Tiger attacks and Man-eating

bengal_tiger_edHuman flesh is not the part of tiger’s normal diet. Although they are easy prey, tigers do not include humans into their regular menu, but still more people are killed by them than any other cat in the world. According to an unauthenticated figure about 10,000 people were killed between 1800 and 1900 by tigers in India alone. Another fact which has come to light is that majority of these man-eaters were either old or injured. In other words they were not fit to hunt their regular prey.

The problem of man-eating tigers is most evident in India and Bangladesh. Man-eaters of Garhwal and Kumaon are particularly immortalized by Jim Corbett, an English officer posted in India during the British Raj, in his various books he wrote on man-eaters. The case of Sundarban mangrove swamps is different from everywhere else (for detail see Man-eating in the Sunderbans). Corbett, who was also a hunter and conservationist, wrote about man-eater, “is a tiger that has been compelled through stress of circumstances beyond its control to adopt a diet alien to it… The stress is, in nine cases out of ten, wounds, and in the tenth case, old age.”

Edward James “Jim” Corbett was born on 25 July 1875 in Nainital (India) and died on 19 April 1955 in Nyeri (Kenya). He was a British hunter, naturalist and conservationist. He was famous for killing man-eating tigers and leopards in India. Having the rank of Colonel in the British Indian Army, Corbett was frequently called upon by the government of the United Provinces, now the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, to kill man eaters who had killed people in the villages of Garhwal and Kumaon hills. His reputation as slayer of man-eating wild cats earned him much respect and fame amongst the people living in villages of Kumaon. Many of them used to call him sadhu (saint). The Jim Corbett National Park in Kumaon was named in his honor in 1957.

During 1907-1938, Corbett tracked, shot and documented 19 tigers and 14 leopards — a total of 33 recorded and documented man-eaters. It is claimed that these big cats had killed more than 1,200 men, women and children.

Reasons for attack

Especially in India and Bangladesh tigers live in areas of high and growing population density where loggers and farmers have a long and continuing history of encroaching upon the forest land and thus squeezing up the tiger’s space. This increases the chances of confrontation between man and the beast and ultimately the beast looses the battle. As a consequence it has resulted in the decline of tiger population in the twenty-first century. Poaching is another big problem for the survival of these cats.

Normally tigers avoid humans; they are usually intimidated from attacking, especially when unfamiliar with people. Even the established man-eaters will seldom enter villages, usually sticking to the outskirts. Nevertheless, attacks on humans and their villages do take place.

Most tigers attack humans only when they are physically unfit to catch their normal prey. Thus, most man-eaters are infirm, old, injured or have missing teeth. In one case, a postmortem of a killed female revealed two broken canines, four missing incisors and a loose upper molar – handicaps that make over-powering natural prey extremely difficult. Only once reaching this stage did she attack a workman. Most attacks are still a simple case of someone accidentally surprising a tiger, which then retaliates in self-defense, through fear, or because it has cubs to protect.

There are also examples where tigers turn to man-eating only when they develop taste for human flesh. In one situation, this may occur if the mother is man-eater, she will feed her cubs on human flesh too, thus the cubs would develop liking for this food and may become human-hunters. In another situation, this kind of taste may be acquired by consuming corpses which have lain unburied. During the wars of Korea and Vietnam same thing happened, soldiers became victims of tigers that had acquired taste for human flesh by eating up the bodies of those who died in the war. It has also been observed that tigers attack people who bend down while working in a field or cutting grass, but will lose interest as soon as the people stand upright. One reasoning for this kind of behavior is that when a person is bending he/she appears as a normal prey species to the tiger, like deer or wild boar and tiger attacks it. So it is case of mistaken identity. Second logic is that the tigers launch surprise attack on their victims either from the side or from behind, they would rarely press an attack if they are seen before the ambush is mounted. Other attacks come about when a tiger begins hunting domestic stock; often the first human victim is a herdsman who tries to protect his animals. The cat may then learn that people are easy prey.

Kenneth Anderson (1910–1974), an Indian writer and hunter, once commented on man eating tigers; “It is extraordinary how very cautious every man-eater becomes by practice, whether a tiger or panther, and cowardly too. Invariably, it will only attack a solitary person, and that too, after prolonged and painstaking stalking, having assured itself that no other human being is in the immediate vicinity… These animals seem also to possess an astute sixth sense and be able to differentiate between an unarmed human being and an armed man deliberately pursuing them, for in most cases, only when cornered will they venture to attack the latter, while they go out of their way to stalk and attack the unarmed man.” Anderson wrote many books about his adventures in the jungles of South India. As a hunter, he tracked down man-eating tigers and leopards to eliminate the threat they posed to villages. Some of his most notable kills include the Sloth bear of Mysore, the Leopard of Gummalapur, the Leopard of the Yellagiri Hills, the Tigress of Jowlagiri, the Tiger of Segur and the Tiger of Mundachipallam.

Tigers that became known for attacks

Champawat Tigress — Became notorious for man-eating, killed some 200 people before being driven out of Nepal. She made India her second home and continued to kill, bringing her total up to 436 before she was tracked down and killed in 1911. She was so daring that she could enter villages, even during daytime, roaring and causing people to flee in panic to their homes.

She was extremely cunning, as most man-eaters usually are, but was tracked down by Jim Corbett because he followed the trail of blood the cat left behind after claiming her last victim, a 16-year-old girl. Post mortem examination of the man-eater revealed the upper and lower canine teeth on the right side of her mouth were broken — the upper one in half, the lower one right down to the bone. This permanent injury, Corbett claimed, “had prevented her from killing her natural prey, and had been the cause of her becoming a man-eater.”

Tigers of Chowgarh — A pair of man-eating Bengal tigers, which included an old tigress and her sub-adult cub. They for over a five year period killed a reported 64 people in eastern Kumaon over an area covering about 1,500 square miles. The numbers quoted however are uncertain, as the residents of the areas the tigers frequented claimed double that number, and they do not take into account victims who survived direct attacks but died subsequently. Both animals were killed by Jim Corbett.

Tiger of Mundachipallam — A male Royal Bengal tiger also known as Bengal tiger killed 7 people in the vicinity of the village of Pennagram, four miles from the Hogenakkal Falls. This tiger had no infirmities preventing it from hunting its natural prey. First three victims the cat claimed were killed in unprovoked attacks, while the subsequent ones were devoured. It was later killed by Kenneth Anderson.

Man-eater of Bhimashankar — A Pune-based author Sureshchandra Warghade came across an old villager in the Bhimashankar forest near Pune, who narrated him a story about the terror created by a man-eating tiger in the Bhimashakar area during a span of two years in the 1940s. The villager was a police constable in that area during those days and was responsible for dealing with the various formalities relating to deaths (missing person reports and death certificates etc.) and other jobs such as helping the hunting parties. According to the former policeman during this period the tiger supposedly killed more than 100 people, but it was apparently very careful to avoid discovery; only 2 bodies were ever found. Several hunting parties were organized to eliminate the beast, but the only one to succeed was an Ambegaon-based hunter named Ismail. During his first attempt he had a direct confrontation with the animal and was almost killed, but returned to kill the man-eater. The cat predominately killed those village folks who slept outside their huts. Authenticity of the story was confirmed when the auther examined official reports, which also including a certificate given by the British authorities for killing the man-eating tiger.

Tara the killer tigressDudhwa National Park, situated in Uttar Pradesh (India) and famous for tigers, also had several man-eaters in the late 1970s. The first death took place on 2 March 1978, closely followed by 3 further killings. This terrorized the local population who started making pressures on the authorities to take action. People wanted the man-eater to be shot or poisoned. Before any concrete action could be taken killings continued, each one making headlines. Officials soon started to believe that the likely culprit was a tigress called Tara. Conservationist Billy Arjan Singh had taken a British-born tigress from Twycross Zoo and raised her in India, with the purpose of releasing her back into the wild. His experiments had also been carried out on leopards with some success.

Experts were of the opinion, as it happens with all captive-bred carnivores, Tara too would not have learnt the required skills and correct hunting techniques to survive in the wild and controversy surrounded the project. Again, as it happens with all hand-reared animals she also associated men with providing food and comfort, which increased the likelihood that she would have been frequenting villages for food which she could not otherwise catch in the wild on her own. Sooner authorities became convinced that it was nobody except Tara who is killing people. Before being shot she killed 24 people. Billy Arjan Singh also joined the hunt with the intent of identifying the man-eater, but the firm confirmation of the identity of the killer was never established. Consequently, the debate over the tiger’s identity is still continuing. Singh’s supporters continue to claim that the tiger was not Tara. However, officials maintain that the tiger was definitely Tara.

Dudhwa National Park has produced many other man-eaters, but Tara remains the most famous of them all because she was potentially the first captive-bred wild cat to be trained and released in the wild. This controversy created doubts about the success of Singh’s project. Occasional tiger attacks still occur in Dudhwa, but they are no higher than at other places. On an average, two persons are attacked at Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve each year. Such attacks generally occur during the rainy season when villagers enter the reserve to collect grass for their cattle.

Tigers accounted for the deaths of about 500 human beings and 20,000 cattle in a single district of the Bombay Presidency in 1822. Between 1902 and 1910, an average of 851 people were killed and eaten every year in India.

Genetic pollution

A hand-reared supposedly Bengal tigress, named Tara, was obtained from Twycross Zoo in England in July 1976. It was trained by Billy Arjan Singh and was reintroduced to the wild in Dudhwa National Park, situated along the Indo-Nepal border in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, with the permission of India’s then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in an attempt to prove that zoo-bred, hand-reared tigers can be released in the wild with success. In 1990s, some tigers from Dudhwa, a Tiger Reserve since 1879, were observed with the typical appearance of Siberian tigers, like pale fur, white complexion, wide stripes and large head. With recent advances in science, it was later found that Siberian tigers’ genes have polluted the otherwise pure Bengal tiger gene pool of Dudhwa National Park. After investigation it was established that Twycross Zoo had been irresponsible and maintained no breeding records and had given India a hybrid Siberian-Bengal tigress instead. Tigers in Dudhwa, which became a National Park in 1977 and adopted the Project Tiger in 1988, constitute about 1 per cent of India’s total wild population, but the possibility exists that the genetic pollution my spread to other tiger groups; there is danger that it could jeopardize the Bengal tiger as a distinct subspecies.

Man-eating in Sunderbans

Sundarban (translation: ‘Beautiful forests’) is in the vast delta on the Bay of Bengal (India) formed by the confluence of the Ganges (Ganga in Hindi), Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers across southern Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. It’s a place where Ganges meets the Indian Ocean, a huge expanse of mangrove covered islands and estuaries that change salinity with tides. This is the largest river delta and also the largest estuarine mangrove forest in the world. This large green patch is the home to the largest population of Royal Bengal tigers and also some of the world’s largest crocodiles, which can grow over 20 ft. long. Sunderban’s estuarine forest constitutes 80% of India’s total mangrove swamps. A World Heritage Site, the Sunderbans are also amongst the richest biosphere reserves in the subcontinent. It is the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world having twenty-six of the fifty broad mangrove types found in the world. In order to preserve this clearly unique biosphere, the area between River Hooghly and the River Teulia was declared a National Park in the year 1984. The protected reserve covers a stretch of 1,330sq km, and also constitutes the core zone of the National Park.

The seasonally-flooded Sundarbans freshwater swamp forests lie inland from the mangrove forests on the coastal fringe. The forest covers 10,000 sq. km. of stretch of which about 6,000 sq. km. is in Bangladesh. It became inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997, but while Bangladeshi and Indian portions constitute the same continuous ecotope, these are separately listed in the UNESCO world heritage list as the Sundarbans and Sundarbans National Park, respectively.

These forests are home to approximately 500 Bengal tigers, one of the largest single populations of tigers in one area. These tigers have become infamous for the substantial number of people they kill; estimates range from 50 to 250 people per year. Between 1975 and 1989, 521 people were killed in the Indian sector alone. They are not the only tigers who live in close proximity to humans; in Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh (India), villages encircle the tiger reserves, and yet attacks on people are rare. In Sunderbans, although attacks were stalled temporarily in 2004 with new precautions, recently attacks have been on the rise. This is particularly due to the devastation on the Bangladeshi side of the swamp caused by Cyclone Sidr which has deprived tigers of traditional food sources (due to the natural upheaval) and has pushed them over towards the more populated Indian side of the swamp.

In a news report from Dhaka (Bangladesh), a Forest Conservator Mr. Tapan Dey told a news agency that tiger attacks on humans have increased in last few years. In 2009, tigers had killed 50 people, which is the highest in this century so far. In 2007 the figure was only 24, less than the half. He attributed this phenomenon to the decreasing tiger habitat in the south-eastern region.  (Hindustan — August 01, 2010)


The locals and government officials take certain precautions to prevent attacks. Local fishermen will say prayers and perform rituals to the forest goddess, Bonbibi, before setting out on expeditions. Invocations to the tiger god Dakshin Ray are also considered a necessity by the local populace for safe passage throughout the Sundarbans area. Fishermen and bushmen originally created masks made to look like faces to wear on the back of their heads because tigers always attack from behind. This worked for a short time, but the tigers quickly realized it was a hoax, and the attacks continued. Government officials wear stiff pads that rise up the back of the neck, similar to the pads of an American football player. This is to prevent the tigers from biting into the spine, which is their favoured attack method.

Why Sunderban tigers attack?

There is no exact clue about why Sunderban tigers are so aggressive toward humans. Conservationists, scientists, biologists, and various other specialist groups give number of reasons for these attacks.

Being on the coastal area, the water here is relatively salty. In normal habitats, tigers drink fresh water. It is said that the saltiness of the water has put them in a state of constant discomfort, leading them to be extremely aggressive. Freshwater lakes have been artificially made but to no avail.

High tides, which are a regular feature in the area, wash away tiger’s urine and scat which serve as territorial markers. In such a situation the only way left is to defend the territory by physically dominating everything that enters.

There is another likelihood that the tigers here have become used to human flesh due to the weather. Cyclones in this part kill thousands of people almost every year, and the bodies drift out in to the swampy waters, where tigers scavenge them.

Tigers find hunting their normal prey difficult due to the continuous high and low tides making the area marsh-like and slippery. Humans who come to the forests to gather honey and to fish become easy prey. It is said that over time the cat has acquired a ‘taste’ for the human flesh. About 5,000 people frequent the swamps and waterways of the Sundarbans. Fishing boats traverse the area and many stop to collect firewood, honey and other items. In the dark forest, tigers find it easy to stalk and attack men absorbed in their work. Even fishermen in small boats have been attacked due to tigers’ strong swimming abilities.

It has also been hypothesized that the tigers in this area, due to their secluded habitat, avoided the brunt of the hunting sprees that occurred over the course of the 20th century. Tigers inhabiting the rest of Asia developed a fear of humans after these events, but tigers in the Sundarbans would never have had reason to stop seeing humans as prey.

Even at the rate people are being killed per year, humans provide only about three percent of the yearly food requirements for the tiger population in Sundarban. Therefore, despite the notoriety associated with this area, humans are only a supplement to the tiger’s diet; they are not a primary food source. To avoid attacks on humans villagers in the area have agreed to occasionally release livestock into the forest in order to provide an alternative food source for the tigers and discourage them from entering villages. The government has agreed to subsidize the project to encourage village participation.

True figures

The fact is that only three out of a thousand tigers resort to attacking people and still they have been labelled as man-eaters, which is quite inaccurate. Another fact is that even this low number of man-eaters has been enough to make the tiger responsible for more human deaths than any other predator.

It is said that, given the same human population base as the tiger encounters, the barren ground grizzly could rival the tiger for human attacks. Experts think the grizzly does not view man as prey, but simply doesn’t like them; this alone provides enough reason for attack.

Tigers also become good scapegoats. Police investigations of tiger attacks have sometimes produced evidence that the victim was actually murdered. In the past, both genuine and false tiger attacks have resulted in random revenge killings of the striped cat. In one 1967 case, 6 tigers were shot over a 10 day period; no one will ever know which tiger, if any, was the one responsible for the attack.

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