In 2005, 17-year old Paul Rosolie left the urban jungle of New York City for the literal jungle of the Peruvian Amazon. In March 2014, his memoir, Mother of God, was published by Harper. In an intense, fast-paced and passionate narrative that outdoes any Indiana Jones movie, Rosolie lays out his backwater bona fides, recalling encounters with poachers and some of the rain forest’s most dangerous predators, including anaconda and caiman.
But his memoir isn’t solely — or even primarily — intended to recollect and recount his time in the wild. Instead, it’s a call to action, a reaffirmation of his own commitment to protect the wild spaces that are still left in the world, especially the one he inhabits for much of the year, and an invitation to readers to share in that commitment.
I interviewed Rosolie by email to ask him more about his experiences and his work.
You left New York in December 2005 to journey to the Peruvian Amazon for the first time. Can you give us a sense of what the landscape was like then and how much it has changed in the nearly 10 years since?
Rain forests were my childhood obsession. I practically lived at the Bronx Zoo, and watched every minute of David Attenborough, Steve Irwin and other nature shows and books I could find. Jane Goodall’s stories and writings were a major influence on me. And so I grew up acutely aware that rain forests and many species of wildlife were vanishing – so there was this urgency to see these places and species before they were gone.
By age 17 the urgency was unbearable; I had to go. Naturally the Amazon, as the most biodiverse place on the planet, had always been the most enticing location for me. When I finally did travel there, as a research assistant in the West Amazon (the Madre de Dios region of Peru), it was far more visceral and amazing than I ever could have imagined. In those first ten minutes in the jungle, cowering under the bellowing calls of howler monkeys, I saw trails of leaf cutter ants under impossibly large, vine-tangled trees; a flock of scarlet macaws crossed the sky like a brilliant flying rainbow. I saw a place where nature was in climax; it was the most amazing place on earth. I knew within moments that the rest of my life would be spent studying, exploring and fighting to protect rain forests and wildlife.
In the time that has spanned between those seminal experiences, I have seen forests burned to the ground, rivers polluted and wildlife retreat from places that were once filled with life. The rate of change is rapid, and is the reason I spend every moment of my life working to protect the remaining wild refuges of the world.
What have been the biggest threats to the Peruvian Amazon in the decade that you have been there?
There are currently several main threats to the west Amazon. The trans-Amazon highway that goes from the Atlantic Ocean, through Brazil and into Peru is causing tons of offshoot roads, farms and development. It has opened up thousands of miles of forest that were previously inaccessible.
Gold mining is another major threat. In the Madre de Dios, illegal gold mining causes entire river/forests to be leveled. The entire ecosystem is burned to the ground, and then they suck up the earth with great pumps and use mercury to bind the gold particles out of the sediment. And so once the forest is gone, poisonous mercury is bled into the rivers, poisoning the food chain for thousands of miles across the basin. This hurts wildlife as well as humans. This bioaccumulation of mercury is of the things that we hope to learn more about by studying anacondas, which, at the top of the riparian world, stand to be major indicators of mercury’s influence on the Amazonian system.
For me, one of the most powerful lines/ideas of your memoir is about “generational amnesia.” You write:
“It is a sinister phenomenon whereby members of each generation seem to accept what they see around them as the way things ought to be. It is a problem of shifting baselines, a lowering of the standards by which we judge the condition of our environment…. What I accepted as normal would have seemed tragic to someone who had experienced the same places only a generation or two earlier. This same narrative is playing out in different forms all over the world….”
I think one of the reasons why this was so powerful for me was because it’s a phenomenon that’s playing out not only at the environmental level, but at the political/social/cultural levels, too. We have so many tools and resources at our disposal to stave off generational amnesia, yet we don’t seem to be able to do so. Are you hopeful that we can do something about this phenomenon, and if so, what might the interventions be?
Today more than ever the ‘generational amnesia’ of shifting baselines is a threat. It stands to magnify the rate of destruction, because it makes it impossible for us to accurately assess the degradation occurring. I have seen this in the Amazon, India and Indonesia (as well as in the U.S.).
As I write in Mother of God, there is a famous photograph by Peter Beard that shows a herd of elephants moving across the land. The photo is taken from the air and in the single frame there are hundreds of elephants. But the photo is important because there are no longer such large herds of pachyderms. Elephants have been in decline for decades, and as an example, poachers killed 20 percent of Africa’s elephants in just two years (between 2010 and 2012).
Today, more than ever, I think that research, photography and storytelling are powerful ways to remember how brilliant our planet is. Fishermen remember when the seas were filled with fish. Hunters remember when the forests were thick with wildlife. In India I have met elders who still remember when elephants and tigers roamed forests that no longer exist. And in the Amazon I have personally watched as rivers and forests steadily emptied of the color and diversity that they once contained. What will the Amazon look like when I am 80 years old?
In my opinion, one of our most important jobs as conservationists and scientists today is to bear witness and take action. To use accurate accounts and historical surveys to make sure that we do not forget and do not lose the species that are so crucial to our planet. If you look through the accounts of historical numbers of tigers, whales, elephants, salmon, wolves, bison, and so many other species – it is glaringly obvious that compared to a century ago, the world we live in is just a shadow of the brilliant world that once was. It is tragic for humans and animals alike – its important to remember that the Amazon contains hundreds of indigenous cultures. We cannot afford to let the trend continue.
Can you tell us a little about Tamandua Expeditions— what your role is, what it does, and how it engages people far beyond the Peruvian Amazon?
I started Tamandua Expeditions with my partner Lee Rando a few years back. We bring people to the Madre de Dios, where I guide the trips with my local team, including JJ (from the book), and my wife, Gowri. Young people, old people, photographers, adventurers, PhD candidates and myriad other kinds of people come with us. It’s a great job for me, sharing the wonder of the jungle, and meeting people from every corner of the globe.
We provide a way for people from all over the world to visit the legendary Amazon rain forest, participate on research projects and help in actively protecting the stunning forest they walk through. Our research station has no electricity and is sustainably run. The focus is to provide a safe reserve for wildlife and something uniquely pristine for people to enjoy.
Through Tamandua we are working to raise money and protect the entire Piedras River. The Piedras is a crucial river because it lies in between several massive protected areas, and is critical for the ecosystem connectivity of the region. It is the heart of the Madre de Dios. And each person who comes on a Tamandua expedition helps us in protecting this awesome place. Our goal is to protect this river before it is destroyed. Currently we are collaborating with a team from the UK on a documentary about the river called “Uncharted Amazon,” which will serve to show the world just how crucial and incredible the Piedras really is.
People who visit the Madre de Dios will go home with a sense of urgency about protecting the rain forest. But for people who can’t or won’t visit, how is it possible to expand their frame of reference so they have some sense of this area’s importance and can take some responsibility for it?
Many of the most important sponsors and supporters of our efforts in the Madre de Dios are people who have never visited, and never will. The jungle isn’t for everyone. But there are a growing number of people who understand that the West Amazon is the engine of the Amazon, a system that produces 1/5 of our planet’s oxygen, and contains 1/5 of the world’s fresh water – so it is crucial for everyone on earth, no matter where they live.
But it is for this reason that I spend so much of my time away from the jungle doing things like writing Mother of God or working on films and other projects to educate people. It is important that people everywhere understand that the world depends on this one place. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, if you can’t drink the water and breathe the air, nothing else you are interested in is going to be possible.
At the rate that ecosystems are being destroyed today, we could be the last generation to save species like elephants, tigers, rhinos, and thousands of others that are on the brink. Whether or not we protect the Amazon ecosystem could prove the most important struggle in human history, given the potential global impacts of losing it. The task is monumental, but by no means hopeless.