“Great and Terrible flesh-eating beasts have always shared landscape with humans. They were part of the psychological context in which our sense of identity as a species arose. They were part of the spiritual systems that we invented for coping. The teeth of big predators, their claws, their ferocity and their hunger, were grim realties that could be eluded but not forgotten. Once in a while, a monstrous carnivore emerged like doom from a forest or a river to kill someone and feed on their body. It was a familiar sort of disaster – like auto-fatalities today – that must have seemed freshly, shockingly gruesome each time, despite the familiarity. And it conveyed a certain message. Amongst the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat.”
Just to prove I’m not all doom, gloom, socialist bloom and high artistic nonsense, I brought in my first impressions about a book on large predators, Monster of God by David Quammen. The sub-title says it all: the man-eating predator in the jungles of history and the mind. Quammen’s self-stated goal is to plum the depths of the relationship between those
large predators capable of eating man, and who frequently done so, and us as a species and civilization. This book is not full of hard science about ecology, zoology or biology, as it is obviously aimed at a general, interested reader (I’m a little more then general, but still, we all need to start someplace). It was an easy, engrossing and intelligent read. Quammen
is a science journalist rather than a scientist, and it shows in his writing: accessible, fast-paced, good at summarising details and information, condensing it down without losing the importance of what he has described, or as tends to happen with some science writing in newspapers, trivialises, sensationalises or dismisses the information. He has a real
strength for fleshing out the humans in his story despite the emphasis on predators, few of which, save for the crocodiles, he ever actually sees. He also has a penchant for poor metaphors, but then so do I, so that is hardly a complaint. The book is sometimes lighthearted, when your subject is about the potentional extinction of large predators who prey on humans occasionally, and it is always informative.
Quammen devotes his pages to four large predators. He specifies that the animals he discusses must be generally solitary animals, large in size, have an ambivalent relationship, of prey and predator, towards mankind, and in this case, preferably not the standard African lions, Indian tigers, great white sharks and grizzly bears we are used to. Instead, we get four well-studied but less well known large predators: the Indian, or Gir lion, scientific name Panthera leo persica, a solitary and remnant species of lion isolated in the Gir forest in the Kathiawar peninsula of western India; the salt-water crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, especially the large concentration of the crocodilians along the coasts and salt-water estuaries of Queensland and the Northern Territory, of the Brahmani-Baitarani delta in Orissa State, India, and the Nile Crocodiles in East Africa; the European Brown Bear, specifically the Carpathian subspecies, Ursus arctos formicarius, and its large concentration in Romania; and the Siberian Tiger, more properly the Amur Tiger, Panthera tigris altaica, concentrated along the Amur river, its tributaries and the mountains of Russia’s Maritime Province, or Far East Province. In each case, Quammen travelled extensively, visiting each of the locations of these animals, interacting with both the local peoples who have come to worship, mistrust and exploit, in short, to coexist, with these predators, and the naturalists, trackers, game keepers and scientists who have often spent their lives learning and protecting, and trying to
commercially exploit these animals. As this is a journalistic book, Quammen tracks tigers in Russia by snowmobile and ski, in five layers of clothes; traps, shoots and skins crocodiles in Australia; tracks lions in the Gir Forest, and hikes up Carpathian meadows to converse with sheperds and gamekeepers in Romania. The book is a wealth of anecdotal information and carefully assembled thoughts and interviews with those who know better then most “what it is to be meat”