Tournament of Books 2015

Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, September 19th, 2004


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."

Stephen Mills's 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.

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