Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind
by David Quammen
What's for supper?
A review by Stephen Mills
To find yourself on someone else's dinner plate is profoundly humbling. For David
Quammen this edibility is an important psychological condition. In Monster
of God he takes as his starting point Leviathan, the all-powerful, all-devouring
menace, whose role is to teach us to know our place beneath God. For if we fear
the monster, how much more should we fear the God who made him. As with Leviathan,
so too should we be mindful of the lion and the tiger, the crocodile and the bear
-for they too can eat us up for their supper. The knowledge that, potentially,
we were prey, has been a check on our pride, and, argues Quammen, a key to our
sense of belonging to a larger entity which is all life on earth. So what will
happen to us when the monsters have gone? David Quammen suggests that by the year
2150 our human population will have stabilized at 11 billion, and that all alpha
predators will be behind bars, fences or plate glass. This book examines that
which we are about to lose -- not the species so much as the states of mind.
Quammen starts by travelling to Gujarat in Western India to meet the Maldharis.
This hardy tribe live on buttermilk and share the dry forest of Gir with their
buffaloes and the last 300 lions left in the wild outside Africa. There, he
talks to Amara Bhai, who has been mauled by the same two lions twice in a single
year. When asked if he is now afraid, Bhai replies that, of those two lions,
yes he is afraid -- but of lions in general, no he is not. Tolerance and respect
are what mark the Maldhari attitude to lions. Their continued life in the forest
is bound up with the survival of the lions. The lions eat some of their buffaloes
and occasionally some of them, but while the lions remain, the forest and their
own livelihood within it will be preserved.
The Turkana, the people of Lake Turkana, formerly Lake Rudolph, have an equally
robust attitude towards the huge crocodiles that regularly drag their neighbours
under the murky waters. The crocodiles are believed to take mainly the sinful
and the compromised. If you have a clear conscience you can wade with impunity.
And even though the Turkana may regard the crocodiles as "evil, hostile
denizens of the lake", they would never attempt to exterminate them. The
crocodiles simply are. As Quammen says: "It takes a civilized, cultured,
overcrowded man to hate crocs, or love them, or exploit them, or exterminate
them". To live among man eaters is an affliction of the poor, but poverty
is also a prerequisite for aspiration in most great religions. This may have
implications for those of us who make something of a religion of our wish to
conserve the great predators. "Can we have them at all", asks Quammen,
"if we're unwilling to suffer among them?"
In the Northern Territories of Australia Quammen learns about a crocodile heaven
called Garrangali, "a hummocky glade of mangroves, pandanus, and paperbark
trees standing silhouetted above a low, reedy wetland". Here the Dhuruputjpi
River disappears into a maze of tunnels where the deadly saltwater crocodiles
have always gathered to nest. This place is so sacred to the local Madarrpa
people, who have traditionally harvested the crocodiles' eggs, that when a poacher's
fishing camp was discovered recently, littered with garbage and the severed
head of a crocodile, the whole area was closed. As a village elder explained,
"Madarrpa means crocodile". Some tribes believe they are derived from
crocodiles and that living with the animal is not a problem if you are taught
its nature and how it uses its habitat. Yet a few miles away, another community,
whose totemic attachment is to sharks, is deeply uncomfortable with three large
crocodiles that have taken up residence in their water tank. As Quammen observes,
"One man's monster is another man's god".
In Romania, Quammen visits the Carpathian Hunting Museum in the town of Posada.
Here he finds dozens of stuffed or skinned bears, including what the museum
claims to be the biggest bear in the world. This individual weighed 650 kilos
and was shot, he is told with cold pride by the woman curator, in 1984 by Nicolae
CeauPounds escu. CeauPounds escu shot 400 bears in all, once killing twenty
four in one day. To flatter local potentates, he ordered the kidnapping of 227
bear cubs in the district of ArgePounds , which were raised at a centre in RauPounds
or, a "concentration camp for bears". The idea was to release them
for CeauPounds escu to hunt, but few survived in the wild. CeauPounds escu,
it emerges, killed nearly everything mounted in the museum. He became obsessed
with slaughter, regarding the destruction of powerful animals as emblematic
of his own regal role. How ironic then that, having himself been hunted down,
he is now referred to by the dismissive nickname impuscatul, which means "the
shot one". Just as Quammen is leaving the museum, the cool curator unbends.
Pointing to the "biggest bear in the world", she says, "This
bear, I must tell you sincerely, was artificially feeded (sic) for CeauPounds
escu to kill".
Quammen suggests that the destruction of alpha predators may be a process fundamental
to all colonial enterprises. First it is a means by which "the interlopers,
the stealers of landscape, try to make themselves comfortable, safe, and supreme
in unfamiliar surroundings". The grizzly bear in the Rockies, for instance,
is a sort of guerrilla warrior, an indigenous partisan, sustaining a resistance
long abandoned by the Sioux and the Nez Perce Indians. And that particular war
will not be over until every last bear has gone and the mountains and forests
"are safe for white people and their cows". It goes deeper, however,
than the practicalities of pacifying a landscape. Lions, crocodiles, bears,
tigers, everywhere the great predators are imbued with myth. "You haven't
conquered a people, and their place", says Quammen, "until you've
exterminated their resident monsters."
On the other hand, when David Quammen asks Ion Dinca, a shepherd living alone
far up in Transylvania, about the bears that eat his sheep -- would it be better
if there were no bears at all? -- Dinca replies, better for him, yes it would
be. But the bear, he tells Quammen, is podoaba padurii, the treasure of the
forest. "If you lose this, you lose the treasure", he says. "A
forest without bears -it's empty."
new book Tiger
was published earlier this year. He was recently made an honorary life member
of the International Association of Wildlife Film-makers, and is the author
of Nature in Its Place: The wildlife habitats of Ireland, 1988.