In the forest of the night
If we lose wild predators, will we lose something of ourselves?
The fascination we feel toward animals capable of using us as lunch meat is the subject of David Quammen's new book, "Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind." Despite its lurid title, there are no gruesome photographs or breathless accounts of men conquering vicious beasts. This is an elegantly crafted combination of history, biology, sociology, anthropology, and adventure that raises provocative questions.
Quammen draws on the story of Job and the Leviathan (the original "monster of God"), the Beowulf saga, Paleolithic cave art, and the movie "Aliens" to demonstrate the "psychological, mythic and spiritual dimensions" of alpha predators, which have always served to keep us "acutely aware of our membership within the natural world." In other words, Quammen's book is about hunger: both the hunger of a predator for a kill and the hunger of the human spirit for communion with something greater - in the most primal sense - than ourselves.
Quammen is a superb science writer. He's the author of "The Song of the Dodo," a lucid explanation of conservation biology, and three collections of nature and science essays. "Monster of God" focuses on four man-eaters: Asiatic lions, Australian saltwater crocodiles, Romanian brown bears, and Siberian tigers.
"Dentition is destiny," he writes, launching into a discussion of carnivores' teeth and takedown strategies. For the record, great white sharks have 26 upper teeth and 24 lower, tigers and lions deliver a suffocating bite to the throat, crocodiles use a "death roll" to drown their victims, and scientists are still arguing over how sabertooth cats used their saberteeth.
Along with its meticulously researched science, "Monster of God" is laced with memorable travel tales. In India, a biologist tells of falling asleep while watching lions tear apart a deer; instead of becoming dessert, he's awakened by a cub innocently curled up on his legs.
Quammen runs across a bush-dwelling Australian taxidermist who pickles gamy crocodile heads (recipe included) for Hell's Angels. In Siberia, he joins a tiger stake-out using the remains of a biologist's dog as bait. (The carcass is booby-trapped with firecrackers to discourage the tiger from any further acts of Fidocide.)
Quammen's focus on local people is the book's greatest strength. He asks Indian cattle-herders, Australian Aborigines, Romanian shepherds, and Russian trappers: How do you feel about man-eaters when you're the man who may get eaten? A twice-mauled Indian insists, "There's nothing wrong with the animal," while the mother of a crocodile's victim wails, "Who'll give me back my son?"
But Quammen stresses throughout "Monster of God" that our planet's resident monsters are in serious trouble. He predicts that by 2150 all man-eating predators will have vanished from the wild, forced into oblivion by the juggernaut of human population growth.
His final point is poignant and sobering. Just as man-eaters are keystone species in their environment, serving a vital regulatory role by keeping prey species in check, he suggests they are also keystone species of the human psyche. If the great predators vanish from the wilderness, the landscape of our imaginations will be the poorer.
"A forest without bears," writes Quammen "is empty."
• Pamela S. Turner is a freelance science writer in Orinda, Calif.