The hyena is not the most appealing of animals to look at and common opinion of them is they are cowardly scavengers. In folklore they have often been associated with witchcraft with the belief they can influence people’s spirits and rob graves. Some of this may well be true, however it is now known that hyenas kill around 95% of all the food they eat. Ironically it has been observed that lions more commonly feed on kills made by hyenas than the other way round.
Hyenas will eat most things and are effective pack hunters capable of taking on prey as big as an adult hippo. The spotted hyena is the largest, weighing in at up to 200lbs (90kg). Armed with incredibly powerful jaws, capable of crushing elephant bones, the hyena is more than a match for a human. However, hyenas do live up to their cowardly reputation and are reported to generally run further away from humans than any other African carnivore. At night though, hyenas become somewhat bolder.
Whilst relatively rare there are still many cases of hyena attacks on people. Most notorious of these was the Malawi terror beast. Believed by some to have been a rabid hyena, the terror beast was responsible for killing and eating three people and seriously injuring 16 more. There is a supernatural twist to this story though; in addition to witnesses claiming it wasn’t a hyena, some residents believed it was the same animal that had been shot and killed a year earlier come back to exact revenge. That animal had killed five and left 20 maimed.
There is also some speculation that the Beast of Gévaudan (mentioned in the wolf section) which killed over 100 people in 18th century France may have been a hyena. That we will never know, but one thing that is fact is that hyenas have done very well out of the corpses of war torn central Africa over the years.
The Tsavo Lions
Whilst most of the animals on this list so far have pretty patch records as far as being man-eaters go this is definitely not the case with lions. These are the second biggest of all the cats and are fearsome killing machines. Even today it is estimated that up to 700 people are attacked every year by lions. Whilst this a pretty alarming figure by itself, there are cases where whole prides of lions seem to have developed a taste for human flesh.
It is said that lions are much bolder and more aggressive than tigers when it comes to these cases. Whilst their lack of stealth makes them easier to dispatch, the death tolls can be much higher whilst they are alive. Probably the most prolific man eating lions were the Lions of Njombe in Tanzania. During 1932 a pride of 15 lions unleashed a reign of terror over the town of Njombe killing anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people. The lions would travel overnight and attack during the day
Local people believed the lions had been sent by the tribes witch doctor who had fallen from favour, however a more likely explanation is that the numbers of prey animals in the area had been reduced in an effort to control disease.
Eventually game warden George Rushby caught up with the pride and shot them dead, thus ending the killing spree.
It was a pair of rogue lions that seem to have captured the mass imagination though. The Tsavo lions of Kenya are perhaps the most famous of all man-eating lions and are believed to have killed as many as 135 construction workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway in just nine months of 1898. The infamous attacks have been made into several films, most notably The Ghost and the Darkness in 1996.
The lions would attack the campsite of the Indian construction workers dragging them from their tents in the dead of night. Fires and thorn fences were set up in order to deter the lions but to no avail. Eventually the project’s chief engineer Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson hunted down the two lions and shot them dead. The lions were large maneless males and one theory as to why they turned man eater is they had tooth decay, making it harder for them to catch their normal prey.
It is likely that Patterson exaggerated the numbers with current estimates suggesting the lions would only be able to eat 35 humans in this period. However, it is said that like other reports of man-eaters, the lions would kill even when not hungry.
Crocodiles are one of the few animals that will use any opportunity to take humans as prey. One simple rule is, bigger they are, the more dangerous they are – anything over 6ft (2m) is considered a threat to humans. Of all species, the undisputed heavyweight in terms of size is the saltwater crocodile of S.E. Asia and Australia. Reaching up to around 20ft (6.5m) in length and with the strongest measured bite of any creature these crocs are responsible for numerous deadly attacks each year. However, it is the Nile crocodile of Africa which is responsible for the highest death toll. Estimates put the number of deaths attributed to Nile crocodiles at between 150 and 500 per year making them the number one cause of death involving wildlife in Africa. This is partly due to the fact Nile crocodiles often live in close proximity to humans, but it also has a lot to do with their enormous size and deadly jaws.
But there is one individual crocodile in Africa that has been responsible for far more than its share of this body count. A 20ft (6.5m) 2,000lb (1 ton) croc named Gustave is said to have killed in the region of 300 people in the war torn African country of Burundi. Gustave’s killing spree dates back to the 1990s when he began taking people from the banks of the Ruzizi River and Lake Tanganyki.
Thought to be the largest Nile crocodile alive and possibly the oldest at an estimated 65 years Gustave has evaded death and capture on several occasions. There are several scars on his body to testify to this, including a bullet mark in the centre of his head. Unfortunately for the people of Burundi Gustave’s armour plating has served him well.
Perhaps the most sinister aspect of this story is that many of the crocodiles victims were left uneaten. This earned Gustave the reputation of a serial killer as much as a man-eater, suggesting the giant croc hunted for fun as much as food. Over the years it appears Gustave has disappeared on several occasions, only to return and continue his killing spree. Last sighted in 2008 it is very likely that Gustave is still out there.
Leopard (Panthera pardus) © AndChisPhoto / iStockPhoto
After a brief foray into Africa we’re back to India. From writing this article I’m getting the distinct impression that going to India is very likely to end in being eaten – and it gets worse.
Apparently leopards are less likely to become man eaters than their bigger cousins, lions and tigers. However, it seems once they get a taste for humans they go for it big time. Leopards’ natural diet often consists of non-human primates, allegedly taking prey as big as gorillas on occasion. So it isn’t that much of a leap to humans, and they are very capable killers. Pound for pound the leopard is the strongest of any mammal and has the most powerful bite of any big cat. It also has a more effective killing technique which often results in the prey’s spine being crushed, skull being perforated or the main vessels of the neck being severed. As if that wasn’t enough leopard bites often result in serious bacterial infections.
The profile of the man eating leopard is also different to that of other big cats. It was found that the majority of killer leopards were perfectly healthy and had just developed a taste for humans. It was also found that once a leopard had turned man-eater they were likely to continue that way.
The most notorious of all leopards was the Leopard of Panar, a male responsible for at least 400 deaths in remote Northern India during the early 1900s. Although the number of deaths attributed to the Panar leopard was exceptionally high it wan’t an isolated incident. The Leopard of the Central Provinces was responsible for killing in excess of 150 women and children over a two year period. Also known as the “Devilish Cunning Panther” this beast would kill in a different area each time with attacks occurring 20-30 miles apart.
Other case of killer leopards have occurred in both India and Africa and there is little to separate them from the tiger in terms of deadliness. Statistically the leopard is not as dangerous with around 12,000 deaths recorded in India between 1875 and 1912. However, the leopards stealth, agility and cunning – not to mention its skull crushing bite make it possibly even more deadly.
For number one we stay with the unfortunate folks of rural northern India. If the leopards, sloth bears or wolves don’t get you then maybe the most prolific of all man-eaters, the Bengal tiger will. Tigers are responsible for causing more deaths by direct attacks than any other mammal, if not any animal. Whilst things have got a lot better for the inhabitants of northern India, estimates put the death toll from tiger attacks at over 1,00o per year as recently as the 1900s. Perhaps the most startling figure is the estimated 373,000 people killed by tiger attacks between 1800 and 2009.
What makes the tiger really stand out though is the numbers racked up by individual tigers on their killing rampages. The most infamous of all these man eating tigers is the Champawat Tiger, a female tiger reputed to have killed 436 men, women and children in the 1890s and 1900s. Such was the fear of this tiger that the whole region became paralysed with people refusing to leave their homes. Eventually the tiger became too bold for its own good, prowling villages in broad daylight. It was on such an occasion that British hunter Jim Corbett finally shot and killed the beast. He managed to track it by following the trail of blood and body parts from its final victim, a 16 year girl. On examination it was found that the tiger had broken both upper and lower canine teeth on the right side of its mouth meaning it would probably be unable to hunt its natural prey.
Other infamous tigers include the Tigers of Chowgarh, a pair of Bengal tigers which killed a reported 64 people in the same region of India as the Champwat tiger. The tiger involved were an aged tigress and her juvenile son. The actual number of people killed by these tigers may have been much higher according to natives of the area. Again it was Jim Corbett who shot and killed the tigers. As with virtually all these incidents involving rogue tigers the tiger in question was injured and unable to hunt its natural prey and saw humans as easy prey.