Making the Case for Man-Eaters

October 9, 2003

A white tiger's recent onstage attack on Roy Horn, of Las Vegas illusionist duo Siegfried and Roy, is a horrifying example of how a human is mere meat to what science journalist David Quammen, in his new book, Monster of God, calls "alpha predators": tigers, brown bears, great white sharks, Nile and saltwater crocodiles, lions, Komodo dragons, polar bears, and a handful of other species.

The human prey imperils the survival of the predators, through urban and agricultural development. But the man-eating beasts play an elemental role in evolution, and they have a mythic hold on the human imagination. Monster of God weighs the cost of the alpha predators' survival or extinction—for the indigenous people who live among them, and for humanity in general.

Quammen spoke from his home in Bozeman, Montana.

What inspired your fascination with "alpha predators"?

In 1992 I visited the island of Komodo—home of the Komodo dragon—to study gigantism among reptiles. There I spoke to a woman whose mother was attacked and injured by a Komodo dragon—which raised the issue of humans as prey.

A few years later I was in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park in India's Gujarat state, where the last remaining Asiatic lions live. There the lions exist in uneasy equilibrium with the Maldhari tribespeople—I was fascinated by this relationship. It gives me hope to see livestock-raising humans sharing the landscape with man-eating predators.

Your book focuses on the lions of Gir, the saltwater crocs of Australia's Northern Territory, Romania's brown bears, and Siberian tigers. What do these predators have in common?

They all are majestic, inconvenient, and expensive. They need large areas to support viable, genetically diverse populations. But there are also 6.3 billion humans who want land for hunting and harvesting, which shrinks and fragments the wild habitat.

These predators all share the landscape with indigenous people, who pay the highest costs of preserving these animals—like the Maldharis with the lions, or Romanian shepherds and brown bears, Australian aborigines and crocs, or Russia's Udege people and Siberian tigers.

Why did you concentrate on the indigenous peoples?

I wanted to show the perspective of people living with these ferocious animals and do justice to their fears—fear for their livestock, their children, themselves. City people live at a safe distance and enjoy the spiritual and aesthetic benefits of knowing that lions and tigers exist somewhere in the world.

But greater measures have to be taken to protect these creatures and also take the burden off the local people.

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