The man-eating predator in the jungles of history and the mind
by David Quammen
W.W. Norton & Co. (500 5th Ave., New York, NY 10110), 2003.
384 pages, hardcover. $26.95.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Certain to be classified by most librarians as “natural history,” Monster of God has been mistaken by many reviewers as a screed in defense of “sustainable use.”
Monster of God is actually a book mostly about faith, exploring the influence of the human evolutionary role as prey upon concepts of religion, and of the more recent human ascendance as a top predator on our ideas about conservation.
David Quammen is profoundly skeptical that humans and predators capable of eating us are capable of coexisting for longer than another 150 years. He presents a strong circumstantial case that the protohuman concept of God evolved as a psychological response to swift and seemingly random predator strikes. Sacrifice, Quammen suggests, began as appeasement of predators, and in some remote places continues as such.
Others have written extensively about the emergence of sacrifice as the ritual sustenance of a learned priestly class, coinciding with the rise of animal husbandry, and have discussed especially the role of religion in rationalizing slaughter. Without taking much note of of this, Quammen explores the role of the earliest monarchs in recorded history as lion-slayers, pointing out that the dawn of civilization coincided with the emergence of humans as quasi-apex predators, able at last to do with weapons what natural predators do with tooth and claw.
Quammen goes on to trace the rise of Christianity on every continent parallel to the introduction of superior weapons, demonstrated between wars of subjugation against non-Christians in countless episodes of dragon-slaying and trophy-shooting.
Christianity not only gave believers license to exterminate the predators whom pagans appeased, but also provided the means to do so.
Quammen seems no more concerned that predator-killing is not in the recorded theology of Jesus than most of the purported followers of Jesus have been concerned that he told Peter to put away his sword and in effect sacrificed himself to the predation of both theocracy and secular government. To whatever extent an attitude toward predation may be read into the words and deeds of Jesus, his views appear most similar to those embodied in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, which tolerate the existence of predators but recognizean obligation to protect one’s flock and family.Quammen explores that attitude among the Maldhari herders who ]co-exist, somewhat uneasily, with the Asiatic lions of the Gir forest in western India. Ancestrally and culturally related to the Sindhi of Pakistan, and more distantly to the Bishnoi of Rajasthan, the Maldhari mostly seem to accept that the price of their life in the forest is that lions will eat some of their cattle, and that if the lions find enough wild hooved animals to eat, they will eat neither cattle nor humans. This understanding is encouraged to some extent by recognition that if the Gir lions decline, the Indian government under foreign pressure may resume efforts to evict all of the Maldharis from the forest. Thousands were evicted, along with their cattle, prior to the rise of the present Hindu nationalist government.
Much of Monster of God ponders the paradox that the Gir forest lions, the saltwater crocodiles of eastern India and northern Australia, and the brown bears of Romania have all been saved (so far) chiefly by the interest of a few wealthy and well-connected
people in perpetuating their existence not as predators but as prey. The Gir lions survived the 19th century only because they were so coveted as trophies that one particular sultan saved their habitat.
Romanian brown bears survived the 20th century chiefly because the dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu poured resources into breeding them and protecting their habitat, reserving to himself the privilege of semi-ceremonially massacring them as a frequent demonstration of his potence. Saltwater crocs have recovered from the verge of extinction in two of their most important habitats because of schemes to market their hides–successful in Australia, a failure in India.
Quammen is quite uneasy about both the premises and practice of “sustainable use,” and says so, several times. But Quammen is even less hopeful that eco-tourism can provide an economic motive for saving large predators.
In Africa, Quammen points out, where eco-tourism has historically been most successful, the habitat of lions, cheetah, hyenas and crocodiles is relatively open. The predators are easily seen and photographed.
In India, conversely, good tiger habitat is notoriously dense. Eco-tour promoters have learned that the surest way to provide tiger sightings is to leave only narrow corridors of habitat beside wild-looking jeep roads–which does not allow the few remaining tigers to increase their numbers.
If eco-tourists require only the illusion of wilderness, eco-tourism will preserve only quasi-zoos. Even Yellowstone National Park, Quammen observes, is more-or-less a zoo, though in recent years efforts have increased to expand the opportunities for grizzly bears and wolves to migrate out of the protected parkland into the less guarded national forests that adjoin the park.
Reviewing the data that Quammen presents, it is difficult not to share his pessimism about the future of predators. Yet Quammen has all but ignored the increasing success of international efforts to restore predators, of every size.
Examples include the reintroductions of wolves to the Yellowstone region, red wolves to the Southeast, and Mexican grey wolves to the Southwest; the introduction of legal protections for sharks in U.S., Australian, and Palauan waters; the recovery of bald eagles and other raptors from near-annihilation by DDT; the conquest of U.S. cities by pigeon-eating peregrine falcons; the
growing public appreciation of coyotes; the emergence of foxes and fisher-cats as suburban species; the recovery of pumas throughout much of North America; Chinese efforts to bring back tigers and raptors; global restriction of the traffic in bear parts; and the post-Free Willy! rise of the once hated “killer whale” to iconic status.
Quammen is correct that humans mostly love predators at a safe distance, and that it is critical to give people who live and work in proximity to predation as much security and economic reward for tolerance as possible.
Yet one of the triumphs of science and civilization is that predation is no longer a mystery, no longer an apparent instrument of a vindictive and wrathful God. In coming to understand the ecological role of predation, growing numbers of humans recognize the “monsters of God” as some of the rarest miracles of creation–like the late Tim Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, who in 2003 killed by grizzly bears at the Katmai National Park & Preserve in Alaska, after years of work to try to ease human fear of grizzlies.
As their longtime friend Paul Watson observed, to them the greatest tragedy associated with their deaths would have been that retrieving their remains led also to the deaths of the two grizzlies who ate them. They did not volunteer to die, but volunteered to live in proximity to grizzlies for thirteen and seven summers,
respectively, to show that it could be done.
In the same week a captive-bred white tiger mauled entertainer Roy Horn of the long-running Las Vegas act Siegfried & Roy. The mauling is expected to end more than 40 years of stage demonstrations by Horn and his partner Siegfried Fischbacher of human mastery over predators.
Over time, Siegfried & Roy themselves became leading advocates of wild predators, and occasionally seemed to acknowledge that their act had become an anachronism. Born a generation later, they might have indulged their interest in predators as Treadwell did, as wildlife filmmakers.
Other reviewers have mentioned the Roy Horn mauling as a reminder that great predators are still “monsters of God,” no matter how thoroughly caged and dependent upon human feeding. The real reminder, however, may have been that great predators do not belong caged and dependent.
The essence of wilderness, says Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, is that something there can eat you.
Great predators need to roam, and many humans seem to have a psychological need to venture at times into wilderness, to rekindle for whatever reason our ancestral awareness that we are after all, in Quabben’s words, “just another flavor of meat.”
Please help us continue speaking truth to power: http://www.animals24-7.org/donate/
All donations received during the remainder of 2016 will be matched by an anonymous benefactor, up to a total of $56,000!!!