A twenty-foot anaconda, one of the greatest predators on the planet, has me in its grasp. It's impossible to describe the power -- and the overwhelming primal fear -- as coils as thick as my waist tighten around me from beneath the water's surface. Scales race over my skin in the cold black of the water. My bones flex under the weight of the crush. I sink deeper. There's nothing I can do but wait for the inevitable snapping of bones and loss of consciousness.
Two weeks before I found myself in the death grips of this anaconda, I was returning from a field stint in the remote jungles of Peru to the city of Puerto Maldonado, a jungle town in Southeastern Peru's Madre De Dios -- the area I wrote about in my book, Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon (2014).
Nestled in the shadow of the Andes Mountains, this region serves as the southern headwaters of the Amazon River and boasts the largest intact rainforest on the planet. It contains more species of flora and fauna than anywhere else on earth, and much of the life that exists there is yet unknown to science. In 2012 researchers from Conservation International discovered 365 new species in a single study area. New species are popping up every year. One-third of the world's birds live in this region, and there are more reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, and trees here than anywhere else on the planet.
The Amazonian ecosystem has been described as the greatest natural battlefield on earth. The Madre de Dios is frequently described as a modern-day Wild West for its raw wilderness and brutal human realities. Loggers, gold miners, poachers, and drug traffickers haunt the vast landscape. In times of logging or gold boom, boatloads of jungle hookers cater to the wild-weary men, collecting payment in board-feet of timber or raw gold.
For the past decade, this landscape of Avatar-esque biological beauty and frontier brutality has been my office, my muse, and the focus of my career as a naturalist. Over the years I've raised a giant anteater, come face to face with jaguars, and traveled with poachers to penetrate the roots of the international trade in endangered species (a global black market topped only by guns and drugs). But traveling back to civilization this May, I knew I was beginning one of the most challenging and dangerous projects yet.
Walking the dusty streets amid gold miners and rickshaws after weeks in the solitude of the wilderness, I let my senses readjust to the bustle of civilization while making my way to a hotel. I bought an ice cream and a beer (cold stuff is what you miss the most) and sat outside the hotel in the sweltering afternoon, waiting for the film crew to arrive.
First to arrive is a van of Discovery Channel cameramen, a full truck of gear in tow. During the flurry of handshakes and introductions, I try to size up these new faces, wondering if they'll last long in the jungle.
Next comes the car I've been waiting for: my own team, an international roster of young conservationists and adventurers. They're a diverse bunch, hailing from the US, UK, Finland, India, Peru and my hometown, Brooklyn. Among them are some of my best friends and colleagues, including my wife. But despite the varied backgrounds, and rich history, we've all come to the Amazon on the same mission: to find, capture, and study the largest snakes on the planet.
The rest of the day is spent catching up. Hotel room beds are covered in piles of gear: camera traps, headlamps, rafts, paddles, tents, machetes, cameras, med kits, and on and on. Everyone is glowing with anticipation, and we sit up late on the roof of the hotel talking, planning, and preparing. In just a few hours, the sun will be up, the comforts will be gone, and we'll begin the greatest expedition of our lives.
* * * *
For a predator that can easily outweigh a grown man, we still know very little about the anaconda. How many of them are there? How are they adapting to the rapid changes in Amazonia today? How big are they getting? But before the snakes can be studied they must be found, and once they are found they must be restrained. One does not simply walk into the Amazon and ask an anaconda to climb onto a scale.
Perhaps anacondas are most famous for their namesake movies, which, save for the name, have nothing to do with the actual species. Still, people seem fascinated by any animal that can eat a human -- especially whole. But deaths from anacondas are rare, even in the Amazon; incidents of people actually being eaten, even rarer. Throughout my years of work in the Basin, I've met only a handful of people whose relatives had been consumed.
Anaconda predation on humans is still officially classified as 'unconfirmed,' but people in the remote villages tend to disagree. The father of a good friend of mine was eaten by an anaconda while bathing in the river at night. People in small villages, far from our Youtube culture, aren't equipped with cameras and aren't concerned with documenting tragedies.
The thought of an anaconda eating a person is far less impressive, though, than seeing a snake choke down a vicious wild boar or a mature caiman (crocodile), with all its claws and spikes. Besides, I've always been far more interested in the profound effect these serpentine giants have on the ecosystem they inhabit.
Anacondas don't hatch from eggs but are birthed live, beginning life at just two feet long -- as much prey as they are predator. But as they grow, which occurs rapidly in the first year, they climb the trophic levels of the most competitive natural economy in nature. Anacondas are the largest snakes on earth. By the time she reaches maturity, a female anaconda can reach a length of over twenty-five feet and weigh several hundred pounds. They are capable of eating any other animal in the jungle, including jaguars, caiman, and yes, even humans.
* * * *
My team travels into the stunning Amazonian wilderness of towering trees, hanging vines, and powerful waterways. It's a month-long expedition, the culmination of eight years of research and study that I've done in the Amazon. What we stand to learn about these snakes is legion.
The territory we cover is a landscape that reminds you just how small we really are. The jungle is vast and towering. Wildlife is omnipresent, from the botflies in our arms to the spiders in the cracks of the canoe. Giant catfish patrol the murky world beneath us, and we spot stingrays gliding in the shallows. The beaches are crisscrossed with multiple animal tracks: jaguars, capybara, tapir, otter, caiman, and dozens of birds. It's awe-inspiring to comprehend how much life there is around us.
Yet as we travel, it's never far from my mind that there are sinister forces penetrating the vast wild, silencing the songs of the animals. Among the most destructive of them all is 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 become a national emergency in Peru.
Gold comes in the form of small particles, naked to the human eye, among the sediment in the Amazonian clay. To extract the gold, miners suck earth through great hoses powered by motors. The process completely devastates wildlife, trees, rivers, and earth. In the final stage, mercury is used to bind the gold particles from the bottom-most sediment, thus extracting the 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 and prostitution. The Peruvian military has responded with commandoes, explosives, and helicopters in an effort to eradicate the illegal gold mining problem. But in often-bloody standoff that has gripped the region for years, the government is playing Whac-A-Mole with an insidious problem that never seems to end. The deadly results of gold mining can be seen from space: ugly deforested scars stretching across the Amazon.
Today nine out of the fifteen species of fish most commonly consumed in the Madre de Dios have mercury levels higher than are deemed safe by the U.S. EPA. The result is that 78 percent of the human population in the region has dangerously high mercury levels in their bodies, a problem especially dangerous 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. One goal in our study of anacondas is to ascertain what levels of mercury are making it into the world's largest snakes -- a project that had not yet been undertaken in the lowland forests of the Amazon Basin.
As one of the largest predators in this vast biological matrix, anacondas are an important cog in the Basin ecosystem. They are the stewards of the order of life in their environment, their influence over the trophic spectrum responsible for the health of thousands of other species of plants and animals, and ultimately even the rivers and forests themselves. Because of their position at the top of the food chain, it's likely that anacondas are absorbing the cumulative mercury from many lower levels of the food chain.
The problem with studying giant several-hundred-pound snakes with six rows of re-curved teeth is that it's dirty, difficult, and dangerous work. The only way to find anacondas is to slosh into their swamps, slogging neck-deep among electric eels, venomous snakes, hornets, stingrays, and myriad other threats. And since tranquilizing a reptile is not possible given their anatomy, the only way to measure a twenty-foot mass of writhing muscle is to physically overpower it.
* * * *
Traveling through the Amazonian wilderness we have many stops along the way, pausing at various swamps and streams to search for anacondas. The days become a blur of making camp and breaking camp, tending to injuries, and reveling in the awe of riotous nature. There's endless primordial foliage towering above our small boat as we wind for days through some of the most remote, vibrant, and violent wilderness on earth. Macaws cross the sky in flying rainbows of color, jaguars prowl the beaches, and we capture some small anacondas that make up the first data points of our study. Things are going well. Days slip by as our boat slips deeper into the jungle. Each river bend, each long day bringing us closer to our ultimate goal: The Floating Forest.
The discovery of the unique swamp was described for the first time in its namesake chapter in my book, Mother of God. The Floating Forest--a deep aquifer of black water, covered by floating mats of vegetation--is unique and terrifying, and the most perfect anaconda habitat imaginable. It was here that I rode on the back of a 25 foot snake, and it is here that we all know this expedition must ultimately lead; the one place that we know a true giant lives. We're on the trail of a white whale I've been chasing for years. Now with my entire international team, and a Discovery Channel crew, drones, thermal vision, rafts, rope, and years of research, I finally have the tools to find it.
* * * *
Just a day's hike from the Floating Forest, I wake before sunrise to make a fire. As the flames hiss and struggle I move to sharpening my machete, meditating as dawn rises and the sound of avian life ushers in a cool morning. At 5:20 a.m. I start calling the names of my team, and I can see the outline of bodies stirring inside the tents. Lucy Dablin from the UK is the first one to join me by the fire. We sit together in the darkness beneath ancient trees, as sunlight ignites the canopy far above. As I work on my bade, Lucy mortars each side of a badly broken big toenail with clear nail polish, then lays a piece of tea-bag fabric across the fracture, followed by another layer of nail polish, fusing the nail back together. After weeks in the jungle, sloshing through swamps, everyone's body is breaking down.
Gradually tents unzip and out come the rest of the team. As we prepare gear and cook breakfast, the conversation is mostly business. In the last few weeks we've caught and catalogued several smaller anacondas, and we all know it's only a matter of time until we come face to face with a giant. We're all tense, but no one talks about the dangers ahead. By 9:00 a.m. we've already walked miles, and are now in two canoes launching out into the dark water of a dismally silent swamp. The sun is out and the chances of finding a big snake basking in the warmth are good. We've been told by locals that there's an unusually large snake ruling over this swamp.
My team is silent in their canoes. In the back of each boat is a paddler. I crouch in the front of my canoe and radio for everyone to minimize water disturbance; we don't want to scare the snakes away. At the bow of the other canoe Patrick Champagne from Montreal tells me he copies.
As we float beneath the palms, I have the subconscious expectation that it's still early in the morning, too early for something life-altering to take place. But that assumption was dead wrong. Pat's voice comes trembling over the radio, "Paul, we got something."
I hiss into the walky for them to hold position and wait for me. My heart begins to slam in my ribs as my team navigates our boat toward the other. The camera crew floats on a third boat, silent observers to the imminent battle.
I spot a pile of coils roughly the size of my 32-inch waist. At one end is the striped head of a monster. This is not a normal anaconda, but a complete sea-serpent: a twenty-footer at least. My eyes widen as the boat caroms over the water toward the beast in the grass, and I'm vaguely aware of the voices of my team growing silent as the world becomes a tunnel of adrenaline-soaked and fear-induced focus, locking my eyes to the great snake. The snake looks directly at me, approaching fast. She flicks her huge black tongue for a moment, sizing me up. Then she bolts.
Her coils rocket over one another as she dives into the water below the floating grass. I leap from the boat and my vision goes black as I fall into the dark water. Emerging, I windmill paddle toward the exploding coils, gripping her trunk and instantly getting thrown left and right. She is writhing and I am treading, and for a horrifying moment we are alone.
Behind me Mohsin Kazmi and Lee Rando dive off their boats into the water, followed by Joonas Hesso, Pat, and native Peruvian Juan Julio Durand. They swim to join me in restraining the snake, one by one in a frantic battle of splashing and screaming. This water is twenty feet deep. This snake has hundreds of teeth, is fifty pounds heavier than any one of us, and also has the home-field advantage, big time.
In that moment I fear that we'll lose her as she pulls away. She thrashes our bodies like rag dolls, her incredible power comparable to a bucking bull. All we can do is hold on and pray.
Joonas and Mohsin have her tail, as JJ and Lee grip a length of her body. I'm frantically searching for signs of her head, terrified that she'll change from flight to fight and latch on to one of my team. The reality is that her mouth could come back at any moment to nail any one of us. Once those teeth sink in there's no getting out, and in water this deep, getting wrapped by such a snake would be a death sentence.
Coils of surreal proportions boil the water around us. We tread and struggle, grip and groan as muscles burn and lungs scream for lack of oxygen. Then, suddenly I hear my wife Gowri's voice. She's standing on the boat and screaming, "The snake's head is over there, Paul!" Amid the struggling the snake has surfaced for air.
I catch a glimpse of the snake's eyes, over seventeen feet from where the team is wrestling with her tail. Without thinking I sprint toward the head and hurl myself toward her neck, feeling my hands hit their mark. She's so thick my fingers cannot reach around her neck. "I got the head!" I scream in desperation. "I got the head!" But she's already wrapping me, coils slipping around my shoulders, and spinning me into a powerful death hug. She's pulling me down.
My clavicle begins to flex. I try screaming again but the snake has me. And suddenly it all goes black as one of the greatest, most effective predators in the animal kingdom begins using millions of year of evolutionary adaptation to mangle my body.
But what the snake cannot know is that this is exactly where I wanted to be all along. This was my silent hope of the entire expedition. And that is why for months I've been on this mission, hoping to become the first ever human to be eaten alive.