"Just another flavor of meat"

Author David Quammen talks about what the human race will lose if we don't allow the big alpha predators -- tigers, bears and crocodiles -- to survive. And OK, maybe they need to eat one of us once in a while.

Published September 24, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

Last weekend, an American soldier killed a rare Bengal tiger in its cage in the Baghdad zoo.

The caged tiger's capital offense: biting a drunken G.I. when he baited the animal by sticking his arm in its cage in an attempt to feed it. The tiger reportedly tore off one of the G.I.'s fingers and mauled his arm, before another soldier shot it in the head three times.

Fatal encounters with carousing Americans troops aside, by the year 2150 zoos and test tubes will likely be the only places that Bengal tigers and all other man-eating predators will survive, according to natural history writer David Quammen in his new book, "Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind."

Quammen eschews "zoological melodrama" or "predator pornography," as he dubs the pulpy genre that encompasses most true-life tales of encounters between humans and the carnivores that occasionally eat them. His book is less monster bloodbath than an effort to understand how humans and their sometime predators still (barely) coexist today, and what exactly will be lost if the big cats, bears and crocodiles go extinct.

To take stock of the state of human-predator relations, Quammen traveled to lion territory in India's Gir forest, the saltwater crocodile lands of northern Australia, brown bear habitat in the Romanian mountains, and Siberian tiger country in the Russian Far East.

He went crocodile harpooning with aboriginal hunters in Australia and traveled across the snow with a Russian biologist who once spent 45 days on skis tracking a single Siberian tiger, feeding on leftovers from the tiger's kills when his own food supplies ran low.

In a phone interview with Salon, Quammen talked about how slaying all our monsters could soon put us on the top of the food chain, and why we need them around to remind us that we're "just another flavor of meat."

When you're in the Russian Far East, one native Udege man tells you that he's personally killed four Siberian tigers. There are only a few hundred of these tigers left in the world. You write that hearing this was like a splash of "cold water," but that since you've been traveling to investigate alpha-predator populations that share land with humans, you've learned that the "the world is full of cold water" and you've often found yourself "chilly and wet." What do you mean by that?

I started the book project partially because I was very interested in what big predators meant to the people who live closest to them, who live in the highest jeopardy.

I suppose I had a preconception, as maybe a lot of people would, that native people would have sort of a mystic resignation and spiritual acceptance of these big predators, that they'd say: "Oh, they're part of the land. They're part of the world. They represent gods to us. They're spiritual beings, and we have found ways to adapt."

And some of the native people told me things like that. One Romanian shepherd said: "A forest without bears is empty." That's a wonderful statement, but I also heard people say: "To hell with the bear. Kill them all."

Or, they'd say, "Oh, the tiger? I've killed four of them, and I'd kill more of them if I had the chance, because they compete with me for the red deer and the wild boar."

Which humans have the most to fear from these alpha predators?

The people who suffer the most inconvenience, the most danger, the most misery from big predators, the ones who pay the costs of big predators, are generally the poor and the dispossessed of land. They're native people who live very close to the landscape with a very small margin of safety.

The difficult question is: How do we as a world society rearrange things so that it's not the poor people who are paying the costs of big predators and the distant, affluent people in cities across oceans who enjoy the benefits of the continued existence of big predators? Namely, the aesthetic sense that these charismatic creatures are still out there, and the ecological benefits from the fact that they're still balancing these ecosystems.

Are there any good examples of that kind of rearrangement?

Only a very few pilot projects or beginning programs that need to be built. One of them is in the Northern Territory of Australia, where Aboriginal people are being allowed to begin harvesting crocodiles again.

Those people live out there in crocodile habitat, and if anybody is going to be killed by a saltwater crocodile, they're sort of the first in the crosshairs. But now they're also being allowed to harvest crocodile skin.

There's a community organization, a group of young guys known as the Djelk Rangers, who collect crocodile eggs for commercial sale of hatchlings and who occasionally harpoon crocodiles for sale of the skins. They're not using exactly traditional methods, but they're using half-traditional methods in that they're harpooning instead of using high-powered rifles.

In the book, you also mention that you're uneasy with the idea that the only way predators can be protected is if they're hunted, whether they're the bears in Romania or the crocodiles of Australia. What about that idea bothers you?

There are some very intelligent and experienced people who would argue that if you want to save any endangered species on the planet, you've got to put a commercial value on it. And that will provide an incentive for people to protect the habitat and to allow this thing to continue to reproduce, and therefore that it will continue to exist. That it's more effective than simply saying: "It's off limits. It's completely protected. We're going to lock people away from it." Because then it has no commercial value, and the protections will erode and be circumvented and the critter will suffer decline and eventual extinction.

So, the forest will be harvested for timber if you don't give people a reason to preserve the forest because you can get something else valuable out of it, like bears for trophy hunting.

Right. Good and intelligent people make that argument. I'm not completely comfortable with that argument, partly on aesthetic as much as rational grounds, and partly because I don't think it necessarily applies to all types of species.

For instance, the Siberian tiger in the Russian Far East. It's a very different kind of creature from the saltwater crocodile. It reproduces much more slowly. It needs big areas of land for habitat that is going to be very valuable in other ways for other potential partial harvest.

And I'm just not persuaded that the notion of auctioning off the rights to kill tigers, and then distributing the money to the local people, is the best way to preserve this ecosystem with the tiger in it.

There are other cases where the commercial-harvest argument has been taken to an extreme, like the bears of Romania, where it's being used and it's working in the sense that there are now 10 times as many brown bears in the mountains of Romania as there are in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Why are there so many bears there?

The Carpathian Mountains in Romania now support a little over 5,000 brown bears. The greater Yellowstone ecosystem supports maybe 400 or 500. Romania, which we think of as this blighted Eastern bloc, post-communist country -- how could it possibly have 5,000 brown bears?

The answer is complicated. It partially has to do with Nicolae Ceausescu having been dictator there for 25 years and fancying himself a great bear hunter. It partially has to do with the Romanian forest department's long tradition of nurturing bears, essentially farming bears. And it has to do now with the commercial value of those bears when the hunting rights are sold to foreign big-game hunters.

So, bear trophy skins are now an important export product from Romania. There are these 2,200 hunting areas in the Romanian forest, many of which contain bears and bear habitat. In each area there is a gamekeeper responsible for giving the bears supplemental feed, for observing the bears' behavior, and then essentially for targeting the bears and delivering them, almost the way a pimp would, to these foreign hunters.

And it's not hunting in the sense that we would consider hunting in the U.S. It's baiting them to artificial food and then shooting them from a blind.

So is autocratic oppression good for alpha predators?

That's one of the ironies. In this case, and probably in several other cases, democracy is not conducive to conservation, and autocracy has been conducive to conservation. Then, how are we liberal, right-thinking greenies supposed to feel about that? A little bit uncomfortable.

This is a California question, because I'm in California. Do you think that there is any chance that grizzly bears could ever come back to the state?

It's not impossible. Some people thought it would be impossible to bring wolves back to Yellowstone, and then there were a few persistent, very patient, very politic folks who did the necessary political work on the ground to make that happen. There are people now working on something called the Wildlands Project, who are trying to knit together the last well-preserved wild lands throughout North America into a continuous sort of network of interconnected reserves, protected areas and corridors.

One of their projects is the so-called Y-to-Y project, the Yellowstone to Yukon project, which involves connecting land between the great national parks and wilderness areas to establish a continuous corridor of livable wild landscape for big and small animals all the way from the Yellowstone ecosystem to the Yukon. There are also networks in California that could be reconnected. Reconnecting wild landscapes is an important part of preserving any big creature, but especially big predators.

Beyond conserving land, you argue that if these predators are going to survive, we have to learn to live among them, not just preserve separate areas for them.

Right. We have to find models and frames of mind that allow us to share landscape with these creatures, because we want so much landscape, and because they need so much landscape. The cases that I focused on were cases where there had been an overlap between human populations and predator populations. And I tried to suggest that it's possible, but it involves some very particular arrangements and also some altered expectations.

One thing about big predators and humans is that livestock is where the rubber meets the road. That's where the conflict appears more quickly and more severely than anywhere else. So, in North America, for instance, the reason that grizzlies have been eliminated from most of their range, and that wolves were almost entirely exterminated, and that cougars were depleted for a while, although they've come back, was not really because humans were so afraid of these creatures, but because we had populated the landscape with exceptionally stupid, vulnerable prey -- namely, sheep and cows.

It was in trying to protect our sheep and cows that we decided that the big predators had to be killed. Predators were doing what was natural, and that was preying on the big vulnerable animals, since we killed off the bison and essentially replaced large herbivores in a lot of these areas with our own domesticated herbivores, and the predators preyed on what was there -- sheep and cows. And therefore they had to die.

Romania offers a model of how people can raise sheep in bear country without using guns, without using poison, without exterminating the bear.

How do they do it?

First of all they use good, really nasty, dangerous dogs. Second, they have a lot of shepherds out there living with the sheep, so it's labor intensive, unlike sheep ranching in the Western U.S. And third, they have a little bit more of a stoic acceptance of the fact that they will lose sheep occasionally. That does not justify the feeling that the bears must all be exterminated and the government owes them a predator-free landscape. They have essentially a different conception of what is acceptable risk.

You express distaste at the prospect of hordes of eco-tourists overrunning the breeding grounds of the saltwater crocodiles in Australia. Is there any good role for eco-tourism in saving these predators?

I think eco-tourism is very valuable in some situations. My only quarrel is that it gets oversold. It's sometimes thought of as the solution for every conservation situation around the world.

One of the places that it fits extremely well for big predators, among others, is in East Africa, because it's mostly savannah. It's very open. The lions and the cheetah and the leopard are out there, visible, hunting on the savannah, stalking these big herds of native ungulates. And it really lends itself to eco-tourism, because people can go there and they can see a lot, sitting in a Land Rover as it drives across the savannah as it follows a family of cheetah or a pride of lions while they chow down on a wildebeest.

But it's very different, for instance, in the case of the tiger in the Russian Far East. I can't imagine that's going to be an eco-tourism spot, because there are Udege people who I talked to out there who have hunted and trapped in those areas for 40 years, and who've never seen a tiger, despite the fact that they know that the tigers have been around them all the time.

If we do lose these alpha predators, what are some of the likely ecological consequences?

Large predators, in many cases, seem to be what the ecologists call a "keystone species." My analogy is the keystone in a stone arch: It's that wedge stone at the top that balances the opposing gravitational forces, and if you pull the keystone out, then the arch collapses. If you eliminate the keystone species, its absence has effects throughout the ecosystem. In the case of a big predator, you might eliminate a big predator that's preying on middle-size predators.

So the population of middle-size predators booms, and they are preying on ground-nesting birds. Suddenly, you find that your populations of ground-nesting birds are going extinct. Why? Because you've eliminated the big predators.

That's one of the sorts of ecological ramifications, but I'm as interested in the spiritual and the psychological consequences of the elimination of these things as I am in the ecological consequences.

What do you see as the psychological and spiritual consequences?

Big predators have for more than a million years reminded us humans that we're part of a food chain. We're not separate from nature, we're not above nature, we're not detached from nature, we're part of nature. We're part of a food chain and not necessarily always the top link on that food chain.

They've reminded us that, among other things, we're just another flavor of meat. You take away these big predators, and suddenly that reminder disappears. I think that already we have enough tendency to believe that human civilization and nature are two separate things. And we don't need any more reasons, excuses or license to embrace that false perception. The loss of the big predators is a huge step toward losing that awareness that we're a part of nature.

Why do you think we have a greater fear of being eaten by a grizzly or a crocodile than being trampled to death by an elephant? What's so bad about being meat?

Maybe it's a more vivid reminder that when you're dead, you're dead, and your molecules dissipate and go their ways. Whether or not you believe in an afterlife, it's a little bit scary for your corpse to be dishonored. And there's no more vivid form of dishonoring the corpse than predation by a man-eater. That sense of the importance of honoring the corpse goes back hundreds, thousands, of years in all sorts of different cultures. And so if a man-eater kills you and eats you, it's sort of the ultimate horror.

Why do you predict that by 2150 all the big predators will be gone?

I don't have a crystal ball, but if the human population increases from 6 billion to 11 billion, as projected by the U.N. population division, I just don't see any large enough, wild enough spaces to support genetically viable populations of these big predators. Sadly, I think that they'll be gone.

I don't think that they'll be gone entirely. We'll have them in zoos, and we'll have them in test tubes. But there will be no place where you can have the experience of walking out through forest and subjecting yourself to the wonderful, terrible, titillating sense that you're a potential prey item for a creature that's bigger and scarier and more majestic than you are.

I think that that will be really bad and depressing and boring for our great-great-great-grandchildren.

It will be like a sanitized-for-your-protection world.

The planet will be more convenient and safer in the most basic, reductionist sense. It will also be uglier, more boring and more lonely.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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