- Mongabay senior correspondent Jeremy Hance talks at length with conservationist Paul Rosolie, whose new novel, The Girl and the Tiger, is releasing on 17th September.
- Ranging from exchanges about the book to anecdotes from Rosolie’s eventful life, the interview moves from India’s forests to the Amazon jungles through the eyes of both.
- The interview also brings with it a note of hope about conservation in India, and highlights partnerships that are missed in mainstream narratives.
Heart-breaking. Raw. Beautiful. Vital. These are just a few of the words I can use to describe Paul Rosolie’s new novel, The Girl and the Tiger. While the book tells the tale of a daring girl who has taken it upon herself to return an orphaned tiger to the jungle, it ends up being much more than that: it’s a keening lament for our relationship with nature. A meditation on all things wild, both animal and human.
But it does all this without being preachy or sentimental. You can read this book for the powerful drama and stirring adventure. Or as an unflinching look at modern India — and the modern world — today. I’d suggest both.
I first interviewed Rosolie in 2010, when he was a 22-year-old bright-eyed conservationist, catching anacondas and crisscrossing floating forests in the Peruvian Amazon. I was impressed not only with his accomplishments — he liked to do solo trips in the Amazon, an endeavor that would kill most gringos — but also his exuberance and love for wild things, among them really big and potentially dangerous snakes.
Rosolie has since gone on to do big things. He is currently the director of Tamandua Expeditions, an ecotourism agency, and Junglekeepers, an NGO protecting more than 12,100 hectares (30,000 acres) of primary, and imperiled, rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon. As a filmmaker he won a U.N. award for forest and people in 2013 for his short film, The Unseen World. As a writer, he’s already garnered critical and environmental acclaim for his first book, a memoir titled Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon.
For the naturalist and conservationist, however, his new book, available from September 17 from Penguin Random House in India (Owl Hollow Press in the U.S.), is a big departure. For one thing, his first book was a non-fiction memoir, while The Girl and the Tiger, though heavily influenced by Rosolie’s experiences in India, is a novel. For another, his first book sets you in the heart of the Amazon, while this one will take you to the villages and jungles of southern India. And finally, Rosolie himself admits he’s no longer the bright-eyed, innocent conservationist he was at 22 — and the book is very much about the struggle between optimism and despair, suffering and joy, action and depression, in a world under wholesale ecological assault.
In an open conversation, only lighted edited for clarity, Rosolie discusses the many influences on his new novel, from an Indian girl he met in the Amazon, to a tiger caught in a well; from the British author Rudyard Kipling, to the U.S. novelist Cormac McCarthy; from the hope he sees today in conservation in India, to the partnerships that conservationists keep missing.
As I learned in 2010, when I first interviewed him, Rosolie is always full of surprises.
AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL ROSOLIE
Mongabay: Your Mowgli of this story, the hero and the wild child of nature, is not a boy raised by wolves, but a city girl. Why did you decide to go with that character?
Paul Rosolie: Well, first of all, the whole book is based on true events. I really did, a few years ago, get this email from [a girl named], Isha, and it said, “I have a question about a tigress.” [She wrote that] they found tiger cubs and no one knows where the mother is. “I’m going to save them,” [she wrote]. “[And] as the jungle man, you’re the one who’s going to tell me how to save them.”
I got this email in the night. At 4 a.m., I woke up and I had a film shoot that day and there’s a ton of stuff on my plate, and I honestly came with within inches of jumping on a plane to go help. That was the seed that started everything.
So, the simplest thing is, yes, that’s the way it was. I just adapted that story, but also, and probably more significantly, is that I think nearly every adventure book has a male protagonist. Everything we read when we were growing up … everything is so male based, and I just I love female heroes. I think it’s important. I don’t think there are enough of them. Environmentally, it makes so much sense. And it just happened naturally. It wasn’t so much a decision as that’s the way it has to be.
One of my favorite movies is Kill Bill. How many action movies are there with these male superheroes? We could be here all day listing them, and then it’s like this is one movie that has this incredibly badass female hero — and I love it 10 times more for that.
Do you think having a female protagonist brings something a little bit different?
Yes. First of all, given everything today, and given the female movement that’s happening. Also just environmentally, we’re becoming so aware [that] with the population … the key to so many things is educating females and family planning.
I think that personally as a reader, I identify with a female character more than a male character, or maybe I just haven’t gotten as many female heroes as male heroes. I find [women] a more dynamic character. It’s something I want more of, so that’s what I wrote.
One of the most famous books about India’s wildernesses is The Jungle Book. It’s still read as a classic; it’s a beautiful book, depicted in so many different films. How much was that book an inspiration for you, or did you find that was really something that you had to write against, given its reputation?
Well The Jungle Book did this amazing thing: it put the Indian jungle on the map. The Jungle Book, probably more than any other work of fiction, put the jungle period, the idea of this deep, dark place filled with animals and magic, on everyone’s radar.
I didn’t read The Jungle Book until I was an adult, but I grew up with the Disney [film] The Jungle Book, but it still has that feeling. You know, a girl walking through a village with a bucket on her head; and tigers and elephants, and that whole dynamic. The truth that that comes from, that I guess Kipling observed, went through the book through the movies and everything else and carried on. Obviously I nod to [The Jungle Book] a million times in the text, but it’s definitely something also to write against, because when I was a kid, I said “why on earth did he make the tiger the bad guy?” I thought it was a great counterpoint for the modern situation.
The Jungle Book has all this magical realism and animals talking, and there’s nothing about [environmental] destruction. And today it’s all different. I had all these stories that I wanted to tell, and they’re so connected to The Jungle Book, but also in a new context.
Now, the tiger is this refugee; it’s like a dethroned king. The king in The Jungle Book is Hathi, and I named my elephant character Hathi. He’s no longer the king. He’s chained. He’s a captive elephant; he’s a work elephant, and the forest is dwindling. Back in those days, of course, a little boy was what you were going to have [as a hero], and now it’s a girl. I think that, to me, there was a big sense of having a fun time updating Jungle Book to be like what I wanted it to be.
About how old were you when you first read it?
Maybe 20? It took me a while.
I think I didn’t read it until about then either. It’s a tough book for a kid to pick up, because the language is so dense, and it’s such a different era. But I read it when I was an adult as well, and it was pretty spectacular, but also disturbing in many ways.
It is. It is disturbing. It’s not what I expected. First of all, the animals talk, and they talk in this old-style, “Thou Art truly of the jungle, young creature.” That’s all very cool. What did strike me about The Jungle Book was that he would write about the manner of Indian forest men, or what the mahouts from the plains were like versus the jungle guys. Or even he wrote about how the elephant’s role shifting on their chains and you could hear the clack of chains at night; there’s also all [these] little nuts and pieces of leaves and the hair that’s on top of the elephants … Then when I’m in the field and I’m with elephants and you see all the little nuts and berries and pieces of … because they fling this stuff up on their backs, [and] you’re like, “Oh my God, [Kipling] was not just making it up. This guy was living in the jungle and writing about it, and a lot of his stuff is so just ripped right out of folklore and very real.” When he writes about catching elephants and the break, he really knew what he was doing with a lot of that stuff, which was very cool to see.
When I read your book, The Girl and the Tiger, some of the most stunning passages, especially in the first part, are when you put yourself in the mind of the tiger and elephant. You have — not quite their thoughts, and they’re not speaking like in The Jungle Book — but you get the sense of their emotional states and interior experiences. Can you talk about how you did that? How did you approach that process? Were there any other authors that you could look to in order to see how do you write about animals in a scientifically accurate way, but in a way that was emotionally beautiful as well?
Yes. I would say a few of the huge inspirations for me in terms of that [is] Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, a book where a young boy captures a wolf and he tries to cross into Mexico to release it. There’s only maybe a page and a half but it’s written from the wolf’s perspective, and it’s absolute magic. When I read that, I was just like, “Oh my God,” because he does it so beautifully, and of course I wanted to do that. Of course, there’s also The Tiger by John Vaillant [where] he goes very in-depth into the tiger’s mind. I don’t know if you know this yet, but the choice of naming the tiger in The Girl and the Tiger, Kala, is from Mongabay.
Yes. There’s an article, and it’s called “Kala: the face of tigers in peril.” It’s about this tiger that fell into a well outside Nagpur, and they rescued her, and there’s this crazy picture of this tiger just at its wit’s end, and she’s got this savage look in her eyes. She’s been in a well overnight, and the vets came and … they took her out. They fixed her up. They kept her for like a month while she recuperates because she’d injured herself inside the well. Then they released her, and with a radio collar on her, they were able to track her, and they saw that she was pretty much living right on the edges of human settlements because all of the forests are so cut back that they’re saturated [with tigers]. There are so many tigers living in these forests in such a small area, that for a new tiger, they’d have to fight out their territory, which means killing another tiger.
She was migrating and pulling off dogs and goats and cows, whatever she could, and mongooses and langurs [a type of monkey] and whatever she could poach. There were field workers in the fields, and this tiger would be 100 meters [about 330 feet] away just laying down under some grass, and she’d wait out until nighttime, and then she would move at night. They only knew this because they had radio-collared this tiger that lived in this borderline. That, to me, changed everything. That informed so much of the work that I did in India as well because I was trying to track areas where tigers would be moving that weren’t [living in] a national park … What I’m interested in is these migratory tigers with nowhere else to go. They have to go across farms and villages, what an incredible story that is? I named the tiger Kala, because of that tiger, because it’s a real tiger named Kala.
For going inside the animals’ minds, it’s really cool. Actually, this past week on Goodreads [a social media site devoted to readers], some woman wrote, “Yes, I like this book. It’s very poetic, but I couldn’t because it’s too brutal, and I didn’t find the ‘inside the animal mind’ parts realistic.”
I wanted to call this woman up and be like, “Listen, every single thing that an animal does in this book can happen in real life, or has,” because the scenes when Ramachandran goes crazy and starts throwing rickshaws and cars — we’ve all seen that video. That video is there. The tigers poaching goats, or mimicking the sound of a dog, or caring for their young: every time I would go back and edit the book, I would fact check it … I would say, is there anything here that couldn’t happen or that doesn’t have a reference specifically to real life that either I’ve seen or that I’ve read about? I’ve never seen a tiger mimic a dog, but it’s proven that they can do it. They can call in a dog. They know how to do it. I think that that’s shocking to people. A few people have said like, “Yes, that’s crazy, the parts where they do that.”
Even in India, I had elephants stop my car and come to me and literally tell me to turn off the engine, with just the way elephants do. Then I did it, and then they brought their baby across. Then she let me go. We had a full-on conversation. She knew exactly what she wanted. I think that a lot of people are shocked because they way underestimate what animals are capable of. [But] Jane Goodall and anybody else that works with wildlife will go on and on and on about how smart animals are. If you talk to a city person, I think a lot of times they’re like, “Animals are animals,” because they just don’t know. They don’t believe it.
Do you think a part of that is the media’s depiction of animals as always dufus-y or stupid or sidekicks? Even in media, I think there’s often the depiction of animals as a dumbing down, like a dumb human, basically, instead of a rich, fully emotional, mature creature.
Totally. Funny animal clips are great, but for example, there’s one video in India where a leopard got into a public pool area. People are commenting like, “How can a leopard not figure it out?” This leopard is running around crazy. It was slashing at everybody it saw, but you don’t realize this animal is at its wit’s end.
I know you know this, but this great book came out recently: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? [by Frans de Waal]. And it’s like: in the jungle, you follow a trail with your nose. You tell me when there’s a storm coming. The thing is, we don’t have the hardware. We’re actually not really smart enough because we can’t take ourselves out of our human context. So, I think yes, the media is constantly making animal look like silly animals [and] whatever else. Meanwhile, there are dogs that can smell cancer.
Yes, right? People who follow this discussion and the way science has changed its view of animal [intelligence], we know this, but I think a lot of the public is still not quite caught up on that.
OK, [to change subjects], I think it’s really interesting that you mentioned Cormac McCarthy, because that’s like all of a sudden I feel like “Oh, wow.” Because your book has, I think, a similar tone at times to some of McCarthy. There’s this broken-hearted longing. There’s a keening I felt like that filled your book. It was beautiful, but I can understand how some people might be like, “Oh my God, this is so brutal.” How did you approach that? How do you think our destruction and our disconnection from nature impacts us psychologically and spiritually? How does it impact you and how did it inform this book?
I know people who have decided not to have children because of the environment and climate [crises]. I even know one guy who for a while wasn’t even eating. I think that it has a tremendous, devastating, depressive effect on us. There is this sense of doom. If you’re paying attention, as unfortunately we have to in our fields, you get this sense where you’re like, “Oh my god.” Just read Mongabay. There’s a new highway through a brand new national park. They’re going to mine a huge chunk out of an island in New Guinea. It was a few weeks ago.
It’s just such a stressful time to be alive. I was reading a Yale survey, and they said that 70 percent of Americans marked that they were worried about climate change, 28 percent marked that they were very worried, and 51 percent marked that they were helpless.
Those are scary. Half the people out there feel helplessly worried about the changing environment.
Again, the real-life Isha, who messaged me about the tigress, was a kid when I first met her in the Amazon. A little kid [who] could not handle the death of animals, could not handle it. I see this in so many people, even on Instagram when I do posts about the Amazon burning or something. Where people write to me these messages: “How do you keep going?” … It almost feels like we live in a post-apocalyptic time. I think partly it’s the direct reflection of what we deal with every day, and the fact that I think that that’s one of the things that makes McCarthy so beautiful, is that he sees the changing world. He writes about humans as if we’re just like ants on the face of this big rock. Well, right now the ants are killing everything else in the terrarium.
It is very, very scary. It’s very scary. I think that the main character in the book is a kid who has shouldered all of that guilt and pressure. That’s what results in her doing this crazy thing, going out and taking the tiger. It’s the only thing that could. I think that’s a metaphor for what we all feel. We all want to do something crazy. Whether it’s changing our lifestyle or running for office or just running down the streets screaming.
When I heard that stat that came out a few years ago, [which was that] we lost 50 percent of wildlife on Earth, I read that, and I was like, “Wow. This is it. This is the moment.” I felt like, the cars are going to stop in the streets; the newscasters are going to take the microphones out of their ears, and everyone’s going to go, “It’s gone far enough.” We’ve made a mess of things.
When everything just kept going, it was 10 times more horrifying than that, because it was just like, “Oh my God. No one even cares.” I think that I deal with that every day. It affects me a lot. It shaped my whole life. I wanted all the characters in this book: they’re living very much in that world; they’re seeing it every day; that’s what the people that I see react like so.
Yes. I think that’s really honest and important. I go through a similar thing where I say to friends, every year, I feel like this is going to be the year when the world’s going to wake up to climate change. We’re really going to suddenly realize that we need this massive, massive change and total societal transformation. We need to do it as quickly and aggressively as possible. We need to sacrifice certain luxuries perhaps, but also just huge philosophical changes to how we view what is good and what is not. Of course, every year goes by. No, not this year.
OK, one thing that’s really interesting about your book is that you have characters in it that are hopeless until they meet your lead character. Then they take action. Even if the action is futile or almost hopeless itself, they act. Which I think is all instigated by Isha. That’s a really interesting … well, I don’t really know what else to say about it. But, now that I hear you talk about it, it’s a very intriguing way of looking at it that she’s served this spark that lights these people that do feel this pain to actually act.
Yes. I think that’s another aspect of it. The idea of the individual taking on the responsibility. To me, that’s huge. There’s a part in the beginning when the villagers are coming after the mother tigress. This kid realizes like, “Oh no. There’s no one else that’s going to do this.” There’s a moment when you realize — and I think everyone’s realized that in different times where you’re like — “It’s not going to get done if I don’t do it.”
That’s a pivotal moment for a lot of people. Some people are like, “Well, whatever, I’ve got to go to Starbucks.” Other people are like, “OK, well it’s all going to change right now.”
Well, let’s hope maybe more of us can get to that point. This gets to a really interesting question that when I was reading the book, I made the mistake of reading your “Note from the Author” at the end of the book — well it was fun to read. I read the very last section where you talked a little bit about the inspirations. You write about real-life Isha. You write about the tiger Kala. But you have two characters in your book, Arun and Gowda, who I thought were very fascinating, very intriguing, fully rounded characters. And you don’t mention influences [for these two]. But these are the two characters that I think, in some ways, encapsulate the broken-heartedness over the state of the world, yet until they meet Isha, they haven’t really taken [any] action and then they come alive when they do take the action.
I’m really curious, are these based on real people? Is it a part of the book that fully came out of your head?
I hope I can answer this objectively. In the beginning, Arun was actually based on a very real person, this guy named Sandy. He grew up in the jungle, and his father’s name was Wolfgang, just like I wrote in the book. Wolfgang really did start a botanical sanctuary in the jungles of Kerala. I was very impressed, and I learned a lot from this guy. He’s so gentle and so gifted with plants and animals, and so in touch with the jungle. He was a major influence on Arun.
Then the other thing is that when you’re in South India in the Kerala region, there are these guys who are like the South Indian John Waynes. They’re just these brash, bravado-filled guys that got this crazy flair. They love guns and trucks and motorcycles and tiger stories. And I know a few. Gowda is probably the most made-up character in the book, but it’s just a compilation of six guys I know who are just like that.
Then at the same time, a close friend of mine read the book, and he came up to me afterward and he goes, “These are both just schizophrenic manifestations of different parts of you.” He was like, “Arun is the depression and the childlike nature.” Then he’s like, “Then the other side of you is like Teddy Roosevelt, loves action adventure and blood.” He’s like, “You’re just writing about your different stages in your life.”
I was just like, “OK, well, I’m not even qualified to comment on that, as far as I know the characters.”
OK Paul, did you want to be a priest at one point? Was that a thing?
God no. I like the idea of [Arun] being so lost and so confused that he’d gone down that path. I also really, really wanted a way to express that thought about what if — because religion leaves out nature in so many aspects, and it’s so narcissistically human-centered — they’re talking about the return of Christ, and I was just like, “Why does it have to be a dude again?” What if it’s not: everything else? What if it’s not the trees? I just think that the fact that this messed-up, confused man is just like, what if what God is actually doing: what if the Second Coming is all around us, and we just can’t see it?
I thought that was a really beautiful part of the book. I was really intrigued by Arun and the fact that he did want to be a priest. I think that added a real weight to his character, and it let us see who he was instantly. I really liked that aspect of his character and maybe it’s because I feel like in a past life I feel like I was a monk. I think some of us who deal with the environmental loss, it’s like, well, what else is there? Then it’s like, well, maybe religion, I don’t know.
And I think for him, having lost a sister and having done some terrible things … They were justified that they were terrible and trying to work that out. And, of course, he’s seeing all this environmental destruction every day. It made a lot of sense when I was dealing with his character.
One of the things that I find when I read, especially fiction that is about the environment, is that it comes across as super preachy … I felt like your book did not come across as preachy. It felt very lived-in, very real, very hard, but also vulnerable. How did you approach not getting caught up in the message?
First of all, thank you for saying that, because with [my first book] Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon, environmentalists were like “Oh that was great, thank you very so much.” But everyone else that really read it for the adventure, they were just like, “Hey, I love your book, but I get it already.” I got very called out for being way too preachy.
Yes. If I go back and read it now, I can see it. I can just see myself being like “Stop cutting down the Amazon, stop cutting down the Amazon.” I did it with every page. Then as you mature as a writer, as a reader, as a student, whatever, the whole “show don’t tell” [becomes apparent]. And I think that with this book, I wanted to be very careful of that. I did not want it to be preachy.
One of the things I like is when [a reader] comes to those conclusions, and I think that these characters, Thimna the tribal boy and Isha and Arun and Gowda, they all are people that are just seeing this stuff around. Even the tigers, even Kala and Hathi. The elephant’s angry because his jungle is gone. His family’s gone. Ramachandran is furious that he’s been incarcerated his whole life.
I think it gets preachy when you say, “Well, here’s what you should be doing.” I think that when you just show the loss, I think that anyone, if they have a heart, they’re going to say, “Well, I wish that kid’s village wasn’t destroyed.” If they’re happy about it, they got other problems in their lives. Maybe what I could have done better with Mother of God was not so much telling people what should be happening. With this, I just wanted to let it play out just like that.
Actually, one person that reviewed the book, he actually didn’t like the book very much. He said that he felt like it was too cold or something. He said that, at the end, he goes, everything just happens, and you don’t explain what it all means. And I was like, “Yes, well, that’s the point.”
Welcome to India, or welcome to anywhere in the world where this kind of stuff is on the front lines of this?
Yes. And the thing is: people walk down the street, get hit by a bus, not everything has a point. Also, if you’re going to go on this journey with these metaphoric characters that have metaphorical significance in a piece of literature, you’re setting up these personalities and influences, and the ending is the part that you’re supposed to interpret. That’s where stories go. If you need it explained to you, then I can’t help you. Go back to school.
So, I’m really curious. Isha, as we said, she’s the catalyst of the book. She is a really amazingly well-crafted literary creation. She’s also based on a real person … What is the real Isha up to today? Also, what does she think about being a character in the book?
I actually just finished writing her college recommendation letter. I stuck a little cheeky line in there about [how] not many students have inspired novels.
She’s doing that. I haven’t let her read the book. She’s known about it for years, but I only want the final thing to be read. I felt like when she came to the Amazon, she had the effect on me that the book has on the characters.
She was like, “You can’t kill animals.” I was like, yes, totally. I’m here to protect animals. Then I’d swat a mosquito and she’d be like, “Whoa, whoa, that is a contradiction.” I’d be like, “What?” She’d be like, “No, it’s just trying to eat, right?” I was like, “Yes, well, it can’t eat me.”
Then one of the other stories that was for me pretty groundbreaking was we were leaving the [Peruvian Amazon] jungle and we ran into these poachers. I’m down there all the time; I’ve seen so many horrible things that I am remarkably calloused at this point.
These poachers had these two very ancient, yellow-footed tortoises with them, big land tortoises and they had them with bamboo jammed in the front of their shell, and they were going to put them on a fire. They don’t even kill them. They stick them right on the fire. When she saw that, she was like, “Well, what are you going to do?” You can see she was just like: you have to do something.
I was like, there’s nothing I could do. These are poachers, there’s nothing. Instantly, you could just see the absolute betrayal. She started crying right away, she was like you have to do something.
I ended up negotiating with these poachers buying the tortoises, and then releasing them, but it was like no other force would have made me do that. We know you don’t buy things from poachers, whatever else. But in that situation when you’re confronted with such an innocent love: “Yes, I get the big picture, but for this tortoise, who’s 70 years old, you can help it. Forget your ideas, your theories, the grand picture, help it right now in that uncompromising action.”
I was just like, whoa, [that] intolerance for injustice, that really stuck with me. By the end of the trip, I was like a full-on vegetarian and stuck for a few months. That sort of power is there, so it’s cool.
How old was she when you met her? She was on a trip with her family, right?
Yes. I think she was 11 at that point. That was a long time ago.
Has she maintained that ferocity?
Absolutely. Along with “I’m going to go rescue a tiger,” I get messages from her and she’s like, “Hey, we’re having two baby squirrels this week. We have a bird with a wounded wing.” She’s always connected to animals. Always finds them on her own. I got a call while I was in India about a 7-foot [2.1-meter] rat snake in this tree, and the police were scared of it. They made me and Surya Keerthi, son of the famous snake catcher Snake Shyam, rescue it out of this tree.
I called up Isha and we released it together. She’s like, “I know the perfect spot.” She was very concerned that the snake needed the perfect spot to be released. Again, most people, they’re like, “Oh cool, a snake. Cool, rabbit.” It’s not everyone that falls to their knees and is like, I am going to drop everything because my life is not as important as this. Not everyone has that compassion.
Well, I’ll be very interested to see where life takes her. She sounds like an amazing person.
Mongabay: Let’s move on from the book and talk a little bit about India and your experiences there. How old were you when you first went there, just to give people some background.
Paul Rosolie: I must have been about 21.
You’ve been back a dozen of times?
Yes. I live in India for at least a third of every year. I totally consider myself Indian. I don’t care if people make fun of that, but I am and my family is. My wife is Indian. I’ve lived over six years in India at this point.
Your book is, as we said, it’s unsentimental. It’s at times brutal. It really does take a real lens on India in general. What would you say to someone, a critic who would claim that your book is too harsh on the country?
I would debate them. I don’t think it’s harsh at all. It’s not harsh judgmentally toward India. I think that the book outlines a lot of hard facts about reality. I just have minor references to this. But when I arrived there in 2008, 70,000 farmers had committed suicide. That was from farmers literally who had no other answer to Monsanto and the larger global economic machine coming in, and pushing them off their land where they would eat their own fertilizer and kill themselves.
India also happens to be the number one most dangerous country in the world for sexual violence toward women. That’s why I wanted to include that storyline about Arun’s sister. Not only because it fuels his actions and makes sense for the rest of the book, but also just because it is such a terrifying reality.
I don’t think the book takes a stance as judgmental. I think the book takes a stance that’s sympathetic. You have the characters who are living in this reality and trying to make the best. I think most of the characters are good people who want to change that.
I don’t think the book is harsh on India. I think it just is grappling with a lot of the issues that the characters have to deal with.
Again, if you’re talking about one of the animal characters, I mean the animals are pretty pissed about what you’re doing in India right now. Just like animals all over the world — let’s say you’re destroying everything that my world consists of.
I would full-on debate that with somebody.
So, India is going to pretty soon eclipse China as the most populous nation on Earth. At the same time like so many other countries, India’s fertility rate is dropping quite rapidly in recent decades, but it still sits above replacement level. Having been there so much, what do you think the country would have to gain from a stabilization of its population?
I think that the quality of life would go up for everyone. Right now, it’s so explosive, and so hectic that if things evened out, you could breathe. If you have a coffee shop or any kind of business in India, it’s like, “Well, there’s also 10,000 other people right around you that have that.” How do you survive in that ecosystem, as a farmer, as anything? Whereas, if it levels out, you can breathe a little bit.
Also so much of rural India depends on having natural clean water, forest, soil, air. So many of these people, they’re farmers. They’re not even really on the grid. Less or stabilized population would mean relief for natural systems. It would be more than water, food, resources for people. They’re directly dependent on these natural systems. I think that that would have a really good effect on India.
And or the wildlife, I assume you’d see a —
Yes, of course. Right now, it’s crazy in the parks. Every day, if you read the Indian newspaper, [there’s a] new highway through Bandipur National Park. There are nine new dams in the Western Ghats. There’s a new mining company ripping apart some reserve. It’s like, “Oh my God. There’s so much corruption.” These projects go through so quickly where it’s like, for animals, in one way, you feel we’re losing so much. How could there ever, ever be hope? But then if you look at the overall trend, like with the tiger reserves, they have it figured out that as long as you provide enough prey, as long as you make sure no one’s hunting the prey species and just give them an area to live with some trees in it, tigers will survive. Then pretty much everything else will. It’s like, it’s at once it’s devastating, and at once there’s more hope there than anywhere else. It’s really kind of a contrast.
I think that that would have a great effect and probably save things right in the nick of time for India. One of the things that occurred to me, I was talking to someone this week and there’s saying [about] tigers. Of course, we’re incorporating every other aspect of the ecosystem under the umbrella of the tiger, but the tiger story has become so grounded in India, which is great because they’re seeing success. The tiger has become national pride and they’ve doubled the numbers.
But the tiger story, I think there’s 11 other countries like Laos, Cambodia, Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand. It’s all these other countries that have tigers. The stories are so much worse there.
Yeah — Indonesia.
So, yes, oh my God, tigers are doing better [in India]. It’s like, “Yes, in one spot.” I try and vacillate between people like, “Is there hope?” No, no, there is hope. It’s not too late.” Then people are like, “So we’re doing good?” I’m like, “No, it’s not that quick.” [Laughs] You don’t get to go there right away. It’s not binary.
It’s a complicated message. I totally agree.
Just a few years ago, I found out that the Caspian tiger was alive in parts of Afghanistan and Tajikistan as late as 1998. Which is a major extinction that happened in our lifetimes. That subspecies of the tiger was actually larger than the Siberian tigers. We’re just losing things left and right.
I think that would be the most wonderful thing for everybody: for the wildlife, for Indians once the population stabilizes. I think that a lot of amazing things are going to happen.
Speaking of losing things, some of the most really difficult parts of the book to read, and some of the brutal parts are about the indigenous forest people. Can you give us a little bit about the challenges they’re facing? I know in the book you deal with both the pressure from conservation and the pressure from development. What’s the balance there, and are there any signs that anything is changing for vulnerable forest people and tribal groups?
What I’ve seen in India is so devastating. I honestly … I’ve never seen displacement and poverty … What’s the word I’m looking for? Almost like an amputation. They’ve been ripped out. I’ve seen the resettlement areas and they have government housing for them: these little sheds made of concrete on a hill, no forest, in the sun. Survival International just released a month ago a video of them clearing out a tribal village. It’s big guys with bats basically, with poles. They’re just beating these people and moving them forcibly out of their village. It’s just a horrible process.
At the same time, you have these people that have traditionally lived in the forest like the honey tribes where they were collecting honey from the trees. I’ve seen these people walking through the treetops; it’s literally, something like straight out of The Jungle Book. These people are walking through the rainforest canopy with machetes in their mouths, like Spiderman, walking around harvesting fruit, dropping it down. And then they have boys on the ground who are sitting there with fully grown tuskers, male elephants. They load up these elephants and they bring the food back to the village. It’s absolutely the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen spending a day out with the tribal people in the forest and their knowledge in connection to the forest.
[Then] you rip them out and stick them on a barren hillside in the sun, and tell them to just go get a job. People who have never really dealt with money before. Just like Native Americans, alcoholism and all the problems that come with uprooting a society that has lost their culture. It is so devastating to see.
What really gets me though, is that how on Earth did we manage or did we allow for the animals of the forest, and the people of the forest to be pitted against each other?
That might be the most devious thing I’ve ever heard in terms of what the mining companies and what the forces against the forest could divide and conquer. If the tiger conservationists and the human rights groups were together, they’d be so much more powerful. Instead, the human rights groups are going off against the conservationists. The conservationists are going off, saying the tribal people are poaching, and that they don’t really live a pure lifestyle anymore, like noble savages.
It’s like, “You guys have got to be kidding. You’re fighting against international mining conglomerates with billions and billions of dollars and you’re fighting each other.”
It’s devastating; it breaks my brain and my heart.
That’s one of the other things with this book … I sort of play with that because it really is like [that], the Forest Department a few years ago was blaming the tribals for setting Nagipur National Forest on fire.
If you go talk to the tribal people, they’re like, “Well, forest department cuts the trees and they sell it. All these bastards are getting rich.” Both groups talk behind each other’s backs and there’s this huge animosity.
The tribal people will say, “Well, why don’t they let us run our forests? We are the forest people, so why don’t they at least give us that?” Then the Forest Department will say, “Well, yes but if you give them jobs, they won’t do them. They’ll just get drunk and sit there.”
Yes, there’s truth to all sides of those things, and it’s immensely complicated but I just think that uniting those two groups is one of the most important things we could do.
And honestly, that kind of suffering, no one should ever have to go through that. But that to me was really heartbreaking seeing how badly they take [the relocation].
You’ve already talked a little bit about the hope you see in India. Can you just [elaborate] a little bit about where you see hopeful signs? Where do you see hope for nature and people? Where are some inflection points? You just discussed … the indigenous people and the Forest Department or the conservation groups, and the human rights groups working together may be one real opportunity that we’re missing. What else do you see?
I just think that there’s so much hope out there. That’s the thing that keeps me going because I’ve seen burning forests; I’ve seen displaced tribal peoples; and I’ve seen all these horrible things.
Especially India, to me is like the glowing heart of hope for conservation because if you have a country that has, I think it’s 1.3 billion people now, you’d say, “They must have eaten up and destroyed every bit of nature.” But no, you have these tribal groups [who] are tenaciously holding onto the forest.
There are so many photographers and wildlife lovers, activists, protesters [in India], that I feel like when I come to the U.S. people talk about sitcoms and what politicians are doing. But I feel like when I’m in India, a lot of times I find myself around the table, talking with friends who are very active, but the things we talk about are like the new highway or what the land uses of the Chaliyar River.
They’re really invested in what’s happening to their landscape and they totally understand that every time you let one of these stupid projects go through, a few guys are going to get really rich, but everyone else suffers. The fact that they’re able to double their tigers and have more Asian elephants than anywhere else in the world. And the fact that so many of my friends in India, they’re just incredible photographers and appreciators.
For example, Surya Keerthi, whom I mentioned. He grew up and he rescues snakes every day of his life, all day long, day or night, whatever. If he gets a call there’s a snake in someone’s house, they know to call him and he’ll go rescue the snake. We were talking and he goes, “Oh, man, I’d love to come to the Amazon one time.” I said, “Come.” He goes, “I can’t. What’s going to happen if I’m gone and somebody has a snake in the house? I can’t leave the snakes, I have to protect them.”
Again, that responsibility toward these animals that have no idea you’re helping them, it’s so beautiful. I think that, in general, the generation today, everyone’s waking up. One of the things when I was in college, people were like, “Oh, the preservation of nature is like an elitist thing, it’s a rich person’s issue.” And I’m like, “No, it’s not.”
In India — are you kidding me? The poorest people are the ones who need intact ecosystems. They need bushmeat, they need timber for fire and they need all this stuff. Them, more than anyone else. It’s just amazing how it could be distorted. But I honestly think that in the era of the internet, the conservation community is so connected now and I think that with Goodall doing it for a million years and now DiCaprio is on it, now it’s becoming cool.
[Laughs] That’s hope.
It is becoming cool now; it’s almost to an annoying level.
I don’t think for most things it’s too late. But I definitely think India is the source of hope, there are so many amazing projects going on there. From people educating women to take control of family planning. I was in a village where they were doing biogas and solar stuff. It’s all these innovations being implemented, people are very experimental and they just have this ingenuity, they are like, “Let’s just do it.”
Whereas I feel in the U.S., we’re so caught up in this political thing that everyone’s stuck. There’s actually a lot of great stuff happening in India.
ROSOLIE, THE CONSERVATIONIST
Mongabay: As a naturalist and a writer, you’ve spent most of your adult life in three different worlds: the U.S., India, and Amazonian Peru. How do you feel bouncing between these three worlds, these three distinct cultures? How does that shape you as an adult and as a writer as well?
Paul Rosolie: I don’t think it’s super healthy. Back in the day, when you travel on a ship, you would walk to the pier or whatever, you get on the ship and then for months you’d be at sea, slowly change your environment. You can go to the other side of the world but it will take you a long time. Now, 17 hours [and] I can be in India, I can be in the Amazon, it doesn’t matter, you just get on the plane. It’s like going into a wormhole.
When you live from months and months in a place, your brain gets used to the way that smells, the people, the animals, the sounds, everything, and then when you get ripped out of that, and stuck into another reality, I find that very jarring.
There’s certainly advantages; it’s very exciting. I get to know people and have family in all those different locations and it’s wonderful but at the same time it is like, “God.” Sometimes I show up at JFK or I go into New York subway, where it’s literally, the day before I woke up on a quiet river in the Amazon, it’s like, “Whoa.” People go, “Do you ever get culture shock when you travel?” “Yes, when I go home.”
I find that too. Whenever I travel, I come back and then I hear the American accent for the first time and I’m in an American airport and for some reason that always does feel really like, “What?” and I live here full-time. For some reason, there’s something very different about [the U.S. from] the rest of the world.
Other things are harsher here [in the U.S.] than they are in other places. I know that like, for instance, when you see poor people in India they have, for instance, the food that they’re cooking are still [Indian] dishes that were handed down from generation to generation. That same thing goes for their clothing, their jewelry, the songs they sing, that they’re all part of a community. Even the poorest people have that community.
Then when you come to this country [the U.S.] and you see a crackhead on the side of the road in New York City, just screaming and no one cares. That person doesn’t have a single thing in the world and winter is coming for them. You’re going to be in New York City in February by yourself. That’s rougher than anywhere else. That’s tough. New York’s not even the worst of it; we have such a big poverty problem. I do feel like sometimes when I come back here, it’s like just being thrown into a buzz saw, “Whoa, this is next level.”
I don’t want to end this interview without talking a little bit about the Amazon. You got your start really in the Amazon.
Yes, I did.
You wrote your first book, Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon, which I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. It’s a beautiful book about that. Can you tell us what has changed since then? Has anything changed? What’s it like in the region that you’re working in?
Oh my God, everything has changed. Back in those days, I was going and volunteering with an organization and then later I just made friends with the local guys and we were going on an expedition … Now it’s like, man, we have five rangers for our NGO called Junglekeepers and we’re trying to stop the illegal ironwood harvesting that’s happening on the Las Piedras River.
We’re trying to protect the wildlife, protect the trees, and then also of course, all of that would be a buffer for the uncontacted tribes further up the Las Piedras. We’re trying to work with the communities now and hire our rangers from the indigenous communities so that, unlike India, we have the local forest people working as the forest stewards.
Everything has changed now. Now we have people all over the world come through Tamandua and I think we’re directly protecting 11,000 acres [4,450 hectares] and then our rangers also patrol other acres. So we’re up to about [around] 30,000 acres that we’re protecting. This is like the big show now. Now we’re protecting entire rivers. This is all land that’s outside the parks … I’m working in areas, specifically areas that are still very wild and have primary forest but that are not protected because, again, there’s no one else doing it. Being able to patrol these areas and literally taking people who are like, “Well, I don’t have a way of getting an income, I’m going to cut down trees.”
It’s like, “Well, do you want to come and work as a cook?” They’re like, “Yes.” One of the best discoveries of this year was this guy named Victor who came and worked for us. He’d been a logger his whole life and he was working for us as a boat driver. There’s one day where I had taken a bunch of tourists up the river and we were fishing; we jumped off a tree into the river and we were taking a survey in the river.
We went back where he was staying like gringo breakfast to provide nice food for the tourists, he was just shoving fruit in his mouth and he goes, “Man, just let me just tell you something.” He goes, “If you want me to drive boats for you, I will do that the rest of my life.” He goes, “This is so much easier than logging and it pays like triple.” He’s like, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Logging is a dangerous, dirty job and they don’t want to do it. It’s just that they need another alternative … We’re using ecotourism and we’re using ranger things and we’re just in every way possible trying to unite this river, the people on this river, so that we can protect it before it’s too late because it really is just the most incredible place.
Let’s locate the exact place where Junglekeepers work. Where is it exactly in the Peruvian Amazon?
Madre de Dios region, and from the city of Puerto Maldonado, it’s up the Trans-Amazonian Highway and north. The thing about the Las Piedras that makes it so crucial is that you have these national parks around. You have Manú National Park which [is a] UNESCO World Heritage Site, you have Alto Purús National Park, and you have the Tambopata [National] Reserve and all these crazy, internationally renowned protected areas.
Then running right down through the center of those is the Las Piedras Basin where it’s completely the Wild West. There’s [a] huge influx of migrant people coming and just land grabbing, there’s gold mining, there’s logging, there’s poaching. It’s like we’re trying, myself and [others], we’re all trying to work to protect this place because right now it’s still this beautiful semi-pristine river loaded with jaguars, fish, harpy eagles, macaws, and all this stuff. It’s like, yes, if everyone left and just let it happen. This thing would be nothing in the next five to 10 years. But as it’s happening now it’s like, again, there’s so much attention on this right now and people are saying, “Wait a second, why do we have to fix it once it’s broken, why don’t we just do the work now and protect this thing?”
It’s really cool. When I started, I remember being 20 years old walking up the stream and being like, “Oh my God, one day this thing is going to be destroyed” and being so heartbroken. Now it’s like, I walk up the stream with my rangers and we’re like, “No, this is going to be fine.” It’s really good.
That’s really hopeful.
It is hopeful. The only thing I don’t like about the word hope is that it doesn’t help. You have to make the hope. When I was that age, I just had no idea. So many people every day contact me on my Instagram or through my website and they’re like, “I’m so worried, what do I do? I feel so helpless.” I say, “Well, do something.” I tell them like, “Go help. If you don’t want to donate to some organization well then go help or whatever.”
I just tell people, “Get off your ass if you’re worried about it and do something about it.” We’ve been very fortunate in the fact that we’ve been able to do something about it. We’re not there yet, but we’re definitely on the road, which is exciting.
So, you get all these people coming to you saying, “What do I do? How do I make a difference?” For your average American, for your average Indian, for your average Peruvian, probably living in a city somewhere, what do you say? Are you one of those conservationists who will say, “Well, you should give up flying and give up meat and you should take a bath once a week or whatever”?
Are you someone that says, “No, we need political action, we need marching, we need voting, we need to change our whole structure.” Or are you in between? What advice do you give?
I have to answer this question so often. And I’m kind of in the middle because I know people that they have their toothbrush pump and they fill it up and they’re only allowed to use a certain amount of water. Their whole lives are determined by this idea of conserving every single thing that they do. To me, I actually think I’m more … Personally, I’m more on the side of the second [part of what you said]: like just outlaw Styrofoam.
Just stop letting people buy plastic water bottles. I really think it was Bill McKibben who said this. He was like, When we were kids did anybody come up to us and say, “Hey everybody, do you want to go from VHS to DVDs?” “No.” One day, you found out the only thing that Blockbuster had was DVDs. You had to go and get a DVD player. Technology advanced.
Where I live in upstate New York, they just banned plastic bags at grocery stores, which is awesome, but now you see it. Everyone brings their own bag. People adapt very quickly. It’s really not that hard. This whole plastic problem: that’s the whole thing with all of this. Well, just stop cutting down the trees and limit plastic to where we really need it like in hospitals and medical stuff. Stop allowing this stuff to happen.
I do think that burdening individual people … let’s face it, most people, yes, you have a job, you have your kids, you have a house, you have a car. You have all the complexities of a modern human and who knows if someone in your family is sick or going to school at night and then you have to worry about “Well, I hope I don’t buy products with palm oil in it.” Well, no they shouldn’t have palm oil in them.
It’s like putting that sort of responsibility on people. I think I see it causing a lot of stress in people that I don’t think should be there. We need to take more of an active role in shaping what things are allowed in terms of that, where it’s like no, we’re not going to allow destructive things.
We’re not going to give corporations personhood but rivers not.