles: it is up to us to demand that companies stop selling plastic water bottles. It is up to us to demand sustainable fuel, and sustainable fishing methods.”

Waterfalls by Sterling Bennett: There are places in the jungle that are sacred. Where water runs clean and the trees are kings. Where the animals have never seen a human before. For me this is my church, my temple. Drinking the water, and watching the sweat steam off my skin and into the air, rising into the clouds and raining back down.. This was the forest I went to after the worst of the burning. Where we filmed #DarkGreen.

What has been your scariest moment in the Amazon?
There’s one that stands out above the rest – and let me tell you I’ve been wrapped up by an anaconda until my ribs almost broke and giant trees falling has made for some close calls. And then there’s the whole running into flaming forest to film thing that has almost turned me into charcoal a few times. But the most scared I’ve ever been was on a solo expedition when I came into contact with nomadic tribes. Commonly called ‘Uncontacted Tribes’, these are people who still carry bows and arrows, who live naked in the forest and have been isolated for centuries. Seeing them all alone is a very dangerous, unknown reality. People have been killed by arrows in our region. Humans are always scarier; I’ll take the wildlife any day.

Ignacio Ranger by Paul Rosolie: The Junglekeepers Ranger team employs local experts as Rangers to protect the forest. By doing this they create a community that values and protects the forest, where young people aspire to be Rangers, instead of loggers or gold miners. 

Do you worry about what the future of our planet looks like?
Absolutely. But right when the oceans, forests, animals, and entire climate are on the brink of no return… there is hope. I think that now more than ever before people and governments are waking up to the idea that we will be sealing our own fate if we don’t turn this around. No matter who you are or where you live, you are the product of natural processes and we need our oceans, forests, rivers, and ecosystems in order to maintain a healthy world. Wildlife is a crucial element of that. Indigenous cultures are a crucial part of that. Everyone reading this is also a crucial part of that. We could be the last generation to have the option to fix this while there is still time. It’s an exciting time to be alive because there has never been a more important time in history.

“We now know that we have the capacity to change the course of history, the environment, and our legacy on earth. Whether we will is a question that will call us together as a global society, as a species, and require us to think not only scientifically, but also spiritually.”

Tree Climb by Stephane Thomas: As much as 50% of the life in a rainforest exists in the canopy. Climbing the vines that fall to the forest floor is challenging and dangerous, but also a great way to get eye level with primates, birds, and rare plants that only grow in the higher levels of the forest. 

If everyone was to only do one thing or make one change what should it be?
Such a great question because the answer has shifted. Years ago it was recycle, try not to drive, but a lot of that was the corporations trying to shift focus away from themselves and place it on individuals. The reality is this is systemic. We need to demand change. People are going to buy water bottles: it is up to us to demand that companies stop selling plastic water bottles. It is up to us to demand sustainable fuel, and sustainable fishing methods. To deny products that harm forests (like the way the palm oil industry is devastating rainforest habitat in Sumatra). How do we do this? Demand leaders that care about the environment. Hold corporations accountable.  But these larger scale visions have to also be supported by local action. Farming, recycling, wildlife protection, planting native plants, ensuring rivers are clean…everywhere is someone’s backyard and each of us can do our part.

The Tree of Life by Stephane Thomas: The ancient roots of a giant ficus along one of the many tributaries of the Las Piedras River. 

What have you planned for the rest of this year?
In the next few months there is a film called Dark Green coming out about my solo expeditions in the deep Amazon. That’s something I’m very excited about because it’s super pure. The filmmakers followed me on a solo expedition in some of the deepest parts of the Amazon and what they filmed is completely stunning! They basically filmed me like I was an animal while I was out in the wild. 

I’m also writing again—my second non-fiction book—it’s all about what it takes to protect wildlife, habitat, and all the inspiring, eccentric, incredible people I’ve met along the way. Then, of course, in the fall we have the rollout of Age of Union. 

But all of this flows together towards one thing and one thing only: protecting more forest than ever before! Even though Junglekeepers Peru is is up against incredible odds, and witness some devastating losses, I think we have what it takes to protect a critical piece of the Amazonian mosaic. We are just working day and night to save every acre of pristine Amazonia that we can, but the difference is that now we have the support, the innovation, the team, the chance to actually save so many species. So many heartbeats. Sharing this process with people is something I’m really excited for because I think until now the topic of rainforests has been all destruction, doom and gloom. But that’s about to change.

Illegal logging by Mohsin Kazmi: The 'Ironwood boom' as we currently call it has sent loggers pouring into the forest to cut down trees that can be five to seven hundred years old. These ironwoods are pillars of the forest that support thousands of species including birds, monkeys, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and so much more. Each of these logs pictured is a priceless loss to the river, the forest, and to the world. Amazonian forests stripped of their old growth can lose over 60% of their value at keeping carbon out of the environment. 

“We could be the last generation to have the option to fix this while there is still time. It’s an exciting time to be alive because there has never been a more important time in history.”

Macaw by Stephane Thomas: Red and Green Macaws are a threatened species on the Las Piedras because they nest almost exclusively in Ironwood trees, which are currently the primary focus of the logging industry in the region. 
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