(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

David Quammen announces his interests immediately:

What I’m asking you to contemplate are the psychological, mythic, and spiritual dimensions (as well as the ecological implications) of a particular sort of relationship: the predator-prey showdown between one dangerous, flesh-eating animal and one human victim. That relationship, I believe, has played a crucial role in shaping the way we humans construe our place in the natural world.

After a prelude in which he surveys some of the alpha predators, as he calls them, in world myth and literature, Quammen goes directly to the Gir forest of India’s Gujerat Province, where forty-five million people live in an area roughly the size of Nebraska. In the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park of Gujerat’s Kathiawar Peninsula, about 350 Asiatic lions, the last survivors ofPanthera leo still to be found in Asia, live in a sometimes uneasy truce with the Maldharis (mal = livestock, dhari = guardian) an indigenous pastoral people of the region who live in acre-size, thorn-enclosed camps with iron doors that shut out lions and leopards at nights.

Panthera leo persica has persisted in Kathiawar, a historically semi-lawless area, probably because of the peninsula’s relative remoteness from dominance by the raj, whose functionaries reveled in “well-catered” lion hunts in eastern and central India. Lions’ boldness around people and preference for open habitat made them easy targets for sportsmen like Colonel George A. Smith, reputed slayer of three hundred of the animals. Depletion of the lion population in Kathiawar was slowed by Lord Curzon’s ban on shooting in the mid-1800’s, but as their numbers grew the lions preyed on livestock, and in 1899-1900 a severe drought killed off the ungulates they lived on, drawing the lions into the villages for food and ending the ban. Weather and ecopolitics kept the lions’ numbers in flux during the twentieth century. For the most part, the Maldharis and the lions have achieved “a degree of compatibility,” but not without 193 attacks on humans, 28 of them fatal, between 1978 and 1991.

Quammen interlards his account of his travels in the Gir Sanctuary with Ravi Chellam from the national Wildlife Institute with reflections on leopards and conversations with Maldharis who have encountered lions up close. His consideration of the toll of large predators on humans leads him to the studies of Paul Errington, an American small-animal ecologist, who learned that muskrats hate overcrowding and, in effect, sacrifice to the mink, their chief predator, the old, the sick, the handicapped—all the “wastage parts.” From this observation Quammen derives his “Muskrat Conundrum”: “that the costs exacted by alpha predators be borne disproportionately by poor people . . . while the spiritual and aesthetic benefits of these magnificent beasts are enjoyed from afar.”

Quammen turns to A. D. Graham’s 1973 book Eyelids of Morning: The Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men for some horrible instances of humans eaten by the large (up to half a ton) crocodiles in Kenya’s Lake Rudolf (now Lake Turkana). Quammen stresses the “dour animist theology” of the Turkana, which leads them to understand Crocodylus nilotica as “the punishing agent of a capricious God who was by turns benevolent and vindictive” and, in Graham’s words, “indistinguishable from the devil.” This perverse theodicy assures Turkana that they can wade in crocodile waters with impunity if their consciences are untroubled. Quammen rejects Graham’s thesis about parallels with cannibalism and his view that for Turkana “to be eaten by a croc is to be consumed forever by evil,” suggesting instead that the dread of being consumed by a predator reflects ancient concerns about proper funeral rites.

From Graham’s studies, Quammen turns to the largest crocodile of all, Crocodylus porosus, up to twenty feet long and found in small but growing numbers (190 in 1995) in eastern India’s Orissa Province. In the village of Khamar Sahi, Quammen hears tales of death and mangling by C. porosus and learns of the villagers’ bitterness that the forestry department takes no action against the animals. There is no romantic feeling in Khamar Sahi about animals and humans living in natural harmony. Quammen concludes, “The very subject of crocodiles, for this community, is a sort of collective psychic abscess.”

The other haunt of C. porosus is northern Australia, in Arnhem Land, just east of Darwin, where Crocodylus Park conducts research and allows some hunting for skins, all part of a philosophy that treats wildlife as a renewable resource. Quammen finds his guide to crocodile life in the dusty village of Maningrida: He is “the Professor,” Jackie Adjarral, “a tiny black man of...

(The entire section is 1990 words.)