Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind. David Quammen. xii + 515 pp. W. W. Norton, 2003. $26.95.
David Quammen, one of America's foremost nature writers and author of the prizewinning 1996 book The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, is back, this time writing about alpha predators—creatures "big enough, fierce enough, voracious and indiscriminate enough to . . . kill and eat a human." The carnivores he chooses to focus on are the Gir lions of Gujarat in western India, the saltwater crocodiles of northern Australia, the brown bears of Romania and the Amur (Siberian) tigers still hanging on in the Russian Far East. Of course, the animals can't be fully understood without an appreciation of the people who live alongside them, and here Quammen is in his element, weaving in stories of the Maldhari herders who share the lions' shrinking habitat, the Aboriginal people who ply the big crocs' river homes, the shepherds who cross paths with Romania's fierce bears, and the Udege people who eke a living from the Siberian tigers' forest haunts.
As in The Song of the Dodo, we journey to distant lands and times past with Quammen as our guide. We meet local conservationists and travel the countryside with them, on foot or by snowmobile or canoe, in search of alpha predators. We sit in on interviews with natives. We learn much about the history of the Maldhari: when they arrived in western India, where they came from, and how they came to share the land, and often their herd animals (cows and buffalo), with Asia's last lions. This material, particularly the historical information, is engagingly presented and enjoyable to read.
Quammen also takes us on side excursions—geographic, mythic and literary—to emphasize that these predators do still eat people. He includes a quite graphic account (from Alistair Graham's Eyelids of Morning) of a crocodile in Ethiopia lunching on a Peace Corps volunteer, for example, and three descriptions of tourists eaten by grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park.
The title of Quammen's book—Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind—is certainly eye-catching. And, as he acknowledges, it may also raise eyebrows:
Nowadays the term "man-eater" may seem retrograde. Some people who care about large carnivorous animals would like to be rid of it altogether. . . . A case can be made that it's misleading and sensationalistic, that it tends to reinforce an excessively fearful attitude toward those species of which some individuals occasionally kill and eat a human.
Quammen allows that "There's some validity to that discomfort with the term," allowing that its "shock value . . . has been more than sufficiently exploited." But he likes its "terse, atavistic punch" and wants to preserve its use "as a reminder of where we have stood, for tens of thousands of years, on the food chain. . . . That is, not always and indisputably at the top." By committing "ugly, horrific acts of homicide and anthropophagy," he says, alpha predators put our "earthly status" in perspective, making it obvious that we are not the "divinely appointed proprietors" of the natural world.
For most of history, Quammen observes, we've had to tolerate the presence of large predators, "finding roles for them in our emotional universe." Now that they have decreased in number and have become increasingly marginalized, that tolerance is no longer necessary. Quammen believes that, just as big predators play an important regulatory role in ecosystems by preventing midsize predators from proliferating, they also play a "'crucial and irreplaceable regulatory role' within the human mind." He appears to hope that by vividly describing the predations of these creatures, he can awe the reader into a humility that will actually aid conservation.
As a wild-cat conservationist, I have to say this approach raised not just my eyebrows but my hackles. In my estimation, readers are indeed likely to come away with "an excessively fearful attitude." And such worries can only work against the many valiant efforts around the world to preserve alpha predators. Who, after all, really wants to be branded as caring more about the welfare of predatory animals than about the welfare of the people who might get eaten by them?
In fact, it is highly unlikely that any of us will be plat du jour anytime soon: At present it is exceedingly rare for anyone other than a tourist who doesn't know how to act around these animals to be assaulted by one of them. Many predators are actually rather timid around people; I never worry about being attacked when I'm doing fieldwork. (Indeed, it would be perfectly reasonable for nature lovers to try to get a glimpse of these creatures in the wild, and they would do well to consult Quammen's book for historical and cultural insights before going on a tour in quest of them.)
Quammen concedes some of this, stating, for example, that a "recurrent theme in the Russian scientific literature . . . is that Amur tigers seldom attack humans," at least not nowadays. But his treatment pushes the notion that these animals were a greater danger in the past. In fact, it's not clear that they were ever much of a threat: In 1883, Daniel Giraud Elliot wrote in A Monograph of the Felidae (a summary of what was then known of the cat family) that the tiger "in the regions of the Amoor river . . . never attacks of his own accord, but flees when pursued, and only defends himself when mortally wounded." Elliot also reported that "Major Smee killed no less than eleven Lions in Guzerat in about a month." Why? "They were very destructive to domestic cattle and donkeys; but he did not learn that they had ever attacked men."
Quammen emphasizes the predations of the animals he is writing about in part out of a concern that conservationists pay too little attention to "the costs exacted by alpha predators," which are "borne disproportionately by poor people . . . while the spiritual and aesthetic benefits of those magnificent beasts are enjoyed from afar." How these costs can be redistributed is what Quammen calls "the Muskrat Conundrum." Apparently there are "victim classes" of muskrats; "the weak, the homeless, the unsupportable offspring" tend to get eaten by minks, whereas "healthy adult muskrats holding good territories have little to fear" (at least from minks—humans are another story!).
If costs borne by the poor are indeed the crux of the problem, solutions can be devised. For example, protected areas can be created to help counteract the habitat loss that brings predators and humans into contact. And governments and the private sector can surely come up with strategies for alleviating poverty among the people who live nearby—perhaps by creating jobs for them that involve helping manage the protected areas, or by offering attractive inducements to relocate.
But Quammen does little in this book to explore solutions, perhaps because he is pessimistic that anything can be done. Although he does express concern about the plight of the alpha predators, he is gloomy about the prospects for their conservation. He concludes with a bleak vision of the future, writing that "the last wild, viable, free-ranging populations of big flesh-eaters will disappear sometime around the middle of the next century." But this assumes that present trends will continue—and they rarely do. Things might turn out worse than expected—or better. After all, our uniquely human ability to see into the future, however inaccurately, enables us to visualize more acceptable outcomes and act to realize them.
Ultimately, Monster of God is about an erosion of the full richness of biodiversity. Will the United States, the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, the creator of the first national park, also lead the global conservation movement by reintroducing grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions where they once lived? Monster of God should push us all into action, not simply to prevent the impoverishment of the world we are safeguarding for future generations, but to enrich our own world while there's still time.—James Sanderson, Conservation International, Washington, D.C.