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The Lady, or the Tiger?

There are always a few tigers roaming about Singapore,” the naturalist and evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace noted in the 1860s, “and they kill on an average a Chinaman every day.”* Not too long ago only slightly less shocking statistics prevailed over much of Southeast Asia, as indeed they still do in parts of India. Such figures give the impression that big predators and humans have waged an eternal, bitter struggle for survival. Yet as the nature writer and novelist David Quammen reveals in his latest book, Monster of God, the relationship between man-eaters and their potential prey is far more complex, interesting, and deeper than that simple conclusion suggests.

Anyone who has taken an African safari, or even visited a zoo, will know something of the relationship between our species and those that make us food. Their eyes stare with such engagement, readiness for action, and propriety as to be almost unbearable. The stark terror evoked by those burning bright eyes has, I suspect, been seared into our beings over countless generations of natural selection; for if our ancestors did not have fears they did not survive. Here I can speak from personal experience. In the 1980s I was a member of a committee charged with investigating the death of a zookeeper. The zoo’s facilities were old, the “carnivore house” a dark, dripping place. A narrow corridor painted with yellow lines on the floor led past the animals to a service area. Beyond those lines, the claws of bears and big cats could drag you to mouths waiting at the iron grills studding both walls. We were shown where the tiger had advanced on the young keeper as she photographed its cubs, all the while feeling secure in the knowledge that the mother was safely locked away. The tigress attacked from behind, its canines piercing the keeper’s skull and breaking her neck, but leaving her conscious as it dragged her around the cage like a limp doll. Another keeper tried to drive the animal off with a spade, and finally succeeded, but too late.

That terrifying knowledge was fresh in my mind as I walked down the corridor, passing the maze of ropes and counterweights that controlled the opening and closing of numerous doors and grills, trying to determine how the fatal accident had occurred. Suddenly the whole building shook and the air was filled with an indescribable sound as the iron grill before me was struck with the full force of a charging male lion. He was stopped there, a yard from my face, roaring furiously, blasting me with his wet breath, clawing at me through the bars. Caesar hated men, a keeper explained. During the twenty years I had worked in New Guinea I’d faced death on several occasions—seated in a failing aircraft, standing at the wrong end of a Papuan arrow—but this was different. This was a terror that could not be sublimated, diverted, or denied—a primal fear that simply takes you over.

Relatively few creatures can kill and eat an adult human being. The tiger and lion, brown and polar bears, some sharks and crocodiles almost complete the list. Yet for much of human history, most people have coexisted with one or more potential man-eating species. Underlying that coexistence is the eternal possibility of being caught in the wrong place and time and becoming meat: a stark possibility that, David Quammen indicates, is only the beginning point in our relationship with the man-eaters.

The oldest direct evidence we have of how people feel about predators was discovered on the afternoon of December 18, 1994, when spelunkers stumbled across more than four hundred paintings in a cave near the Ardèche River in southeastern France. The art, which is extraordinarily realistic and powerful, was made around 35,000 years ago and includes numerous depictions of the European lion, arguably the largest lion that ever lived. In the innermost grotto a pride of the great cats stare intently out from the wall, as if toward herds of bison, rhinos, horses, and mammoths depicted nearby. Elsewhere a pair of lions engages in sexual foreplay. These, Quammen argues, are not paintings inspired by blind terror or loathing, but rather by close observation and respect. But could people who share their environment with big predators ever feel that way about creatures that can turn them into supper? In order to answer that question in our greatly altered world, Quammen has traveled to remote regions where big predators and people still coexist.

Quammen turns first to the last surviving lions outside Africa. Lions evolved in East Africa about 3.5 million years ago, but by around a million years ago they had spread across a great arc of the planet, from England to Siberia and on into North America. Today lions survive outside Africa in just one place—the Gir Forest on the Kathiawar Peninsula in far western India. As late as the nineteenth century lions still roamed across much of northern India, Iran, and Iraq.

Today the Gir lions share their last home with a group of pastoralists known as Maldharis. These people follow their herds of cattle and water buffalo through lion territory armed with nothing more than a wooden shepherd’s staff. Lions occasionally attack livestock, and when this happens a Maldhari shepherd will usually drive off the lion with stones or his staff. Here, it seems, lions and people have devised a common understanding, allowing lions to survive and people—even young boys—to wander among the big cats at ease and almost always unharmed.

Both sides occasionally try to cheat. A pair of male lions (presumably brothers) have been known to simultaneously attack two cows so as to leave a single Maldhari in a quandary. And errant lions are sometimes killed; yet the balance is somehow maintained. The real trouble comes when lions wander away from the forest and come into contact with people who do not know the rules. Then, people as well as livestock and dogs run a higher risk of being eaten. The diversity of attitudes that Maldharis hold in relation to lions is astonishingly broad. Some people, even those who have been mauled by lions, bear no enmity toward them, while others would like to see them finished, the sooner the better. Tolerant attitudes, it seems, reflect social status and economic security among Maldharis, as well as their generosity and self-confidence.

From India, Quammen takes us to northern Australia, where the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is the most dangerous big predator. At Crocodylus Park, a zoo and breeding facility near Darwin, he meets Dr. Grahame Webb, whose crooked-toothed grin bears more than a passing resemblance to that of his charges. Webb is a vocal advocate of the “use it or lose it” school of wildlife management, arguing that people must extract some benefit from wild animals, especially creatures as unpleasant as crocodiles, or they will not tolerate them. He has devoted his career to the development of a sustainable trade in crocodile products—from crocodile-claw back-scratchers to croc burgers—and his philosophy works well in regions such as northern Australia where Western-style enterprises have to coexist with dangerous wildlife. But when Quammen travels to Arnhem Land, the vast Aboriginal lands that cover most of the northeast corner of the Northern Territory, he discovers that there are other models of human– crocodile relations.

It is at Maningrida, deep in Arnhem Land, that Quammen meets “the Professor,” as the elfin Jackie Adjarral is known. A member of the Gurrgoni clan, Jackie reveals just a little of his culture’s view of the great reptiles he knows as Mururrba. Explaining that they are his clan’s totem animal, he says that his deceased father’s spirit might now dwell in a crocodile living nearby. “He has never been attacked, never been bit by a crocodile,” Quammen tells us. “He won’t be bit; he has protection, he says. Unless he makes ‘a mistake.’” Just what sort of mistake that might be, Jackie won’t say, and an outsider might be tempted to interpret the “mistake” as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Aboriginal eyes, however, there is only one reason why an ancestor would want to gulp you down—if you transgress the rules they gave you by, for example, having sex with a girl from the wrong group within a tribe. In Gurrgoni experience, crocodiles only kill bad people.

To view a crocodile as good eating is not inconsistent with their beliefs, however, and the Gurrgoni happily hunt and kill crocodiles. The relationship is not one of avoidance. But neither is it the purely economic relationship advocated by Webb. Instead, it seems to be a deep-rooted symbiosis that has been forged over 47,000 years, in which the flesh and spiritual power of the crocodile sustains Aboriginal life and lore, while Aboriginal management of the land sustains the crocodile.

Before leaving Australia, Quammen arranges a meeting with a metalworker turned taxidermist by the name of Andrew Cappo. His workshop is a bush compound near the forlorn outpost of Humpty Doo in Australia’s Northern Territory. The lack of neighbors is probably an advantage for Andrew, since half-rotted crocodiles are likely to turn up on his doorstep any time of day or night. It takes months of hard work to turn them into the skulls, stuffed heads, and full body mounts favored by the Hell’s Angels, who loom large among his customers. Stuffing crocodiles is a surprisingly dangerous occupation. Andrew once nicked his finger on the tooth of a dead croc and the resulting infection seemed unstoppable, turning into a creeping, pus-filled sore that engulfed the entire digit before it could be brought under control.

Quammen encounters a different aspect of wildlife conservation when he visits Romania. He is there to learn about its abundant brown bear population, and he starts by visiting the Muzeul Cinegetic al Carpatåüilor—the Carpathian Hunting Museum. Nicolae Ceausåüescu, it turns out, was an avid hunter, and the museum is filled with the remains of creatures he slaughtered. Despite the fact that he was known to shoot several dozen bears in a day, Ceausåüescu’s passion for hunting was the salvation of the bear in Romania. In order to accommodate his hobby, a string of reserves was created along with an entire bureaucratic infrastructure consisting of 2,226 game management units, whose duty it was to encourage the proliferation of bears. In order to ensure that the bears were large, abundant, and available, a regime of rearing captive cubs and giving supplemental feeding to adults (under the shooting platforms used by Ceausåüescu) was instituted.

Before the Communist Party began to gain power in 1947, the Romanian brown bear was going the way of the bears of the rest of Europe. Today, thanks to the bloodlust of a ruthless dictator, Romania has the healthiest brown bear population on the continent; though is hard to avoid the fact that, as a result of their intensive management, Romania’s bears are no longer entirely wild, free-living creatures. The business of bear hunting continued after Ceausåüescu himself was shot, for it brings greatly needed hard currency into the country and is one of the few sustainable enterprises for which the Romanian economy was equipped in the post-communism era. Perhaps partly as a result, Romanians have an unusual interest in and tolerance of bears, to the point where urban dwellers are pleased to have bears forage in their garbage dumps.

Quammen’s final quest takes him to the Russian far east, on the trail of the Siberian tiger. Here, he uncovers yet more folk beliefs that speak of an uneasy truce between man and beast. “If you take a tiger’s prey, that tiger will surround you and will not give you any peace…. A tiger will find its way to get revenge,” Su-San Tyfuivich, an elderly Siberian hunter, tells us. “A tiger is an enchanter. It will enchant you,” he adds. Perhaps because of such beliefs, Siberian tigers do not have a history of attacking people, though they often enter villages and carry off dogs. It’s as if they know that if you kill a human being, people “will surround you and will not give you any peace.” Today, twenty to thirty Siberian tigers out of a population of around 250 are killed annually by poachers. And, after a long truce, tigers are once again killing and eating the odd human being, the last incident occurring in 1997.

How do we summarize the relationship documented in Monster of God, the interaction between people and the last surviving big predators? The relationship, it seems to me, is not so different from those we are used to in the world of politics and business. Where our competition knows us from long experience, and we know them, an easy, even fruitful relationship can develop. This is not to suggest any beneficence on the part of the players; given the chance, a political opponent or business competitor will ruthlessly pounce. It is just that such opportunities are rarely presented because we all know the game.

The problem arises when we lose contact with one another. The creaking industries of Eastern Europe had been isolated for fifty years when, following perestroika, they abruptly came into competition with those from the West. The result was economic extinction for eastern manufacturers. During a safari in Kenya, when I was permitted to walk briefly on the savanna, I got a sense of what the workers in those industries must have felt like. I stood there, a white rabbit on a plain that I knew was full of things that could kill me. Yet nearby a Masai child, armed with nothing but a flimsy stick, stood serenely shepherding a herd of goats. The lions, I just knew, were looking at us differently, and all because that boy and his ancestors had never lost touch, never forgotten the rules of the game.

The shifting fortunes of big predators and their human prey over the past couple of centuries is the story of a steamrolling victory by the species carrying the gun. While Quammen does not mention Wallace’s observations on Singapore, it’s a prime example of the kind of situation that informed imperial Western attitudes toward big predators. They were seen as dangerous, almost satanic beings whose presence allowed the big-game hunter to claim a kind of beneficence as he scoured the countryside in pursuit of “man-eaters.” And yet, as we have seen, such a relationship is far from typical of the long history of coexistence between big predators and humans.

The situation that existed in Singapore in the early 1860s really marked the bloody end of a game that had gone on for millennia. Human numbers were growing, and tiger prey was becoming increasingly hard to find. Reproduction for tigers was doubtless also increasingly difficult, for inexperienced youngsters would have almost no chance of surviving the numerous traps, baits, and guns of the human beings. There was, however, a small population of adult tigers that had learned everything there was to know about human beings, at least from a predator’s perspective. While they lived they supplemented their diet with forest workers, and doubtless their dogs. When they died of old age or were shot, the rash of killings stopped, and Singapore, the “lion island,” was left to its ever-increasing human multitudes. If one flies into Changi Airport today it’s difficult to believe that the place was, just 150 years ago, a fiercely contested battleground between people and nature.

Monster of God is an eclectic book, delving beyond nature and into literature and religion in pursuit of the essence of our relationship with predators. Quammen contends that the epic poem Beowulf is based on a folk memory—almost a genetically based fear—of being eaten by a big carnivore. In this interpretation, Grendel, the monster whom Beowulf vanquishes, is that memory personified, much as in our own time it is embodied in the unnamed beast that starred in the film Alien. It’s as if that primal fear remains with us long after the carnivores themselves have been banished, in a terror made all the more terrible by the lack of an actuality by which to measure it. Although it was written at a time when carnivores were more common, Quammen suggests that the Bible also includes similar manifestations. But here a more important point is made, for Leviathan is, to echo Quammen’s title, truly a Monster of God, enforcing divine will and reminding us of our place in the scheme of things.

In his final chapters, Quammen takes a look into the future. His view is “a regretfully gloomy one,” in which “the last wild, viable, free-ranging populations of big flesh-eaters will disappear sometime around the middle of the next century.” It is a perspective largely informed by United Nations projections for world population published between 1998 and 2000, which indicate that Earth will have to support 9.4 billion people by 2050 (up from 6.3 billion today) and 10.8 billion by 2150. Such a world, Quammen believes, will have little room for big, free-ranging predators.

Two important trends, however, support a less gloomy prognosis for the big predators. One is the latest UN population projections (for 2002), published in late February 2003 (too late for Quammen to use). They reveal a surprising slowdown, with global population predicted to reach just 8.9 billion by 2050, a decline due, in approximately equal parts, to initiatives increasing choices for women and the ravages of AIDS. The data provided by Quammen himself also supports a less pessimistic outlook. All of the large carnivore populations he examines have done relatively well over the past century, a period during which the human population has doubled then doubled again. In 1913 no more than twenty lions survived in the Gir forest, while at mid-century a similar number of Siberian tigers roamed the Soviet far east. Today, 350 lions inhabit the Gir and its surrounds, while the wild Siberian tiger population has risen to 250. Australia’s saltwater crocodiles have staged an even more spectacular recovery; after having been hunted to near extinction by the 1970s, they have now returned to near their abundance before the arrival of Europeans.

Not all predators are thriving. The Amur leopard, for example, which shares its habitat with the Siberian tiger, is reduced to around thirty-three adults and is still being poached. But it is truly noteworthy that so many are doing well. After a long absence, jaguars are once again being seen in the US, while the wolf and bear populations of both Europe and North America are expanding after centuries of decline. It is true that most of these populations are managed and protected—surviving on human goodwill, in effect—but their recovery clearly indicates that there is no direct correlation between total human numbers and the fate of the last remnant populations of large predators.

At one point, Quammen talks of the ethical dilemma we face whereby we expect Indian peasants to live with tigers and lions in a way that we ourselves would not tolerate. If some predator populations continue to recover, Westerners may once again find themselves facing the scintillating challenge of sharing our lives with things that eat us.

Even if we grant that Quammen’s gloomy view is correct, why should human beings mourn the passing of such dangerous beasts? Quammen explains the role that large carnivores play in stabilizing natural ecosystems by suppressing the numbers of smaller carnivores and herbivores. But it seems to me that a love of ecology does not lie at the heart of this matter. Reading Monster of God, I’m overwhelmingly struck by the pride and competence of those human beings who still live with the beasts. Perhaps, like a monopolistic corporation that has grown fat and lazy after triumphing over all competition, Western humanity has really lost something in our victory over the man-eaters.

  1. *

    A.R. Wallace, The Malay Archipelago (London: Macmillan, 1869; reprinted by Dover, 1962), p. 18.

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