Back in prehistoric times being eaten alive by some sort of ravenous beast was an everyday risk. Thankfully, since then things have improved somewhat for most of us – getting hit by a bus is probably the modern equivalent of being torn apart by wolves. However, there are still far flung places and environments beyond the control of man, where even today, man-eating animals roam wild, stalking human prey as a between meal snack…
Whilst rare, there have been a number of high profile man eaters, many occurring within the last 100 years. In this article I’m going to find the deadliest of all these man eaters and look at some of the most disturbing habitual individual killers.
10. Man-eating river fish
Now we all know that piranhas can strip a man to the bone in 30 seconds. And that anyone falling into the Amazon River is as good as dead when these vicious fish are around. Well, it turns out that most of the stories about piranhas are a little exaggerated. But, as with many myths there is a grain of truth and much of the legendary reputation of the piranha can be traced back to a single incident.
During a visit to Brazil, and the Amazon, by the American president Theodore Roosevelt local fishermen set up a spectacle involving piranhas. The men had blocked off part of the river and starved the piranha for several days. An unfortunate cow was then pushed into the water at which point the piranhas lived up to their reputation and promptly stripped it to the bone. On returning home Roosevelt wrote about these fearsome fish, unaware that the event had been largely set up for his benefit.
And so the piranhas fearsome reputation went global. But are they the vicious man eaters they are portrayed? After some research I’m afraid I have to say, not really. I could only find two report of a fatal attacks involving piranhas, that’s not to say there haven’t been more. It does however seem that attacks are pretty common and injuries are often severe enough to require hospital treatment.
A story of a real life river monster comes from Northern India. The Kali River goonch attacks were a series of deadly attacks believed to have been carried out by an exceptionally large goonch catfish. It is thought that the catfish developed a taste for human flesh after feeding on corpses thrown into the river as part of funeral ceremonies. The first live victim was an 18 year old Nepalese man who was dragged down in front of his girlfriend by something described as resembling an “elongated pig”. Another victim was a child dragged away whilst bathing with his father.
With no other likely candidates living in the region it seems the culprit was likely to be one of these super-sized catfish. Whilst a 6ft goonch (which weighed three times as much as average) was caught soon after it has been suggested that the fish responsible would have had to be even bigger.
There’s no doubt that sharks are capable killers. Every year a handful of people are killed by one of the four most dangerous species of sharks; the great white, the tiger shark, bull shark and oceanic white tips. However, not many of these attacks are committed by a single shark that seems bent on coming back for more. But this seems to be exactly what happened in the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916.
Attributed to a single 9ft (3m) great white shark, the attacks left four dead and 7 injured. It was this series of events that inspired the Jaws series of books and films about a man eating shark. The attacks took place along a 50 mile (80km) stretch of coast south of New York and began on July 1st with an a 25 year old swimmer being the first victim. The attacks reached a climax nearly two weeks later on the 12th July when three people were attacked in a single day, 2 of whom died. What was particularly unusual about these last attacks is they occurred up a creek some distance from the ocean.
In case you’re wondering why sharks are so far down this list then I’ll explain. It seems sharks just don’t really have much of a taste for humans. Even in the above case the shark didn’t seem to devour its victims. This is usually the case with sharks, they take an exploratory bite or two, and then swim off disappointed. Not much consolation for the victim but not really man-eater behavior either.
8. Brown bear
Weighing in at up to 1,500lbs (700kg), with enormous claws and a bite as powerful as a lion, brown bears don’t always stick to a diet of nuts and berries! Fortunately bear attacks are rare though, and most are defensive, when the bear feels threatened. Even when confronted brown bears will usually retreat as they are inherently fearful of humans. But, cases of rogue bears are well documented and it is not unheard of for these bears to eat the victims. Such bears are often old or injured but this does not appear to have been a factor in the series of attacks carried out by a huge brown bear known as Kesagake in Japan around 100 years ago.
Upon waking from hibernation Kesagake made a nuisance of himself by raiding the corn harvest of a nearby farm. Such incidents were not uncommon in Sankebetsu on the remote west coast of Hokkaidō. The local farmers shot at the bear and believed they had injured it. This was not the last the locals of Sankebetsu would see of Kesagake.
Just over a week later the bear returned. It came to a small farm owned by the Ōta family; at home were the farmer’s wife and a baby she was looking after. The bear killed the baby with a bite to the head and after a struggle dragged the woman into the woods. Reports described the scene as resembling something out of a slaughter-house. The following day a hunting party failed to kill the bear but did find the head and legs of the farmer’s wife buried in the snow.
That evening Kesagake visited another homestead, that of the Miyoke family. Breaking in through a window the bear rampaged through the house killing four people including a pregnant woman and two children. An armed group arrived whilst the bear was in the house, but such was the panic that the bear escaped into the woods again. The scene of carnage inside the house was unimaginable and it is said that many of villagers and guards fled in terror.
Over the next few days and nights more armed men came into the village to hunt the bear down. Eventually after three days and nights Kesagake was tracked down and shot dead. The stomach contents of the bear left little doubt of what he had been eating. In the aftermath of the attacks a further victim died of his injuries. Most of the villagers had had enough by this time and abandoned Rokusen sawa leaving it a ghost town.
Wolves have had a reputation as being man-eaters since time began. They have feature in folk stories and fairy tales for centuries, and we all know what will happen if we go down to the woods… Well, not a lot these days as wolves have been persecuted pretty much out of existence everywhere except for the remotest spots.
However, to some extent this reputation is a little undeserved; despite being formidable predators which hunt in packs the number of attacks on humans is lower than might be expected. This is partly because wolves are intelligent and have learnt that attacking humans brings very bad consequences. There are therefore three types of wolf more likely to kill humans for food; those who have never encountered humans, those who have got too used to humans and rabid wolves.
The worst series of wolf attacks were carried out by the Beast of Gévaudan in France between 1764 and 1767. This alleged ‘super wolf’ was reported to have killed 113 people although much about the beast is a little hazy, including what exactly it was. Theories range from dogs to a werewolf.
There are numerous similar cases of wolf-like beasts terrorizing the peasantry of Europe in the Middle ages. These include the Wolves of Paris – a murderous pack that killed 40 people during the winter of 1450. The Wolves of Périgord were another bunch of bad wolves that killed 18 more French people in February of 1766.
However, not all of these man-eating wolf packs can be consigned to the history books. The Kirov wolf attacks took place between 1944 and 1954 in a district of central Russia and resulted in the deaths of 22 children. The cause is attributed to World War II with less men at home to hunt the wolves and less livestock on the farms (which the wolves would eat).
Even more recent were the 17 victims of the wolves of Ashta, all of them children too. These attacks all happened between 1985 and 1986 in southern India and were carried out by a pack of six wolves. The wolves were eventually all killed during various encounters.
6. The Sloth Bear of Mysore
As far as bears go the sloth bear definitely doesn’t look the scariest. In fact it looks slightly comical with its crazy hair and funny walk. But don’t be deceived, the sloth bear is one of the most feared animals in Asia. It is said that tigers will go out of their way to avoid them and rhinos have a pathological dislike of them. This is all for a good reason – sloth bears can be very nasty.
With poor eyesight and not being able to run or climb their way out of danger the sloth bear will react to threats aggressively. They are much smaller than brown bears, weighing in the region of 300lbs (140kg) and feed almost exclusively on insects – termites in particular. To dig out termites sloth bears have developed enormous, sickle shaped claws and it is these which it uses to devastating effect when attacking.
Whilst there are numerous reports of sloth bear attacks, often resulting in horrific injury or death, the case of the Sloth Bear of Mysore was particularly disturbing for two reasons. Firstly the fact the bear attacked and killed so many people. During 1957, in the southern Indian state of Mysore, this one bear was alleged to have killed 12 people and seriously injured dozens more. In addition some of the victims were said to have been part-eaten. This suggests a bear that was going out of its way to prey on humans.
If you’re going to be attacked by any animal the sloth bear is probably the last you’d want it to be. They can be pretty vicious and make a real mess with those scythe like claws and teeth. But the worst thing is they go for the face. It is no exaggeration to say sloth bears rip their victims faces off with eyes, lips and noses often lost in attacks. And that is your regular sloth bear; in the case of the Mysore sloth bear we are talking about a bear with a vendetta.
In terms of numbers I think the wolf should probably be ahead of the sloth bear. But I’m putting the bear here at number 6 just for sheer nastiness.
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.
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.
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.
Ironically Corbett went on to establish what is now the oldest national park in India, the Jim Corbett National Park, partly to help conserve Bengal tiger numbers. Equally ironic is that to this very day, in the park itself a man eater is on the prowl. To date the tiger has killed 10 humans and has managed to evade hunters…