Man Knowledge: A History of Man-Eaters

by A Manly Guest Contributor on March 7, 2013 · 30 comments

in Manly Knowledge

tiger

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Ty Karnitz.

What separates man from beast?

It is a question I’ve heard answered a dozen ways: religion, tool-making, empathy, agriculture, self-awareness.

The real answer is much simpler. The only thing that separates man from beast is a wall. And that only works most of the time.

I once believed mankind had no natural predators. I was wrong. The threat of being eaten sounds ridiculous, but for as long as mankind has existed it has been hunted. Leopards, tigers, and lions all consider primates a natural food source, and any man found too far from home at dusk is an easy meal.

Many cats have attacked man in the past and a few became dedicated man-eaters. This is their legacy.

Historic Man-Eaters

In Asia

History’s most prolific man-eaters stalked Northern India during the early 20th century. One man, big-game hunter and author Jim Corbett, hunted down 33 man-eaters responsible for well over 1,000 deaths. The following are his most well known.

Leopard of Rudraprayag

corbett

Jim Corbett with the Leopard of Rudraprayag, which killed 250 people and measured 7’10”.

It’s believed the Leopard of Rudraprayag turned to man-eating after the 1918 flu pandemic that caused millions of deaths in India. So many died that the normal rites of cremation weren’t performed and the plague’s victims were left in shallow, mass graves or even unburied. Scavenging from the corpses, the leopard learned man was an easy meal.

Roaming the Uttarkhan area of Northern India for 8 years, the leopard terrified villages. In the middle of the night, his victims would wake to find the cat clawing through their thatched mud walls to drag them from their beds.

By 1926 alone, the leopard was responsible for killing 250 people. That same year, Jim Corbett shot and killed the leopard, which measured 7’10″ at its death.

Panar Leopard

While not as famous as the Leopard of Rudraprayag because it hunted a more secluded area of India and didn’t catch the attention of journalists, the Panar Leopard was still feared and hated in the Northern part of India’s Kumaon District.

After a poacher shot him, the Panar Leopard turned to man-eating and killed over 400 people before Jim Corbett killed it in 1910.

Champawat Tiger

This female Bengal tiger known as the Champawat Tiger began her man-eating in Nepal. There, she killed an estimated 200 people before the Nepalese army was called in to hunt her down. Though the army failed to kill the man-eater, they did succeed in scaring her across the River Serda and into India.

Once in India, the tigress continued her man-eating ways and claimed a further 236 victims. Her final victim, a 16-year-old girl, was killed just hours before Jim Corbett hunted her down in 1907.

In Africa

The Dark Continent and the Cradle of Life; Africa is both. She is known for her rugged beauty and for her riches — gold, diamonds, and ivory. She calls to man’s sense of adventure and is the land where men have sought to challenge themselves. Of all the places that humble men, perhaps none does it as thorough as she. Africa is home to elephants, rhinos, buffalo, and of course, the king of the jungle.

Tsavo Man-Eaters

tsavo

The Ghost and the Darkness, responsible for killing over 100 people, are now on display in the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History.

No article about man-eaters is complete without mentioning The Ghost and the Darkness, the two most infamous man-eating lions of all time. Their exploits were logged in Col. John Henry Patterson’s 1907 book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.

In his book, Col. Patterson recounts his epic hunt for two mane-less lions whose predation halted the British Empire’s construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railroad. Between March and December of 1898, The Ghost and the Darkness killed more than a 100 people. In the middle of the night, they’d drag a victim from his tent and feast while his fellows listened to the lions consume him, powerless to do anything.

The lions’ ability to avoid Patterson gave rise not only to their nicknames but also their legend. The workers knew the lions were evil spirits sent to kill them, and soon abandoned their posts.

After much trial and error, Col. Patterson did succeed in killing both lions. After 25 years as rugs on Patterson’s floor, the lions were sold to the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History where they were restored and mounted and remain on display to this day.

Man-Eaters of Njombe

Between 1932 and 1947 an entire pride of 15 lions turned to man-eating in Southern Tanzania. George Rushby, the game warden who eliminated the pride, considers the Tsavo lions small game compared to those of Njombe.

Ignoring personal bias, Rushby might be right. During their fifteen-year reign, the lions worked together and developed a relay system to safely drag their victims into the bush. They ended up claiming the lives of some 1,500-2,000 people.

Legend says the lions were not normal lions but animals under the spell of a spiteful witch doctor named Matamula Mangera who unleashed them upon the locals after he lost his job as Headman of the Iyayi village.

As the lions harassed the villagers, they begged the local chief to restore Matamula to his post but the chief refused and the killing continued.

It was only after Matamula was restored to power that George Rushby succeeded in killing the lions.

Causes of Man-Eating

But what creates a man-eater? Why did these cats kill so many people? Is there something hard-wired in their brain that turns them into killers? Is it just chance? Or is there something else?

Scientists have theorized for decades the possible causes of man-eating.

One of the most prevalent theories is that man-eating is not natural and big cats prey on humans when they’re too old or lame to hunt their normal food sources. In other words, humans are easier to catch than deer.

Many man-eaters do prove to be old and lame; however, this theory doesn’t explain why healthy cats turn their golden eyes our way. So what are the other possible explanations? Some biologists have pointed out that man-eating often occurs when a cat’s natural food source is missing, and eventually these cats get hungry enough that anything and anyone is food. This theory has been used to explain the Lions of Njombe.

When Europeans colonized Africa they brought with them the disease rinderpest. Rinderpest, also known as cattle plague, is closely related to measles, and is known for its high mortality rate. In the 1800s, the disease killed an estimated 90% of domestic cattle in Africa. But rinderpest also infects buffalo, antelope, deer, giraffe, wildebeests, and warthogs, all creatures considered part of a normal lion’s diet. The veterinary scientist responsible for creating the rinderpest vaccine, Walter Plowright, estimated in 1982 that up to 90% of Kenya’s wild buffalo were killed by the disease in the 1800s.

One outbreak of rinderpest threatened the livestock around Njombe and the government decided that the best way to keep the outbreak from spreading was to cull the animals that could carry the disease. Doing so eliminated a large portion of available prey. To supplement their diet, the lions ate humans instead.

Another theory why some cats turn away from natural food sources is that they are trained to do so through human catastrophe. Big cats are not opposed to scavenging; it is this act that some believe leads to man-eating. Man-eating cats appear after catastrophes that leave behind human corpses to be scavenged on. The Panar Leopard appeared after a cholera outbreak and the Leopard of Rudraprayag after the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Another example of this is from Africa, where Arab slavers once crossed the Kenyan wilderness with their victims in tow. Those not strong enough to survive the journey were left dead or dying in the slave caravan’s wake. Sometimes, the slavers tied men to trees and left them for the lions. The poor souls became a lion’s meal and taught the cats humans were food.

Like most mammals, a lion learns from his mother. When a lioness shows her cub that humans are an easy meal by scavenging from corpses, it reinforces the habit of man-eating, a habit that will continue into adulthood. Once the slave trade stopped, the lions in the region did not stop eating people, they simply replaced the dead with the living. Learning man-eating from the mother is not exclusive to lions, either. The Tigers of Chowgarh, a pair of Bengal tigers that hunted the Kumaon district of India, were a mother tigress and her sub-adult cub. Over the course of five years they killed an estimated 64 people. Many reports mention that the earlier attacks were performed by a single tiger, the mother, and the later attacks included both mother and son. Jim Corbett, who dispatched both animals, concluded that the tigress’ canine was broken, an injury which turned her away from normal prey sources. To feed her cub, she ate people and in the process trained her cub to do the same.

As sound as these theories are, they rest on the principle that big cats do not look at humans as natural prey, and that might be a huge misconception. Our egos find it almost impossible to admit we are a natural food source for lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars. However, much scientific evidence suggests we are just that and have always been so. Both tigers and jaguars eat primates as a part of a normal diet, and lions even hunt chimpanzees, our closest known relative. The fossil evidence puts the predation rate of early hominids between 6 and 10 percent. Early hominids were small, between 3ft and 5ft and lived in an environment with ten times the number of predators, including the saber-tooth cat. Predation wasn’t the exception, but the rule. Some scientists believe this predation forced early ape-men to band together and fight back.

Our violent reaction to threatening animals has eliminated many potentially dangerous animals, but it doesn’t prevent predation it just punishes it. If cases of man-eating have declined throughout our history, it may be only because big cats have learned that preying on humans is dangerous.

Modern Man-Eaters

The world may never again see man-eaters as prolific as those of the early 20th century but that doesn’t mean man is safe when he ventures into the wild. Hunter and author Peter Hathaway Capstick mentions in his book, Death in the Silent Places, that he believes that in the past 400 years tigers have killed almost a million people — that’s an average of 2,500 people a year.

The tiger’s influence on life in India is far from historic. In the 1980s, about 60 woodcutters a year were falling prey to tigers in the Ganges Delta. A 1989 article in The New York Times mentions different methods used to prevent tiger attacks, including electrified scarecrows scented like humans. However, they found the most effective method for dissuading tiger attacks is a mask.

Officials in the region issued pale rubber masks to woodcutters who would wear them on the back of their heads. The tigers, thinking the woodcutters were watching them, stopped attacking. The article states that no woodcutter wearing a mask had been attacked in three years and that 29 people not wearing masks were killed in the previous 18 months. To this day, woodcutters and biologists alike wear masks on the back of their heads to discourage tiger attacks.

masks

However, the tigers are learning, and in the Sundarbans region of India, tigers continue to attack between 50 and 250 people a year in that region alone. The tension between tigers and the people of the area has led to humans trying to fight back. The villagers have attacked back and a 2003 article from the BBC reported an instance where a village beat a Bengal tiger to death, claiming they had no choice after it had entered their village and harassed them and their livestock. More explanations for the tiger attacks have been put forth for the animals of the region, including that the primary drinking water for the tigers is salt water, which makes them uncomfortable and irritable.

The lion is not to be outdone by the tiger. Lions attack on average 550-750 people a year, and in the early 1990s a lion known as the man-eater of Mfuwe killed 6 people. The lion got hold of its last victim’s laundry bag and played with it for days before a California man on safari named Wayne Hosek took it upon himself to rid the village of the man-eater. Today, the man-eater of Mfuwe is found beside The Ghost and The Darkness.

More recently, a lion named Osama (after the terrorist) killed more than 50 people in Tanzania between 2002 and 2004. Osama was only 3.5 years old when he was killed, and experts believe he was part of a pride of lions preying on humans.

These cats should serve as a reminder that as manly as we may be, we are not always the top predator.

For further reading on man-eaters and the men who hunt them, read this article on The Lost Genre of Safari Stories and the books and articles listed in the resources section below.

_________

Resources

The Most Ferocious Man-Eating Lions by Abigail Tucker (Smithsonian.com)

Killer Cats Hunted Human Ancestors by Shaun Smillie (National Geographic News)

Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett

Death in the Long Grass by Peter Hathaway Capstick

Death in the Silent Places by Peter Hathaway Capstick

Man-Eaters of Tsavo by Lt. Colonel J.H. Patterson

Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa by Philip Caputo

The Tiger by John Vaillant

The Book of Deadly Animals by Gordon Grice

Face Masks Fool the Bengal Tigers by Marlise Simons (New York Times)

 

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Christopher March 7, 2013 at 6:36 pm

Extremely interesting and well researched article– very enlightening. Reads like a true and exotic adventure story. I’m curious about safaris and this Jim Corbett fellow now.

2 Justin March 7, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Naturally, people are tiger food (I’m sure much to the delight of ‘Hobbes’ from “Calvin and Hobbes”). Tigers, lions, and leopards didn’t need to “learn” to eat small and weak humans. People were always natural prey. It’s only been in more modern times that people living insulated in their cities have somehow come up with the idea that we are the top of the food chain. Just because we can eat everything does not mean we cannot be eaten ourselves.

3 C.j. March 7, 2013 at 11:17 pm

What a great read! Thanks for the interesting article.

4 EssDee March 7, 2013 at 11:27 pm

Great Article! As I am from India, Corbett was my hero since childhood. Corbett later on turned conservationist, and was instrumental in forming India’s first wildlife sanctuary. It was renamed later as Corbett National Park, and is the place where I, as an eight year old, saw my first wild tiger! Moving to Kenya after India gained Independence from the British Empire, Corbett set up Tree Tops resort, where he hosted, among others, Princess Elizabeth & prince Philip, on the night when King Goerge VI died. Hence Corbett wrote: it was the first time in history that a young woman climbed up a tree one night as a Princess, and climbed down the next morning as a Queen!
Another maneater hunter, operating in Southern India, was Kenneth Anderson. He lived in Bangalore, when it was a haven for retirees, and shot more than 20 maneaters. Anderson died in 1975.
As an interesting tidbit, Mumbai is the only major city in the world, where people have been killed by maneating leopards! There’s a sanctuary in the middle of town. It’s walled, but people have holed the wall in places to illegally gather wood, poach (hunting in illegal in India since 1976), etc. From my apartment (on the borders of the park), on a good moonlit night with a decent pair of binoculars, you just might see a spotted form flit by.

5 EssDee March 7, 2013 at 11:42 pm

Christopher, Col. Corbett is a most interesting subject!

6 Fred Rembrandt March 8, 2013 at 4:19 am

Excellent article. I really thought this was going to be about cannibals when I first clicked the link!

7 varun March 8, 2013 at 6:02 am

Was a good read, im from India and EssDee has said most of what i wanted to say.
I just wanted to add my personal experience from growing up in Nainital which is one of the district headquartes in the Kumaon region. Corbett also lived in Nainital. My school was on top of one of the hills there and there are still many leopards there and at night it was not a smart thing to walk around all alone :) Leopards would walk through our school campus at night and one of the most scariest things i remember as a kid is a leopard eating the watchmans dog right out side my window when it was raining and lightning. Don’t think ill ever forget that night…the dog was pup so the leopard was still quite hungry afterwards and sat there groaning and moaning for a few hours afterwards.
In the hills leopards had realised that dogs were also an easy prey so it was very common for them to hunt dogs, a lot of times if there were two more dogs then they would fight the leopard and chase it away and manage to survive, but it was very common thing to have your dog eaten by a leopard if you werent careful after sunset.
The leopard would basically go for the neck of the dog and try to break it so it wouldnt fight back and it could carry it away so we used to put nails on the dog collars so the leopard could not bite and attack its neck because of them. i remember walking home at night shit scared of being killed by a man eating leopard. The last 100 meters to my house used to be a sprint where i used to run for my life with an imaginary leopard chasing me…haha good times!
although i must add that in all those years that i was there i didnt hear of any leopards attacking humans, although it would happen in the villages around Nainital. But yea those were good times as a kid finding pug marks, porcupine quills and what not when playing i think does great things.

8 Christopher March 8, 2013 at 7:03 am

Ironically, just finishing reading Hemingway’s “At First Light” about his lion-hunting exploits, my interest in the topic was already piqued. Thanks for a very iinteresting and well written article.

9 Anthony March 8, 2013 at 8:23 am

Thanks for a great article, Mr. Karnitz. Well-researched and written.

It is not just big cats that hunt man: bears do it too. Growing up in Alaska, I heard from many sources that polar bears will actively hunt man (as opposed to an opportunistic killing): they consider anything that moves in the Arctic to be prey. I’ve never heard this confirmed by an expert, however.

Brown bears will hunt man too, but unlike the polar bears they don’t do it naturally. The vast majority of bear killings happen when a bear is surprised by a human or their cubs are threatened. And once the human is dead they may eat the corpse, naturally, but they normally avoid humans if they can (standard hiking bear protocol is talk loudly; many hikers tie jingle bells to their backpacks so the bears hear them coming).

But an old bear will hunt people. I had friends who lived an hour or so from the city, out in the country. Jeremy’s little brother was camping by the creek for his birthday when they heard there was a renegade bear in the neighborhood (I never heard how they knew it was a renegade: apparently there had been encounters before). He and his girlfriend headed for the creek to bring his brother back when they ran into the bear. The bear charged them, and Jeremy emptied his shotgun (all but one shell) into the bear: one lucky shot broke the bear’s spine. They ran for their lives, not knowing the bear was disabled, back to the house, and called Fish & Wildlife. When the agent arrived, he was carrying only one gun, a shotgun or a rifle, and Jeremy asked, “Are you really going after a bear with just one gun?” The agent opened his coat to reveal several more guns, and said that he never went after a bear with just one. Jeremy said he’d lead the agent back to the bear but would not carry a gun himself: he was too shaken to handle it safely.

They went back and trailed the bear, which had dragged itself away. When they found it, the bear recognized Jeremy and went after him again, dragging himself by his front paws. After the agent killed the bear, they found it was a very old bear, probably unable to catch its usual prey, and that its hunger (and hunger-caused irritableness) probably drove it to be willing to hunt humans.

10 Sam I. March 8, 2013 at 9:44 am

Great article! Patterson’s book is a really cool read, and I’m looking forward to reading Corbett’s adventures.
When I think of man eaters though, the beast of Gevaudun comes to mind pretty quickly. It was a mystery canid beast that had a 250-300 person death toll in 18th century France. Opinions still vary on what it actually was.

11 Heath March 8, 2013 at 10:02 am

Aside from the cat man eaters, if you’re really interested in animals attacking humans, you ought to search for Gustave the crocodile, rumored to have killed 300 humans and was never captured.

12 Magnate Frank March 8, 2013 at 10:35 am

I am a Kenyan. Presently, the stories that abound are of Lions eating cattle. If I can make a relation with the above, I can say that the lions ate men because they discovered that they were easy prey. In addition, there is common legend around that once a wild animal has tasted human blood, its never going back. That is the reason why, if for example, you get hurt and your dog licks your blood, you have to kill it.

13 Ken March 8, 2013 at 10:41 am

Perfect timing with the arrival of my new mauser 375!

14 Henry Lee March 8, 2013 at 10:45 am

I think too many of us live in a state of mind thinking that the world is ours for the taking. It sure is hard to see beyond that living in a protected and comfortable home.
People need to realize that in the eyes of mother nature, we’re just another species fighting to survive. other creatures know that, and they do what they can do survive. sometimes people who’ve spent their whole life in the comfort of civilization heads out into the jungle for the first time with little or no research, lots of ignorance and stupidity, and when they get attacked its the animals fault.
do your research, respect nature, respect the game of survival and your chances of survival will be much higher.

15 Sean March 8, 2013 at 12:31 pm

I am a part time mountain lion researcher/biologist with a project in Central California. As with most big cats, mountain lions have a prey preference which they eat 90% of the time. Most big cats are opportunistic carnivores which means if their preferred prey is nowhere to be found and an opportunity presents itself, they will take advantage of it. This phenomenon is called prey switching. It is often the consequence of bad hunting policies which reduce the big cats’ preferred prey numbers or a natural prey population die off.

Prey switching can wreak havoc on an ecosystem when it happens in larger cat species (Tigers, African Lions, Leopards), and it can have incredibly dramatic effects that ripple throughout the ecosystem. This happened in the early 1900′s with the Pacific Killer Whale population. People noticed killer whales had switched to sea lions and sea otters instead of their natural prey of the great whale, which humans had over-fished (See: Killer Whale Prey Switch ).

Sorry for the ecology lesson, but I find it fascinating to learn about these things. It is also interesting to realize that many of these ‘man-eaters’ were inadvertently created by humans due to an unfortunate switch in their preferred prey. Great write-up!

16 mattoomba March 8, 2013 at 1:05 pm

And the attacks continue today. News out of Zimbabwe has a women killed while canoodling. Her fellow canoodler fled safely.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/07/lion-kills-zimbabwe-woman-having-sex-in-african-bush_n_2820870.html?ir=World

17 Ted Larson March 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm

It is wise to remember that when we humans are in the wilderness, we are definitely not at the top of the food chain. Situational awareness is the rule of the day.

18 Jimbo March 8, 2013 at 4:03 pm

I was stalked by a very large black bear in Southern Central Virginia several years ago and I believe it was interesting in eating me or – more likely my girlfriend. ;)

It was March and the weather had just turned warm after a very cold winter. I was teaching my girlfriend how to stalk (US Army -style) for deer or other prey. We crept very slowly and quietly up a hill. After pausing at the top in silence for a few minutes, I started talking out loud. Immediately there was a loud bear groan/growl from just a few meters away on the other side of the hill. My dog went tail between legs and just took off. I had a big stick in hard and told my girl to start slowly walking away.

I walked backwards and saw nothing. 100 meters later, I looked back and there it was – a huge black bear staring right at me from where we had been standing!

We continued this way for more than 3 quarters of a mile. Every so often, when I looked back, he would be there. 75 meters, then 50 meters, then 30 meters away. I couldn’t believe he was still following us!

I finally made it back to the farm where several hyped up Irish Wolf Hounds make him think again.

Lesson. Always carry that big stick – no joke, Teddy Roosevelt!

19 Craig March 9, 2013 at 6:33 am

One of the best books ive read in a little while is about a man eating tiger in Russia in the early 1990s. This book also gets into the hunt for the tiger. It makes for an excelent read.

Check out “The Tiger” by John Vaillant

20 Wasim March 9, 2013 at 1:24 pm

I live in Chicago and have been to the Field Museum several times. I have never heard of the man-eater of Mfuwe, the Ghost, or the Darkness. However, I have not seen the entire museum, so I could be wrong. I do know that near one of the entrances, there are two bronze sculptures depicting a couple of lionesses getting killed, but I have never seen the real taxidermied ones.

21 Jason March 10, 2013 at 3:37 pm

For anyone anyone who has never read any of Capsticks books, they are are a must read. He will educate you on everything from man hunters to malaria. Different species of animals such as the big 5 and some that can kill you even quicker. He will also put to death the reasoning that certain species’ are close to extinction. Excellent article.

22 Alex A. March 10, 2013 at 7:11 pm

Another great book on man and big cats that is a must read is Beast in the Garden by David Baron. It focuses on mountain lions and their growing interactions with people in the United States.

23 Dave March 11, 2013 at 12:46 pm

A great and interesting article. Obviously well researched, well written and well worth reading. I have read the work of Mr. Karnitz before and he is an excellent author. The quality and capability is not surprising. I am looking forward to his next writing.

24 Andy March 11, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Great article!

25 Chris March 12, 2013 at 6:31 am

Maybe not a true, by definition, maneater, but Gustav the Crocodile is definitely worth checking out. Notorious.

26 Jason March 15, 2013 at 8:14 am

Great post. I read the Man-eaters of Tsavo twice while on a 12 day camping trip in Algonquin Park’s interior. It is a great read. I don’t know if any of you have seen this but it is simply brilliant: http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/26/tech/richard-turere-lion-lights

27 Eric March 15, 2013 at 9:01 am

I read The Tiger by John Vaillant and it is an excellent and dramatic read; I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to know more about how these events happen. After this article, I will have to get a copy of Man-Eaters of Tsavo.

28 Shawn March 21, 2013 at 1:22 am

I was a little disappointed when it wasn’t about cannibalism though. And those woodcutter’s maks remind me of V is for Vendetta. Great article!

29 Vanessa November 5, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Yeah!!!! Good Job Lions & Tigers!!! Unfortunately they ended up losing to a hunter. Wish the hunter ended up a meal.

30 Dr Vipin mathur April 4, 2014 at 12:37 am

Crisp article on habits of normal big cats and maneaters. I still believe man is not a natural pray of big cats otherwise all inhabitants would have been killed in tiger infested areas. A maneater is a creation of abnormal circumstances that have been mentioned in detail in the article. Once they start praying on humans they loose all fear of mankind and go out of way to secure human meal.I have wandered in leopard infested areas for years with only a stick in my hand leave apart a firearm and I don’t remember of a single instance where I was deliberately followed or attacked.Hundreds of grass cutters and their live stocks move in these areas day and night and return home safely.

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