Humans are much interested by large animals and particularly by predators. We indulge, indeed, a sort of reverse sentimentality about such animals, gloating over their violent acts of capture, full of self-congratulation at our inevitably mixed feelings.
The focus seems to go well beyond that degree of attention which might be explained by the threat of such animals. Snakes and spiders present a real danger and we seem to be adapted to recoil from these creatures and think of them as little as we can, and when we do reflect on them to do so with contempt.
Is our interest in megafaunal predators adequately accounted for by a shallow, mentalising identification with the superior power? There is certainly something in the suspicion of wish fulfilment, but after all there is something to the depth of our positive feelings that goes, I think, well beyond the individual animal species concerned; what interests us at root is the ecosystem in which there are such large creatures, not just those creatures themselves. And even if we grant that part of our affection might be fantasy politics, in which "I" figure as King of the Jungle, this projective theatricalism is in itself uncompelling in strength, and in any case undermined by the fact that it is not just large predators that stimulate these thoughts. Indeed, it seems to be large organisms altogether, herbivores and even trees cause similar reactions in us. – Predators are a particular highlight in a general phenomenon. We tend towards a strongly positive, practically uncritical, estimation of large forms of life. Why should this be?
The answer, I suggest, is that the ecosystems in which large organisms are to be found are also favourable to human beings and offer a promising niche for invasion by our own reproduction. – Where there are large creatures, there must be rich resources to support them, rich resources that could be made available to our own selves. In other words, we hanker after environments with large creatures, including, and prominently, large predators, because they offer great opportunities for our own predation and expansion. If a system is capable of supporting an apex predator of great bulk, there is the possibility that we, personally, could be come that apex predator.
By contrast, systems with few or no large predators, few or no large organisms, are almost always very unpromising for the human organism.
Proof of this can be found in the fact that we are not particularly interested by the small hawks and small cats which are in some less productive areas the higher predators. Charming, but contemptibly so.
Vultures, and other carrion eaters, though not particularly large, may seem to be an interesting exception to this rule. These creatures tend to repel rather than exciting our imaginations. This, I suggest, is because larger carrion consumers are typical of desert situations where there are few larger predators and indeed very little life of any kind. Carrion is a feature of austere ecosystems where a fallen body is extremely visible, for lack of cover, and not quickly digested by smaller organisms. Such places are usually very hostile to human life.
What we require is a locale in which there are numerous organisms, many of them large, and, surprisingly, some of these predatorial. And finally, we would prefer this locale to be wild, for an ecosystem where other men are the apex predators is already a saturated niche.