Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366
The subject of David Quammen's Monster of God is the now-endangered status of the man-eating, so-called "alpha predators" who, for centuries, threatened the status of humanity on the food chain and haunted its collective imagination.
Partly as a result of these ancient fears, with the rapid expansion of the human race across the world, and the pressure of a capitalism even more predatory than they are, vast numbers of these fierce creatures have been eliminated in the last century or so, with the remainder now surviving on the outer fringes of civilization. Quammen estimates that nearly all of these dangerous beasts will be extinct by the year 2150, when the population will approach 11 million.
Since the author sees few alternatives to this dire scenario, the book functions as something of a farewell tour of these vanishing predators. In India, he describes the 350 remaining Asiatic lions who dwell in the Gir Sanctuary among the Maldhari people, who can still become lion food if they are so careless as to leave the wrong door open. Then there is the thirteen-foot Nilotic Crocodile, whose healthy appetite for the river-dwelling Turkana villagers leads them to regard it as "the punishing agent of a capricious God." He tells the bizarre tale of the flourishing of the grizzly bear in Romania during the despotic reign of Nicolae Ceausescu (the dictator loved to hunt them by helicopter).
Yet the grizzly bear population of the American West is less likely to survive for long. Quammen believes that the imperative to colonize a region, now embodied by "a sense of cultural superiority" which drives people to "seize hold of an already occupied landscape, and presume to make it their own," will eventually eradicate every grizzly from the northern Rockies.
Although skeptical of possible alternatives to the extinction of the alpha predators, Quammen touches on one harshly ironic option: to allow local populations to conserve these endangered species by making a profit from restricting their hunting and commodification to a limited number. He is on the side of the environmentalists in opposing the death of even one more of these rare creatures, but he understands the rational appeal of a method that has seemed to be effective.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1990
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 indeterminate middle age” whose “rooster confidence” reminds Quammen of singer Chuck Berry. After a tour of some nasty, dangerous terrain with Jackie, Quammen moves on to Nhulunbuy, an obscure village on the Gulf of Carpenteria populated by an ancient people called the Yolngu. Among the Yolngu, Quammen hears stories of crocodile encounters, such as that of a man named Dulu and his brother who fought off an attack, killed their assailant with two shotgun blasts, and then baked the animal up in an earth oven and ate it. Dulu explains, “If we kill something, we eat it.” In a remote crocodile nesting ground called Garrangali, Quammen learns with surprise of tunnels under the banks that crocodiles follow.
In a tour of crocodile country, Quammen visits Dhuruputjpi, near Garrangali, to interview MänMan Wirrpanda, a local leader who has complained to the federal officials about crocodile attacks. MänMan’s Djapu clan takes Mäna, the Ancestral Shark, not Bäru, the Ancestral Crocodile, as its totem, and, unlike other clansmen of Arnhem Land, MänMan feels no reverence for C. porosus. Eight months later, back in Maningrida for the crocodile egg harvest, Quammen has eggs hatch in his hands and witnesses Jackie Adjarral harpoon an angry mother crocodile and play her “like a five-hundred pound catfish.” Quammen’s education in crocodiles ends, later, in the bush compound of Humpty Doo, where he interviews Andrew Cappo, a taxidermist who does occasional pickled crododile heads and other “croc schlock” for “bikies,” the Darwin area’s “leather-clad, Harley-Davidson-riding gentlemen.” The technology of Cappo’s crocodile work holds the reader’s attention.
There are no crocodiles in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, but for several decades a monster just as slimy prowled the forests: Nicolae Ceausescu, the Conducãtor, or supreme leader, as he designated himself. In one of the many facets of his megalomania, this “tin-pot dictator” fancied himself a hunter. He was himself a good shot with a rifle. After his execution, by firing squad in 1989, he was known as Împuscatul, “the Shot One.” Thanks to Ceausescu’s intense desire to shoot brown bears, Romania’s forests were divided into hunting areas carefully managed to maintain plenty of targets for Ceausescu and his two Holland & Holland .375 rifles. On October 15, 1983, Ceausescu arrived by helicopter at a hunting lodge called Dealul Negra in the Bistriþa district, and with four hundred local people acting as beaters he shot—from a high stand—twenty-four bears and posed for photographs with them. Vasile Crisan, author of Ceausescu: Hunter or Butcher?, describes this bloody day as the Massacre of Bistriþa.
Quammen enjoys his mountain hikes with shepherds, drinking palinca (plum brandy) and eatingmamaliga (polenta sliced like meatloaf) and a favorite Romanian cheese called brânzã de burduf, which a peasant named Nicu tells him works miracles for a man’s virility: “Viagra? Nu. Brânzã!” The bear biologist Ion Micu recounts for Quammen the story of an experiment in bear management instigated by politicians of the Arges region seeking to curry favor with the Conducãtor. The project entailed kidnapping bear cubs and raising them in “a concentration camp for cubs” located in Râusor. Of the 227 kidnapped cubs raised between 1974 and 1981 and released into the wild, none was ever shot by Ceausescu, and they suffered a variety of sad fates, unable to cope with challenges for which their nursery life never prepared them. Quammen states a general principal illustrated in this dismal tale: “Planting hatchery-raised animals into habitat already occupied by a wild population is nowadays recognized to be futile at best, and more likely counterproductive.”
Although it does not apply to Romania, Quammen offers a “small theory” about the extermination of the big predators—that it is “fundamental to the colonial enterprise.” He opines that the hatred for grizzlies felt by ranchers (of European descent) in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, where Quammen lives, is a residual feature of colonialism and that killing off the “resident monsters” is all part of subduing new territories. These ruminations lead Quammen to a survey of monsters in myth and literature and their national associations. Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel and Theseus’s encounter with the Minotaur are well known, but allusions to Minamoto-no-Yorimasa versus Nue and to Tishpak versus the Labbu do not extend Quammen’s thesis noticeably.
A digression on teeth—their shapes, sizes, functions—inevitably leads to a meditation on sabertooth cats and finally to Panthera tigris altaica, the Siberian (or Amur) tiger, now well confined to the Sikhote-Alin region of southeastern Russia just across the Sea of Japan from Hokkaido. Quammen’s guide to Bikin, the most “northerly, isolated, and pristine” of the Sikhote-Alin valleys, is Dima Pikunov, who has worked many years in the region, “following signs, reading clues from the prints and the scrape marks and the fed-upon kills,” but hardly ever seeing a live tiger. The human population of the Bikin consists of about eight hundred members of the Udege tribe, now transformed by Soviet planning into professional hunters and too fond, complains Dima, of holing up in town during the winter with a bottle of vodka. Quammen enjoys being introduced by Dima to such locals as Su-San Tyfuivich Geonka, who began professional hunting in 1934, and Nikolai Alexsandrovich Semonchuk, who gave up hunting in 1993 and does not share Su-San’s feelings about the tiger as an “enchanter.” Ivan Gambovich Kulindziga is even less willing than Nikolai “to sacralize Panthera tigris altaica as some mystic spirit of the forest.”
An irony of the tiger’s fate in Russia bears an analogy to Ceausescu’s role in supporting Romania’s bear population. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1935 designated seven thousand square miles of the Sikhote-Alin range as a nature reserve, and three years later he banished around nineteen thousand Chinese and Korean hunters. That act, think some of the oldsters, explains why there are still a few Amur tigers in Russia.
In a windup chapter he calls “Science Fiction Ending,” Quammen tells the truly exciting story of the discovery in 1994 in southeastern France of La Grotte Chauvet, a series of caves featuring the illustrations of the so-called Lion Panel. Scientists were stunned when radiocarbon tests indicated some of the lion images were thirty-five thousand years old. Quammen ponders these ancient drawings with gloom, predicting the virtual extinction of big flesh-eaters by 2150 and elaborating on the key ideas of keystone species and trophic cascades. Take out the big killers at the top, and a cascade of ecological changes will follow.
The science-fiction bit of the chapter comes in Quammen’s analysis of the Aliens film series. Whether his readers agree that these motion pictures succeed for their “vivid portrayal of predation on human victims” and the human “need and desire” for homicidal monsters like Grendel, they will appreciate Quammen’s serious research, his physical courage and energy, and the great wealth of anecdotes he has stuffed into this compelling story of monsters—maybe of God, maybe of Satan.
American Scholar 72, no. 4 (Autumn, 2003): 144-146.
Booklist 99, no. 21 (July 1, 2003): 1853.
Discover 24, no. 10 (October, 2003): 75-76.
Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 12 (June 15, 2003): 849-850.
Library Journal 128, no. 13 (August 15, 2003): 126.
Natural History 112, no. 7 (September, 2003): 60-61.
The New York Review of Books 50, no. 15 (October 9, 2003): 13-14.
The New York Times, August 26, 2003, p. E6.
The New York Times Book Review, August 31, 2003, p. 7-9.
Publishers Weekly 250, no. 25 (June 23, 2003): 57.
Scientific American 289, no. 3 (September, 2003): 110-111.
The Wall Street Journal, September 24, 2003, p. D9.
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