What is it about large predators that fascinate us so? Whether it’s sheer admiration for their pluck, strategy or dominance — or abhorrence and hatred at their perceived harm — predators evoke deep emotional responses from most people. And we humans have deeply impacted them too, we’ve changed the course of their evolutionary trajectory. Whether by over-hunting, habitat destruction or decimating their prey base, humans have whittled down the meta-populations of large predators on every continent over the course of the past few hundred years. Many apex predators are now imperiled.
David Quammen’s book, Monster of God: The man-eating predator in the jungles of history and the mind, has been out since 2003, but I just got around to reading it this month. Quammen’s premise explores the relationships between native predators and native peoples. He takes the reader on a journey to physical places — the Kathiawar Peninsula and the Brahmani-Baitarani Delta of India, the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, the Arnhem Land Reservation and Maningrida in Australia — as well as literary destinations like the Gilgamesh and Beuwolf. Reading this 437-page tome, you cut across continents and through geologic time.
What really makes this book tick is the blend of narrative writing fused with Quammen’s distillation of primary research. He introduces key concepts early, like the “muskrat conundrum” and then fleshes out the abstract ecological concept with real examples. (In this case, examples of niche partitioning and conspecific competition for territory and food resources.) But he doesn’t overdo the science… rather, it reads like a first-person travelogue with pit-stops into the scientific literature.
Quammen talks with the native Maldharis of the Gir Forest in India, who have lived with Asiatic lions for centuries and learned to protect their cattle from the lions with nothing more than a short club. He visits with Romanian sheepherders who have learned to co-exist (somewhat uneasily) with brown bears for hundreds of years by protecting their livestock with trained dogs. He visits Aborigines in Australia and accompanies them on a sacred crocodile hunt. By getting close to his subjects — sharing tea, cheese and vodka with them — Quammen begins to crack open the emic view of these peoples and how they view large predators of the landscape. He talks with them in their homes, villages and camps and provides the reader insight into what it is like to live with the ever-present danger of becoming the meat of a predator’s meal.
At times, he contrasts their views with the perceptions of colonizing people who come to new lands and “subdue” them without having the benefit of sharing the natural history the places they claim as their own. But the thesis of the book is bared when Quammen builds upon his idea of colonizers subduing the land they claim by conquering both the native peoples that live there and the “monsters” of the land — the large predators. These predators often have significant places in the myths and lore of the native peoples, he argues, they hold significant totemic and spiritual value. And so, if you can conquer the “monster of God” dwelling in a land, you conquer the people. He backs his argument up with several historical examples, including the widespread killing of crocodiles in Australia, wolves and panthers in our own North America, and majestic brown bears laid to waste by the thousands at the hands of Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceaucesu.
At times devastating and disheartening, and at others revealing and insightful, Quammen’s book satisfies both the casual reader and the academic alike. It is a multi-layered text that is not only well researched, but resonates with first-person experiences and narrative reporting. Quammen’s book is an excellent read, even if I am somewhat biased by my personal passion for probing the relationships between both man and predator, and predator and the landscape.