Of all the deaths caused by human-animal interaction, wild animal attacks are one of the most rare. In the United States between 2008 and 2015, there were 1,610 animal-related fatalities (excluding fatalities caused by venomous bites). That's a rate of 4.8 deaths per million people. For comparison, there are about 38,000 automotive fatalities in the US each year. Even within the animal kingdom, lions and tigers and bears - however fearsome - are nowhere near as collectively dangerous as the humble mosquito.
But occasionally throughout history, large wild animals have been responsible for brutal attacks on human populations. Traditionally, these attacks have occurred in places and times where humans were expanding their societies into animal habitation via farming, urbanization, or both. Animal attacks can be especially likely if wild animal populations become dependent on humans for food. While attacks like this have always been relatively rare compared to other animal-related causes of death, like venomous bites or illness, they still capture the public imagination. They stoke a deep, primal fear, perhaps evoking a time in our evolutionary past when we were not at the top of the food chain.
The Mysterious ‘Beast (Or Beasts) Of Gévaudan’ Slew Hundreds In 18th Century France
The Gévaudan province of France, which is today called the Lozère region, is a rural and mountainous area that traditionally relied on cattle farming. In the 18th century, a mysterious creature began attacking people in the region.
The first attack occurred on June 30, 1764, when a "wolf-like" creature attacked a 14-year-old girl. Reports of more attacks continued that year, frequently enough that some speculated more than one animal was involved. Attacks continued throughout that year and into the next, when King Louis XV got involved.
The king offered a large bounty for the creature. In September 1765, the king's own gun bearer and his nephew shot and slew a large wolf near Chazes that was deemed to be the beast. However, attacks continued until 1797, when a local noble named Chastel led a hunting party that took out another large predatory creature. There were no further reports of attacks.
In its time, the Beast of Gévaudan became a media sensation and spawned tales of bravery such as that of Marie-Jeanne Valet, a young woman who fought off the beast with a bayonet to protect her younger sister. Valet was celebrated for her courage as "the Amazon."
Today, the creature is theorized to be either a wolf, a lynx, or both. More exotic theories suggest it might have been a lion escaped from captivity or a human criminal using an animal to help find prey.
The Man-Eating Lions Of Tsavo Slew 35 People And Inspired A Movie
In 1898, the British Empire began building a railroad bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya when a pair of lions "mysteriously" began attacking and eating members of the crew. Work crews attempted to scare the lions away until the civil engineer running the project, Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, shot them both. The lions were taxidermied and are still on display at Chicago's Field Museum.
While it was originally reported that the lions killed 135 railway workers and locals, later research by the Field Museum determined the number was actually 35. Field Museum researchers also theorized the lions may have been driven to hunt humans because a dental disease weakened their teeth and humans were easier prey.
The story of the Tsavo lions was adapted into the 1996 motion picture The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.
The Tiger Of Champawat Slew More Than 400 Before A Hunter Tracked It Down
Between 1900 and 1907, one tiger reportedly terrorized villagers in both Nepal and India. The attacks began in Nepal, and the Nepalese military was called in to hunt the tiger. The hunt was unsuccessful, but it did drive the tiger into India's Kumaon state, where it continued to prey upon human settlements. The Indian government also organized several hunting expeditions to track down the tiger, without success. Finally, the government employed expert tiger hunter Jim Corbett, and he finished the job.
Upon examining the tiger's remains, Corbett theorized the tiger may have been driven to hunt humans after a bullet damaged its canines, making it more difficult to consume larger prey. Altogether, the tiger was estimated to have slain 436 people between Nepal and India. (To put this number into a slightly random context: the Union Army lost 480 men at Bull Run, the first major engagement of the American Civil War.)
The animal is currently listed as the Guinness World Record holder for the tiger responsible for the most fatalities. In later life, Corbett became an animal conservation activist opposed to widespread hunting.
The Leopard Of Rudraprayag Slew 125 Or More And Became Famous Around The World
Decades after Jim Corbett hunted down the man-eating tiger of Champawat, the hunter and author was again called upon to take down a big cat preying on humans.
The attacks began in India's village of Benji in 1918 and continued for years. The leopard was reportedly so bold that it began breaking into occupied homes and dragging occupants away. By 1925, the British Parliament requested Corbett's services. Corbett spent most of the next two years tracking the leopard before finally dispatching it in the town of Rudraprayag.
Corbett later theorized the animal developed a taste for humans after feeding on the corpses of victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic. However, the leopard was found to have serious gum recession and tooth loss, which likely contributed to its change in behavior.