Why I let myself be ‘Eaten Alive’ by an anaconda

Naturalist Paul Rosolie explains what he learned from the Discovery Channel’s controversial show – and the sinking sensation he felt on seeing the final cut
Naturalist Paul Rosolie, from the Discovery Channel special show ‘Eaten Alive’, poses with a snake.
I woke up to check my flight status from Bangalore to New York. What I found when I opened my laptop was a mindboggling amount of emails, hate mail, death threats, and interview requests. The numbers were staggering. The night before, during Nick Wallenda’s tight-rope special on the Discovery Channel, the network had aired the first trailers for the show they decided to call Eaten Alive.

I was grimly amused to see that the commercial made it look like I had actually been eaten by an anaconda. This naturally sparked a litany of fictitious headlines. Some said we had killed the snake during filming, while others claimed the stunt would be a live event. One Indian newspaper apparently reported that I’d been inside the anaconda’s stomach for 28 days! The media had been eaten alive by speculation. As you probably know, reactions to the show got even bigger from there.

I’m getting asked about the show a lot these days. In order to answer, let me start from the beginning.


Over the last decade working in the Peruvian Amazon — arguably the most biologically rich place on the planet — I have seen a number of forces tearing down the rainforests, but few as catastrophic as the unregulated gold mining that has become a scourge of the west Amazon. With 350,000 acres of pristine Amazon forest already obliterated, the issue of gold mining has been declared a national emergency in Peru.

In the lowlands of Amazonia, at the foot of the Andes Mountains, gold comes in the form of small particles among the sediment in the Amazonian clay, almost naked to the human eye. To extract the gold, chainsaw crews level and burn huge swaths of forest. Then they use motorized pumps to suck earth through great hoses, leaving enormous empty pits where jungle once stood. Finally, mercury is poured into the sediment, where it binds to the gold. This mercury-gold amalgam is heavier than other particles in the sediment mix, and falls to the bottom. Thus, the miner is able to extract his yellow prize.

An illegal gold mafia has sprung up around this business; vast camps of illegal workers in the jungle have become a major driver of child trafficking for prostitution. The Peruvian military has responded with commandoes, explosives, and helicopters in an effort to eradicate the illegal gold mining problem. But in an often-bloody stand-off that has gripped the region for years, the government is playing Whac-A-Mole with an insidious problem that never seems to end. Just like other major drivers of deforestation — beef, mahogany, palm oil — the problem has a solution: if we just cut out the market for the product, the destruction would stop. Instead, the deadly results of gold mining can be seen from space: ugly deforested scars stretching across the Amazon, growing every day.

Due to runoff from the illegal gold mining, today nine out of the fifteen fish most commonly consumed in the Madre de Dios region have mercury levels higher than are deemed safe by the US EPA. The result is that 78% of the human population in the region has dangerously high mercury levels in their bodies, a problem especially perilous for pregnant mothers. And although we’re aware of the effects on fish and humans, how this contamination is infiltrating the rest of the food web is largely a mystery. Which is where giant snakes come into the picture.

Unlike most other species, the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus) can, in a single lifetime, grow through the ranks of secondary, tertiary, and apex predator. That is to say, they go from very small to very large — starting life at just two feet and less than a pound, they can blossom to over twenty feet long, and upwards of three hundred pounds of megafauna. They are both prey and predator to a vast array of taxa in the Amazon including birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, invertebrates etc. Therefore, this large Amazonian snake is perhaps one of the most influential players in the most biologically competitive terrestrial ecosystem on the planet.

Because anacondas straddle so many trophic levels in a single lifetime, the snakes are especially vulnerable to biomagnification of contaminants like mercury, meaning anacondas are probably absorbing the cumulative mercury from many lower levels of the food chain. This not only makes the snakes important indicators of the health of the rest of their community, but also puts anacondas themselves at risk. Through predation and maternal transfer, these snakes could be accumulating levels of contaminants that may seriously compromise neuromuscular function. And for a snake that depends on coordination and power to make a living in the most competitive biotic economy on earth, that’s bad news.

There is still no hard population information on anaconda numbers in the Peruvian Amazon, which makes it impossible to establish a baseline for the species. We have no way to tell if they are thriving or in decline. So perhaps it should not have been surprising to us that details of ecotoxicology for the large snakes is nonexistent.

When the preliminary discussions that would lead to Eaten Alive first took place, I had been monitoring anacondas in the Madre de Dios for years, but we simply did not have the resources to launch a proper study. Nor, it seemed, did anyone else. But considering the relevance of this species’ health and its potential aggregate implications amid the Amazonian biotic tapestry, acquiring the results of these myriad questions were long at the forefront of my curiosity.
On top of all this, it is common knowledge that the largest anacondas are often killed by locals who fear them. And the largest anacondas are all females due to the sexual dimorphism of the species. The effects of this fear-driven culling on the anaconda population are still unknown, though from experience I have observed significantly fewer anacondas in areas where humans live. It is surprising that in spite of the anaconda’s large size and infamous reputation, the species remains virtually unstudied throughout much of its Amazonian range. There are reasons for this gap in our knowledge.

For one thing, anacondas are quite cryptic, and not as easy to find as you might think. Even if you do manage to locate an anaconda, getting data is next to impossible. The problem with studying giant several-hundred-pound snakes with six rows of re-curved teeth is that it’s dirty, difficult, and, yes, dangerous work. You cannot tranquilize an anaconda, and you certainly can’t just ask them to climb on to a scale and ‘say AH’, for your study. The only way to measure a 20ft mass of writhing muscle is to physically overpower it. This is largely why the species has been so little studied: it requires a large team of experienced, willing wranglers who are comfortable with very intense situations. Over the years, we’ve put together just such a team, but still did not have the financial resources to move forward.

And so when the producers for Eaten Alive called, at first I hesitated. I had just won a United Nations Award for a wildlife film in the west Amazon. I had also just written a book that was endorsed by personal heroes like Jane Goodall and Bill McKibben. I felt that I had built a humble but positive reputation for myself in the conservation community that was worth considering — even if just for a moment —before dousing it in lighter fluid and letting it burn.

But then I thought that doing this show would mean catalyzing funding for a study I had dreamed of doing for half a decade. Plus the idea seemed just crazy enough to actually get mainstream attention in a society where I see eyes glaze over whenever the loss of biodiversity and human-life-supporting ecosystems comes up. I felt that conservation had long played it safe, and, as such, had lost the interest of the majority of the public. Instead of exciting people and getting them to see why conservationists care so much, we repeat the same depressing problems without coupling that with the true wonder of nature. Either that, or we focus on the wonder, without pointing out the threats. One way or another, we are missing the mainstream public. So, I was willing to try something risky, and yes, maybe ridiculous, to bring attention to a place and a species I loved. The stunt, after all, was a deal breaker for Discovery, and the key to drawing people in – which is what I wanted.

At a time in history when the pressures of the Anthropocene have HALVED the wildlife on our planet in the last 40 years — I figured that if feeding myself to a snake was the price I needed to pay to try to alert the wider community about the devastation we are waging on nature, I had to accept.

Filming the Best Wildlife Documentary in History (Or So We Thought)
During the course of three months in the Amazon, my team and I took the Discovery film crew to sites where illegal gold mining had ravaged the sides of rivers, and even caught footage of illegal miners in the act. We filmed deforested areas near the trans-Amazon highway, and covered virtually every known aspect of anaconda biology. We also filmed the exciting deep-water capture of a 19ft female anaconda (which was one of the best days of my life and one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever encountered), flew a drone over the legendary floating forest, and got stunning images of an ancient kapok tree. With all of this action and science, we thought, the stunt at the end would draw in otherwise reluctant viewers, but wouldn’t overwhelm the conservation mission of the project.

After all, who would pay attention to the cheap stunt at the end of such an amazing show?

During the filming for the special, which at the time was titled Expedition Anaconda, everyone in our field team worked to promote the long-term conservation of the Madre de Dios region. For example, Pat Champagne, a Canadian student who specializes in caiman research, illustrated for the cameras how both caiman and anacondas share stream ecosystems and compete. Lucy Dablin, who recently completed a masters in conservation science and has a long resume of working in the forest, used her knowledge to explain the complex world of mammals, as both predator and prey to the anaconda.

Off camera, Renata Leite Pitman who worked for 14 years with ecology of rare species in the Madre de Dios, (and who didn’t participate in any way on the stunt part of the show) coordinated the telemetry study. She put together a science protocol for the snake captures, which included, biometry, collection of parasites (both ecto and endo), and samples for DNA and mercury analysis. In truth, each member of the team contributed something meaningful, scientific, and unique to this research and conservation mission.

Over the course of three months we made some real progress: we captured and released 13 anacondas, and recorded their location, length, weight, sex, and even took tissue samples to test for mercury levels. We had the biggest ones (two females and one male) ingest a small radio transmitter that allowed us to follow them through their habitat, revealing for the first time the species movements in the Amazon (all of that work courtesy of our involvement with Discovery).

The devastating news that came during filming was the realization that the ecologically unique anaconda habitat we call the Floating Forest, had been nearly destroyed. When we arrived to the location that had once been nestled deep in the jungle and surrounded by ancient forest, we found ashes. The forest had been burned for agriculture, the clearing less than 500 meters away from the legendary swamp. We knew that this could mean major trouble for the Floating Forest. How could the anacondas continue to thrive if their prey base was driven from the forest? Would increased human traffic mean more anaconda deaths? Would this ecosystem be doomed before anyone had the chance to study it? From long experience, we knew the answers to these questions.

Standing in the burnt wreckage of an ancient forest, I felt thankful I had decided to take on the project. In negotiations, Discovery had agreed to do a fundraiser during the airing of the show, so that the funds could go to protecting the Floating Forest.

Given all of this, it seemed almost inconsequential when the time came to pay my dues. And so on a sunny September day, I spent two hours in that claustrophobic suit, being constricted by a captive anaconda.
The Media Jungle and the Real One
When the first commercial for Eaten Alive played, it wasn’t long until Peta came out with an opinion. They called it ‘animal abuse of the highest degree,’ despite the fact that they had no information about the show, and the more pertinent fact that absolutely no snakes had been harmed in any way during the show’s filming, including the one they attempted to feed me to. Peta’s petition to cancel the TV show would eventually top 38,000 signatures on Change.org, and catalyzed hundreds of written articles.

While, I was actually glad to see this petition because it meant people cared about the welfare of a snake — one of the most vilified animals in history — another petition got less attention. The Petition to Protect the Standing Amazon Rainforest topped out at just 7,000 signatures, and incited no articles.

In the rampant destruction of rainforest habitat, millions of animals are actually dying and even going extinct — this to me is where the real battle lies. But I slowly realized that this fact is lost on many people, including Peta. This was the message I was working to get across.

The media circus was honestly fun to watch. For the first time in my life the media was talking about anacondas and the Amazon. A Google search of “Eaten Alive” returns over 14 million results. I got to talk about the importance of wildlife, ecosystems, and rainforests in interviews that collectively reached millions of readers, viewers, and listeners. With numbers so large, if even a few people got the message, I was happy.

I also watched with amusement as even the most staunch critics benefited from the show, because many of them got to go on the news or other forums and condemn the sensationalist title and hyper-dramatic presentation of Eaten Alive, and then talk about everything from snake biology to the poor and desperate state of nature programming.

In a climate where traditional nature shows are struggling for viewers and dealing with disappointing ratings, Eaten Alive brought in 4.1 million viewers, the highest ratings for a nature show on Discovery since Life in 2010. The numbers tower over the recent BBC documentary Penguins: Waddle All The Way, which followed three species of penguins with the use of animatronic cameras. That show drew in a measly 852,000 viewers (me included, the show was spectacular!). But if Eaten Alive succeeded in one thing, it was in creating controversy, and sparking conversations on a myriad of neglected topics. Hell, we even got Jimmy Kimmel to say the word ‘deforestation’ on late night television… That has to be a first.

Then the show aired. In the final cut, I was shocked to find that all of that footage of burnt down rainforests and insidiously destructive gold mining that I had filmed was nowhere to be seen. Nowhere did it show the context of our study on anacondas and the potential implications of our findings. Nowhere did it show the dozen smaller anacondas we captured and measured with just as much enthusiasm and awe as the large ones. And worst of all, the show left out the devastation that is so near to the floating forest — instead the producers wanted a ‘deep jungle’ feel. And even apart from the science and ‘educational’ elements, there was much to be missed. My team and I are all experienced in the field; we know the forest well and were proud to show our field craft and love of the world’s greatest forest. But none of that footage was shown either.

I am still at a loss to describe the sinking sensation I felt when I saw the final cut. 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). It was a crippling end to a project I had put so much into. The entire reason I went through with the show — stunt included — was because I thought it would be a chance to showcase the complex importance of the west Amazon and its creatures to a wider audience.

If you look at Eaten Alive purely as a viewer, as most people must, it is difficult to dispute Salon’s take when they said, “So, to recap: no redeeming conservation message and no actual eating. What exactly was the point of this?”

What aired had very little to do with what my team and I actually experienced and filmed in Peru. It wasn’t easy reconciling this schism — between what I had worked so hard on and what the final televised product was. Why was all this left out? That’s a question for Discovery at this point, since we lobbied daily for it. In the end we were forced to face the fact that how the footage was used in the actual product, was not our prerogative, but Discovery’s. You can view one of the scenes that didn’t make it into the show here. But many, many hours of great material — the best material — was left on the cutting room floor.

Still, in the end, Discovery got their ratings, and I launched the study I had always dreamed of undertaking. We are on our way to having the first published paper on anacondas in the west Amazon. So in a way, everyone went home happy. In another way, it is going to haunt me for a long time to imagine the show that could have been. I regret very much that the science, substance, and heart that we put into the project will never be seen. That is the one real regret I have.

Sure, my reputation may have taken a hit, but I find that point hard to lament. After all, soon I’ll be in the Amazon again — in the great green cathedral of life, eons away from the media circus and carnage-hungry viewers, working on a project that is now well on its way to revealing previously unknown secrets of one of the world’s most iconic predators: the giant green anaconda.

• Paul Rosolie is a researcher, explorer, and naturalist who works in the Madres de Dios region of Peru, specializing in anacondas. He is also the author of Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon


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