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Misssssssed Opportunities

The man who was almost fed to an anaconda discusses how the Discovery Channel left all the conservation footage on the cutting-room floor.

Paul Rosolie thought he had been filming the greatest wildlife documentary in history—an awareness-raising tribute to the green anaconda and the rampant destruction of its habitat in the western Amazon in South America.

Instead, what aired on the Discovery Channel last December was a widely panned, sensationalist hullabaloo called Eaten Alive. The show promised to find the world’s largest anaconda and then film it “eating” Rosolie while the biologist wore a protective suit. It wouldn’t be a spoiler to say Rosolie did not end up a sizeable lump within a 27-foot snake. (He bailed out way before then.) But according to Rosalie, the biggest surprise was the show's lack of what he considered the stunt’s larger point: letting an audience of 4.1 million know about the plight of the anaconda.

I know what you’re thinking: This joker in the snake-proof suit wants me to take him seriously? I felt the same way, firing off many a barbed tweet in the direction of Rosolie and the Discovery Channel in the weeks leading up to Eaten Alive. But then I read a post Rosolie wrote for Mongabay.com discussing the whole fiasco and his part in it.

Photo: Paul Rosolie

Rosolie has a degree in environmental science and has spent five years studying anacondas in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. He’s caught nasty tropical diseases and raised orphaned anteaters, and his book, Mother of God, has been lauded by environmental superstars like Jane Goodall and Bill McKibben. The guy’s got cred.

“I am still at a loss to describe the sinking sensation I felt when I saw the final cut,” Rosolie wrote on Mongabay. “The show that the editors had cobbled together contained very little ecological science, and included just the faintest mention of conservation (without any visual context).”

The show touches on anaconda conservation only as a brief afterthought, tacked onto two hours of machete-chopping, snake-coiling, murky-water-shot suspense. A scene that Rosolie fought hard to include in the show is now accessible only in a @Discovery tweet. But even that footage doesn’t address the deforestation, gold mining, and hunting that plague the Amazon.

Much of Rosolie’s expedition took place in an area of the Peruvian Amazon called the floating forest. Picture a huge swamp system around a central aquifer that has a dense mat of vegetation floating on its surface.

“It is like nothing I have seen before,” says Rosolie. “It has species that are not found anywhere else, and it is home to a staggering density of anacondas.”

Unfortunately, the great snakes of this region are under assault. Many people fear the animals and kill them on sight. There’s never been a documented case of an anaconda killing a human, but the constrictor can take down prey that’s comparable to a human in weight, and Rosolie believes that at least a few of the tales told by indigenous villagers of people getting eaten are probably true. Anacondas are also hunted for their meat and skin. But it’s the reptile’s habitat that’s in the biggest trouble.

In Peru alone, as many as 64,000 acres of rainforest—and probably quite a bit more—have disappeared as a result of illegal gold mining. Far away from the eyes of the authorities, miners chainsaw through stands of trees and set up ramshackle pumping stations to sift through the exposed earth.

Worse still, the Amazon’s gold deposits don’t come out of the ground in neat little nuggets. These gold bits are microscopic, so the miners add mercury to the slurry. The neurotoxin adheres to the gold to allow for easier collection. It also ends up in the ecosystem, poisoning the food chain. One study, conducted by the Carnegie Institution for Science, found that 78 percent of adults in a town within the Madre de Dios had unacceptable levels of mercury in their hair, with the highest concentration found in women of childbearing age. (Mercury is particularly dangerous for pregnant women because it can cause neurological damage in the fetus.)  

Like humans, anacondas sit at the top of the food chain, so they, too, are likely accumulating high amounts of the heavy metal. But because the area is remote and anacondas are difficult to find—and even more difficult to draw blood from—nobody knows what level of contamination they might have. In fact, one of the tradeoffs Rosolie made for becoming an anaconda’s entrée was that Discovery would help fund mercury-testing for the snakes. (On this promise the network made good, and the results are currently under analysis.)

Now, wouldn’t a two-hour “nature documentary” be better if it took a few minutes to show viewers one of the greatest threats to the environment and human health in the region? Especially when Rosolie’s camera crew got footage of illegal miners in the act? Well, it didn’t.

Photo: Paul Rosolie

Another scene that didn’t make the cut depicts Rosalie and his crew returning to the floating forest to find a section of adjacent rainforest smoldering. The culprit in this case wasn’t gold mining but old-fashioned slash-and-burn agriculture.

Sadly, this is just a typical day in the life of the Amazon. In the last 50 years, 17 percent of the rainforest has gone up in smoke. Most of us are at least vaguely aware of this. But shows like Eaten Alive have an opportunity—and an obligation, I would say—to bring that story into context.

A senior publicist at Discovery didn’t respond to my request for comment. But the channel’s new president, Rich Ross, declared last week that the company would be phasing out stunts like Eaten Alive and mockumentaries like Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. Lesson learned?  

For his part, Rosolie regrets not having more creative control over the final product but says he still considers the documentary a success. After all, the farce financed the mercury study he had been wanting to conduct for years.

Below is example of some of Rosalie’s better work, an award-winning short film that documents the numerous species that showed up at a single clay lick in Madre de Dios.

This camera-trap footage is a snapshot of what’s at stake in this imperiled ecosystem—and the reason Rosolie agreed to produce (and star in) Eaten Alive.  Desperate times call for desperate measures. If the spectacle resulted in more people talking about and taking steps to address the plight of anacondas and the Amazon, the biologist was OK with offering himself up as snake bait. To some extent, it worked.

 Eaten Alive “got people to evaluate what is acceptable nature television,” he says. “I shouldn't have to climb into a space suit and attempt to feed myself to a snake to get people’s attention that life on earth is being destroyed at an alarming rate.”

Can’t argue with that.


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