David Quammen is afraid we humans may have forgotten our place in nature. In his new book, Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, the award-winning science journalist -- he doesn't much care for the term "nature writer" -- travels the planet to explore large, man-eating predators and the nature of their relationship with humans. He refers to these large carnivores -- animals that can stalk, kill and eat a human being -- as alpha predators, and he focuses his attention on four distinct kinds: lions of the Gir forest in western India, salt water crocodiles in Northern Australia, brown bears in the mountains of Romania, and Siberian Tigers of the Russian Far East. Quammen worries that such creatures are in the process of disappearing from the planet. He points out that within the next 150 years, 5 billion more humans will be added to the current population of 6 billion, causing such pressure and encroachment on the alpha predators' habitat that the man-eating beasts will exist only in our memories.
"The foreseeable outcome is that in the year 2150, when human population peaks at around 11 billion, alpha predators will have ceased to exist -- except behind chain-link fencing, high-strength glass, and steel bars," writes Quammen. "Adults, except a few recalcitrant souls, will take their absence for granted. Children will be excited and startled to learn, if anyone tells them, that once there were lions at large in the very world."
Quammen, who reads from his new book on Friday night at Auntie's, is perhaps best known for the "Natural Acts " column he wrote for Outside magazine for 15 years and for his award-winning book, Song of the Dodo, which Audubon magazine called "the masterpiece of science journalism." Whether he is describing the dental structure of predators or the merits of a mosquito, Quammen has earned a reputation for making scientific and biological complexities readily accessible to the lay reader while maintaining the respect of scientists and biologists for his factual accuracy. He's a tireless researcher and a skilled writer in the vein of John McPhee or Barry Lopez.
In Monster of God, Quammen vividly details his journeys to meet with the indigenous people who live closest to the predators. He tells us about characters like Andrew Cappo, a congenial fellow who lives alone in the Australian bush and whose list of odd jobs includes pickling giant crocodile heads for an Aussie band of Hell's Angels to decorate their clubhouses. He also delivers scholarly ruminations on the history of man-eaters in epic literature from Gilgamesh to Beowulf to the Old Testament creature Leviathan - "the original monster of God," notes Quammen, saying that it "existed to remind Job and to remind humans that they should be humble."
Quammen says in a phone interview that there is much at stake if we forget the essential fact that humans are still just an intermediate link in the food chain. "These creatures have played a very important role in reminding us that we're part of the food chain, that we're part of nature -- we're not separate from nature and we're not above nature. And that's been very important to our own sense of self," says Quammen. "More and more, humans are imagining themselves to be above nature, to be aloof from nature. That only has bad consequences for the way we use, abuse and mangle our planet. My concern is that if we lose big predators we'll lose the reminder that we're just another flavor of meat. We're part of nature, and the consequences of that will be flights of hubris and the arrogant abuse of landscape -- far beyond the abuses that we're committing now."
Occasionally, we are reminded that large predators like the way we taste. Last week, Las Vegas illusionist Roy Horn of the duo Siegfried and Roy was chomped in the neck and dragged offstage "like a rag doll' by one of their white tigers. Quammen, who was doing a live interview on CNN last Saturday, found himself talking about Siegfried and Roy for much of the interview.
"That event is a reminder of two things," he says, "that they are very majestic -- that's why humans are fascinated with tigers and lions. That's why Siegfried and Roy have been able to make a good living for 30 years, because humans find these creatures extraordinarily interesting, charismatic and exciting. Yet poor Roy's mishap is also a reminder that when you treat these creatures as trained circus animals, you're really playing with fire. They're wild animals."
Quammen says Monster of God has sparked a lot of discussion about the possible demise of alpha predators. He often hears the inevitable question, "What do we do about it?" But while he hopes his book provokes "deep alarm" in the hearts and minds of his readers, he doesn't want to be the one offering easy solutions. "I think that lets people off the hook too easily. It is my particular role in writing for the general public to describe and analyze the problem -- making a very large problem, which is not very recognized or well understood, and bringing it to the point where people feel it in their guts and in their hearts. If I can do that in the course of a book, I feel like I've done plenty."