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Thursday, May 19, 2016

“Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind”, by David Quammen

384 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0393051407

David Quammen, one of North America’s foremost natural journalists, has given us in Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind an informative, exquisite read in which zoology confronts mythology and meets politics and globalization, to boot. This book achieves a new level of excellence as the author travels the planet seeking that which we fear most – predators of man; not just any predators, mind you, but what he terms the “alpha predators”: the Asian lion, the African crocodile, the Romania bear, and the Siberian tiger, large, solitary creatures and figures of fearful legend that play a large role in how we view the rest of nature, for as Quammen argues, no matter how strenuously we try to separate ourselves from our environment, our environment will always return to confront us. Surrounded by humans and their legends and lifestyles, this quartette symbolizes our conflicting views of animals with reputations as “man-eaters”. Disdaining accusations of “sexist” or other cultural labels surrounding his terms, Quammen confronts us with the realities of human-predator interactions. Lions, which once roamed from Atlantic Europe to Eastern Asia, have been pushed into meagre enclaves outside of Africa. They, along with the crocodiles, bears and tigers are surrounded by human neighbors. Quammen explains that the long-term human residents, the Mahldari in India, Aborigines of Australia, the Romanian shepherds and Ugede of Eastern Russia have formed accommodating relationships with their proximate predator populations; the oft-repeated phrase is “don’t bother them and they won’t bother you”.

Changes in political and economic forces, Quammen contends, bring changes to those relationships. While national governments may strive to protect these select species, local conditions are being overturned and Globalization intrudes on local economic and political structures, changing market demands, resource allocation and use, and the lifestyles of both predators and their prey. Populations shift in response, habitats are invaded or destroyed and abrupt changes confront traditional lifestyles. These are adjustments forced within a lifetime, not over generations. Quammen shows how we must learn quickly and immediately before the damage from the changes are irreparable. From this you can tell that Quammen’s subject is not really man-eaters, but people. He shows that these top predators have been incorporated into our stories, from Gilgamesh to Alien, and into our art and religion. True to his previous work, the fate of these animals is looking grim, despite Quammen’s investigation of some various success stories. Large predators all over the world cause loss, terror, and death, but not to all people equally; over and over, it is the poor people in the country who are at risk. But in one example after the other, the poor have come to some understanding with the beasts; there are larger economic forces at play that are going to remove them from the world. They are known as “keystone species”, without which the structure of ecosystems will fall. Take them away, and the world gets less dangerous for us, their potential prey, but also less interesting; the niches, Quammen shows, will be filled with squirrels, possums, and rats. Large animals need large spaces to live in, and plenty of meat, and we are increasingly unwilling to let them have their way.

Quammen is too good a writer and thinker to polemicize his book, but he realizes that we have already lost much of our sense of place in nature. He does write about the predators that are still surviving, but they are anomalies. The main message of Monster of God is that when the monsters that have been so important to us are gone, we will have lost much more than just big meat-eaters, for even though we fear them and they can kill us, these animals are important to this world we share. If we are not careful, they will disappear and we will have lost so much because of it; a forest without bears is empty.

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