ot many of us know what it's like to be prey, mere meat to a ravening, implacable carnivore. Clever primates that we are, we've managed to clamber to the top of the food chain, relegating the big, toothy beasts that once threatened us to game reserves and remote, ever-shrinking pockets of wilderness. Safely isolated from claw and maw, we're free to contemplate in civilized leisure the beauty and merciless innocence of the world's alpha predators. It's a luxury we may not be able to enjoy much longer. From the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, where a few hundred brown bears hang on, to the forests of eastern Russia, where Siberian tigers are probably living out their last days, author David Quammen relays a grim tale. By the middle of the next century, he predicts, the big cats, bears, and crocs that have shared the planet with us since the birth of our species may completely vanish from the wild, living -- if that's the right word -- only as relict, inbred populations in zoos. The planet simply will not be big enough to hold our 11 billion descendants -- a conservative population estimate for 2150 -- and the largest, most dangerous wildlife.
Monster of God, however, is far more than a lament for what seems the inevitable passing of magnificent animals. Quammen, the acclaimed author of The Song of the Dodo, is also concerned with a human plight. He travels to India, Romania, Siberia, and Australia, talking and even living with the people who uneasily share turf with animals that regularly attack livestock and, less frequently, humans. He meets Maldhari men in India who defend their herds and themselves from lion attacks armed only with small axes, and he talks with villagers who have lost children to crocodiles. For these people, big predators are not wonders of nature; they are horrors, threats to life and livelihood -- a grim reality often overlooked by wildlife advocates.
Throughout his book Quammen returns to a stark dilemma: If we save these animals, some people -- mostly impoverished third world people -- will die. We in the West have historically engaged in sustained campaigns to exterminate our predators and have added to the toll by destroying much of their habitat. Can we ask others to live with risks that we once found intolerable? (And still find unacceptable, judging by the reaction of many to the resurgence of cougars in the American West.)
So what are we to do? In a world where everything has a price, Quammen suggests one possible avenue of salvation for the big predators: Turn them into marketable commodities. It's not an appealing vision. Who, after all, wants to see the tigers that once prowled so mightily through our folklore slaughtered like cattle for their bones and organs? But these are desperate times, Quammen points out, with few options. Grahame Webb, an Australian biologist who has worked with Aborigines to develop means of sustainably hunting crocodiles and selling their hides for conversion into designer shoes and purses, says that the worst thing that can happen to an animal is for it to wind up on an endangered species list. He saw firsthand how a ban on the hunting of Australia's saltwater crocodiles -- and the income the trade in their hides produced -- eliminated any incentive for locals to help protect the animals. At least with regulated hunting, he argues, license fees and taxes on the sale of hides can be funneled back to conservation efforts. Webb believes that this policy, which seems to work in at least a few places in Australia, could be adapted for use with Siberian tigers, Asian lions, and Romanian bears.
Our war against the beasts of the forest is far from new, and Quammen draws on a history of overkill that stretches from the lion hunts of Egyptian pharaohs to a tin-pot Romanian dictator's taste for bear slaughter. Quammen reminds us that great predators haunt some of our most memorable literature. Beowulf and Gilgamesh both pit man against man-eating monsters, and their struggles are metaphors for a battle we have waged ever since our ape ancestors howled their death agonies in the jaws of leopards. We have won that battle, but at what cost?
For a sense of what we stand to lose, both materially and spiritually, Quammen considers the astonishing outpouring of Paleolithic art discovered in Europe. In December 1994, three amateur spelunkers poking deep into a cave in southeastern France stumbled upon a chamber so big that when they called out, their voices were lost in its immense darkness. They descended 30 feet to the chamber floor, and when they played their helmet lamps over the walls, they discovered something extraordinary: hundreds of cave paintings, perhaps 35,000 years old, that portrayed with remarkable and sympathetic realism a multitude of animals, most long vanished from Europe, such as bison, leopards, ibexes, and even rhinoceroses. But what caused the men, they wrote later, to break out into "shouts of joy and tears" was a "monumental black frieze" of lion images. Quammen is convinced that the artist of that mural, in what has come to be known as Chauvet Cave, saw these animals as something more than a fatal threat, saw in them "grace, grandeur, lordly confidence... and some sort of all-driving primacy."
Will we be left to share a world with nothing wilder than rats, cows, chickens, and pigeons? If that likely future comes to pass, what a beggar's gallery we'll paint -- what a sad canvas compared with the panoply of doomed predators at Chauvet Cave.