Man-eaters hold a distinct fascination for those usually at the top of the food chain. Blofeld's piranhas may have a vicious bite, but it is the hippos one needs to watch out for.
Famously, the two “man-eaters of Tsavo” may not have been entirely to blame for their three-month spree in 1898, during which they killed about 40 workers building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River. The two maneless male lions were eventually taken by Lt Col John Henry Patterson. One theory claims that the first lion had a broken tooth but Patterson always claimed the tooth was broken by him when the lion charged. Today, the story has become a tourist attraction. The game lodge on the site is called Man Eaters Lodge and happily invites visitors to “Come and see the famous maneless lions, the descendants of the man-eaters of Tsavo and the ‘Big Five’ game Kenya is so famous for.”
A little research makes this a less appealing prospect, despite the beautiful surroundings and luxury spa. One reason cited for the Tsavo lions’ behaviour was the practice in the area at the time of only partial inhumation of the dead, both by Hindu railway workers and Zanzibar slave traders. This was certainly the cause of a similar but more recent outbreak of man-eating. Another bridge-building project, a road bridge over the Zambezi river at Chirundu in 1938, lost several hundred men to man-eaters. “The tribe in that area, the Batonka, do not bury their dead, so man-eating had become endemic among the lions,” explains Heath. “The government had brought in miners from Johannesburg but because it was winter, with warm nights, they didn’t bother to give them tents and they got hammered by the lions. The European workers were better equipped but, even so, some of them were killed. There are photographs of the European overseers sleeping with their beds stuck up in the trees. In the end, my uncle, Lionel Ross, who was a well-known hunter, managed to get the lions using a Colt .44-40 pump-action rifle – it was called the Lightning, a proper cowboy gun.”
That’s how man-eater hunting differs from safari. Where safari is all balloon jodhpurs, Bror Blixen and case-hardened .375 H&H magnum rifles, shooting a lion before it eats the camp cleaner is about guns that are quick to use at short range and will get the job done. Retired professional Ian Goss offers this advice to apprentice hunters: “You want a sawn-off shotgun in case your leopard hunt goes wrong. You’ll be in the thick bush and you’ll be shooting from the hip.”
Goss points out the crucial distinction between a cornered animal that is protecting itself and a genuine man-eater: “Even a zeb can give you a damn good kicking if you get things wrong but when a cat’sout to get you, you may not know much about it.”
MAN-EATERS: MADE BY MAN?
But perhaps all man-eaters have been cornered in one way or another by human actions. One of the most famous hunters of them all, Jim Corbett, certainly came to feel that way. He wrote, in the foreword to his book, Man-Eaters of Kumaon, “The wound that has caused a particular tiger to take to man-eating might be the result of a carelessly fired shot and failure to follow up and recover the wounded animal.” He was desperately concerned about the decline in big cat populations due to human incursion and helped found India’s first national park, now named the Jim Corbett National Park in his honour.
Ironically, the biggest problem with Indian man-eaters today is the result of human incursion into a national park. As Mumbai grows, its suburbs are lapping the edge of Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The park is home to about 21 leopard but the human population pressing on it is 20,000 people per kilometre. In the past decade there have been more than a hundred leopard attacks in the area. The park’s chief conservator of forests, Sunil Limaye, describes a scenario not unlike that at Chirundu. “The garbage in Aarey colony is neither picked up by the Municipal Corporation nor by the Aarey management committee. It attracts dogs, which are abundant in numbers and easy prey to leopards. When the big cats come to human habitations, naturally conflicts arise leading to attacks.”
The story is the same all over the world: too many people and too much rubbish will attract unwanted visitors. Globally, it is crocodiles and their American cousins, alligators, that attack even more frequently than the big cats. The saltwater or estu-arine crocodile of Australia is the biggest croc of them all but fortunately the human population density in its habitat is low, so there are few deaths. In Africa, however, the Nile crocodile feasts on uncounted numbers of small children each year who go to the river for water and to wash.
In America, curiosity is more likely to lead the unwary into the ’gator’s jaws. Florida’s Gatorland alligator theme park holds regular ’gator wrestling shows featuring specially bred and trained alligators. Veteran wrestler Tim Williams has a healthy respect for the ’gators he gets to grips with. “Alligators, in my opinion, are one of the most perfectly designed animals around. Normally, you can’t get near an alligator but they lose their natural fear because they see so many of us.” Equally, Americans are losing their natural fear of ’gators and even beginning to feed them, resulting in lost limbs.
Man’s fascination with the romance of the man-eater may be the most dangerous aspect of his interaction with predatory animals, glossing over the nasty, bloody bits. The most glamorised of all man-eaters is the shark.
Since the movie Jaws came out in 1975 – starring a foam-rubber stand-in – shark-attack lore has developed a cult following and there is even a website, founded by attack survivor Al Brenneka (www.sharkattacksurvivors.com).
Surprisingly, the number of people eaten by a shark from January to September 2013 was only 12 worldwide, out of 71 attacks; eight people reported being “harassed” by a shark. How many sharks, you wonder, would report being harassed by humans? Let’s face it, the cause of man-eating is man. We are romantic in our tales of man-eating lions, sharks, crocs and the rest but these stories are actually tragedies for all concerned.