At the turn of the century, US writer David Quammen set off on a journey to find man-eaters. His quest took him to track bears in Romania, tigers in Russia and giant saltwater crocodiles in Australia.
Most surprising of all was his search for lions in India. There is a small subspecies of lions clinging on to a fragment of forest in North-West India. At this stop in his tour of predators, Quammen learns a simple lesson. Although we talk about ‘man-eaters’, very few of these animals ever come into conflict with humanity as long as the nearby population lives in a traditional manner. The people who live and herd their cattle in the Gir National Park, haunt of the lion, are almost never threatened by the big cats.
Put simply, Man-eaters do not deserve their fearsome reputation. There aren’t enough of these animals to do any real damage. Quammen’s own searches show that it is very difficult to encounter any of these beasts in the wild. He barely finds more than a paw print of the Asiastic lion, for example.
Elusive though they may be, Quammen still creates a great sense of adventure when he narrates his trips to the fringes of civilised lands, such as this moment whilst tracking a collared Siberian tiger:
We walk for six hours, forward and backward along Lidya’s tracks, tracing her like a specter in the snow.
Their numbers may be low but these species are coming back from the brink, which means some people are now calling for population controls. The motives of these people seem highly ambiguous to me. Businesspeople in Australia are keen to cull the crocodiles, but also to sell their lucrative skins. Bear hunts in Romania bring hard currency to the country. Wealthy foreigners will pay top dollar for a permit to kill an animal in the wild.
Quammen seems partially supportive of these low-level culls and this is part of my problem with the book. It is hard to imagine any other nature writer going out to slaughter the subject of his investigations, but that is exactly what the author does when he sets out on a crocodile hunt. This where I learnt the word ‘to pith’, which Quammen uses to describe how he kills a crocodile. According to my dictionary, ‘to pith’ means to ‘pierce or sever the spinal cord of (an animal) so as to kill or immobilize it”. Nice.
Apart from stabbing the object of his research to death, Quammen has another annoying habit. In place of describing people he meets as individuals, he always compares them to a famous person. The first time he did this, it was quite original, but I soon stopped believing that the world was made up of people who looked like Chuck Berry. Some of his shorthand descriptions aren’t helpful at all – one person looks like ‘Ed Asner’. Who?
Those quibbles aside, Monster of God is a valuable and informative read. It is a book that is packed with surprises, ones that often challenge preconceived ideas, for example:
Siberian tigers are not white … White tigers are mutants, not members of a white subspecies or race … In 1951, a white male tiger was captured [and] … bred to a captive female and then bred again to his own daughter, he fathered a litter of four white cubs …. [he] thereby became the progenitor of most of the white tigers ever seen in captivity.
Monster of God makes salutary reading, for Quammen remains sceptical about these species’ chances of long-term survival. He estimates they will all be extinct by 2150.
Despite his fears for the future, Quammen is realistic in analysing the problem of conserving these large predators. He sketches out clear plans for how each species might be preserved and why that is important.
This is the real strength of Monster of God. Quammen demonstrates that top predators are an essential part of their eco-systems, and that these eco-systems must also be managed to take account of the needs of local people. With proper management of wild spaces, the amount of conflict can be kept to minimum, and these great beasts can become a source of national pride, rather than monsters that haunt our collective imagination.