Paul Rosolie has been called many things: snake researcher, environmentalist, conservationist, perpetrator of wildlife abuse. To hear him say it, he's a naturalist, a title minted over a decade working with animals in the Amazon. But he's not your typical ecotour guide - Jane Goodall deemed his nonfiction book, "Mother of God," "extraordinary." And Rosolie's approach to nature, at times, is more like Steve Irwin crossed with Steve-O.
In December, Rosolie attempted to feed himself to an anaconda on Discovery's show "Eaten Alive." Despite his best efforts, he remains entirely unswallowed. But his intent, Rosolie said, was less ingestion and more attention, with an eye toward the plight of South American snakes. His point, he told The Dodo, was not to say that anacondas are deadly to humans - they're not. Rosolie summed up his message in one word: "conservation, conservation, conservation."
The roots of this show stretch back years, to the fertile muck of his first Amazonian expeditions. "I grew up knowing that the rain forests were going to be destroyed," he said, "and then I spent 10 years down there watching it happen every day." The backdrop for "Eaten Alive," as well as Rosolie's book, is the Peruvian river Madre de Dios, where illegal gold mining threatens the anaconda habitat.
In 2011, Peru declared the illegal mines a national emergency. The miners use mercury to bind gold, which leaches into the waterways; roughly 80 percent of the people who live by the Madre de Dios, Rosolie said, have "higher than safe levels of mercury." A 2012 chemical analysis of hair samples found potentially dangerous amounts of mercury in Peruvians who live near the mines. And anacondas, as apex predators of the river bank, might be suffering from what's known as bioaccumulation: The more tainted prey they eat, the more mercury builds up. That's a problem since, as top hunters, anacondas are "stewards of a system that produces a fifth of the world's oxygen," Rosolie said. Deforestation, however, is clogging up the erstwhile "lungs of the world."
Like the need for Amazonian conservation, the allure of the giant anaconda is clear. Last year, when a producer approached Stephen Secor, Ph.D., the University of Alabama biologist was excited about showcasing the animals - that is, until the producer mentioned Rosolie would be eaten alive. "[There is] no value to this for science, no value to this for conservation," Secor told The Dodo.
Rosolie admits his idea was "ludicrous," and said from the outset he wasn't convinced he would be consumed. But Rosolie hoped the premise of "Eaten Alive" would help him reach an audience unaware of the disappearing rainforest ecosystem. And if conservationists were turned off? "The worst that could happen was that I would ruin my reputation and have to get a job at McDonald's," he said. "If I burn down, it's burning down, going, 'Please, look at this!'"
If he were to do it again, Rosolie said he'd ratchet down the show's sensationalism and amp up the talk about conservation. "I would have knocked out about 15 to 20 minutes of the show that was focused on danger," replacing it with footage of illegal gold miners in the region.
But has Rosolie actually turned 4.1 million pairs of eyes from a TV spectacle toward the conservation of the Amazon? As Professor Secor tells it: "Whenever anybody says, 'Oh I want to do great things in conservation!' what I say is, 'Well, then, become extremely rich and buy large tracts of land.'"
To that end, Rosolie said his past and current initiatives have raised tens of thousands of dollars to protect the Las Piedras River, part of the Madre de Dios waterway. Discovery funded a study of mercury poisoning in anacondas, he pointed out, as well as held a fundraiser to protect the ecosystem where the show took place. Apart from Discovery, over the past two years Rosolie and other funders invested $60,000 in wildlife experts, guides and local Peruvian businesses. And during the December airing, Rosolie had the opportunity to do a 30-second commercial spot promoting conservation in the Amazon. Getting across "why this matters to you," he said, "that would be my dream."
Editor's note: Discovery is an investor in The Dodo.