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Monster of God

Of the phrase alpha predator, Quammen says, “In purely scientific terms, the grouping is artificial; it has no taxonomic or ecological basis. It is psychological, as registered in the human mind.”
Tigers, brown bears, great white sharks, Nile crocodiles, saltwater crocodiles, lions, leopards, Ganges shark, polar bears, Komodo dragons and a few other species form Quammen’s list. Animals that may confront humans one on one, can and occasionally do, kill and eat them.

Animals that hunt in packs like wolves and hyenas, not being solitary predators do not have the same psychological impact on humans. And many other animals like elephants, bison, hippos that kill humans every year, even the malarial mosquito – which “could be considered the deadliest form of wildlife on the planet” – do not qualify as alpha predators for another simple psychological reason. They may kill us, but they have absolutely no intention of eating us. Since the very beginning of our time on the planet, we humans have been conscious of the possibility of being eaten by dangerous ‘man-eating’ beasts. This “awareness of being meat”, says the author, has been among the earliest forms of human self-awareness.

These creatures have helped us place ourselves in the universe, they humble us, make us aware of our mortality, and have provided therefore an endless source of inspiration for our folklore, literature, art and religion. From the Leviathan of the Bible, which Quammen considers to be the archetypal alpha predator, to Beauwolf’s man-eater of Grendel, from ancient Babylonian poetry and Norse sagas to medieval Icelandic folklore, just to mention a few, the book is littered with examples (including, surprisingly, Ridley Scott’s Alien movies) of our perceptions of these fierce creatures and our reverence and anxieties about them throughout history.

But now, these great beasts that we have loved and hated for all time, have little or no chance of survival into the future. As six billion people ‘scratch and nibble’ at the Earth’s surface, most alpha predators are threatened, and by Quammen’s estimate, another 200 years and they will no longer walk our wilds. With prose both erudite and emotional, he speculates that by the year 2150, when human population will reach a staggering 11 billion, alpha predators will have gone from our lives – except behind chain-link fencing, high-strength glass and steel bars.

“Adults, except a few recalcitrant souls, will take their absence for granted. Children will be startled and excited to learn, if anyone tells them, that once there were lions at large in the very world.” While humans may be the most reflective of the creatures in the living world, Quammen does not subscribe to the theory that we are the culmination of the process of evolution. We may have invented the iambic pentameter and plutonium, he says, but so what. Sometimes, we’re just another flavour of meat. Choosing four wilderness areas, their corresponding alpha predators and the remarkable people who try to protect them, this book is part travelogue, part academic meditation, written with a paintbrush – the scenes Quammen paints come alive in startling visual.

The book explores the story of the last remaining Asiatic lions in India’s Gir forest, saltwater crocodiles in northern Australia, brown bears in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania and Siberian tigers in the Russian Far East. All four animal populations have all but been squeezed out of existence by human settlements and activities. Without over simplifying the conflicts, Quammen asks, what will happen to us when alpha predators have been driven out of our wilds? And what, specifically, will happen to our souls? Not presuming to supply any blithe solutions to this complicated human-alpha predator conflict, this book deeply explores some very interesting questions about its past, fragile present and grim future.

The book is as much about people as the animals it chronicles, as much psychology as ecology, as much poetry as prose. With source notes and bibliography 25 pages long, jumping around time and space with alarming alacrity and with an author who is both an accomplished science writer and a writer of fiction, Monster of God may at first give you motion sickness – but what an incredible, enlightening ride! Totally worth taking. 
David Quammen, Published by: W.W. Norton and Company, NY, London, Rs. 995/-

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