Tool use, technology and cooperation have allowed humans to claw their way to the top of the predatory heap. As a species we can and do kill anything and everything. Sometimes we kill for food, sometimes for profit and sometimes for fun. Very occasionally we also kill for self protection.
Humans have been largely off the menu for quite some time – and although people are still killed and eaten by large predators with some regularity (perhaps a hundred or so a year), humans are not the first prey of choice for any species of carnivore – it’s just that some individuals within a species will develop a taste for human. When there are attacks on people it will usually be because there has been a blurring of borders between a human habitat and the habitat of the predator. The most obvious example of this is when humans are occasionally taken by sharks whilst in the sea or by crocodiles in lakes and rivers.
Staying on land, the blurring of borders between predators and people is linked with habitat loss and the encroachment of human development, agriculture and habitation, with the associated issues of deforestation and re-purposing of land. The development of infrastructure brings humans into wilderness, such as with the Tsavo bridge project in Kenya, where a pair of lions terrorised construction workers for ten months in 1898, eating about 35 and possibly killing around 135.
As habitat is lost, predators are faced with fewer natural prey and they are thrust into close proximity with domesticated animals – with obvious consequences. Where you have livestock being killed you also have people trying to protect their livelihood and this is where the conflict really heats up, taking its toll on both the people and the predators. There can be no winners.
The real problem is when carnivores get used to the idea of humans being food. This is a stark reality in the Sunderbans of India/Bangladesh, where human is quite definitely on the menu for the local tiger population. Similarly there is a long history of lions taking people in Africa, something that is an ongoing problem in places like Southern Tanzania. However, most carnivores don’t get used to humans as food without some sort of catalyst – perhaps a shortage of natural prey, unburied bodies providing remains that can be scavenged or an injury that forces the animal to seek easy prey.
This last reason is of particular interest to me, as I have seen the skulls of several maneaters and they have all shown some kind of damage to the teeth or jaws. In fact my favourite museum specimen is a maneating tiger in the stores of the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. What makes it so interesting is the extreme nature of the injury it had sustained and managed to survive – the lower jaw had been smashed and had rehealed so badly that some of the teeth of the mandible had cut a hole through the palate. There is more on this specimen at the Raptor’s Nest blog by the awesome Manabu Sakamoto.
We also have a maneating tiger skull at the Horniman and although it doesn’t have such spectacular pathologies, it does show what old age and hard wear can do to the teeth of a tiger.
To give you an idea of what an adult tiger’s teeth need to be like in order to deliver a killing bite to their normal prey, here’s a comparison (it’s worth noting that even the teeth of the non-maneater show significant wear from the hard use they are put to):
Even the meat-slicing carnassial teeth show substantial wear:
But teeth aside, a tiger (or any carnivorous animal) can only turn maneater if the opportunity arises – and if the opportunity arises there is a chance that they will turn maneater regardless of the state of their teeth. After all, carnivores eat meat and humans provide an easy snack compared to the bigger, stronger, better defended and more alert prey out there. Children in particular are vulnerable to attacks by predators, since they are even easier prey than human adults.
In Britain it is largely taken for granted that carnivores don’t pose much threat to people, apart from the occasional dog attack. That’s because the large carnivores that did pose a real threat to people (like wolves and bears) were hunted to extinction centuries ago. Nonetheless, we need to remember that there are still carnivores out there and the borders between our habitat and theirs has almost completely dissolved, which has led to the occasional attack on vulnerable individuals. I am of course talking about urban foxes, some of which have become so familiarised with humans that they can occasionally pose a bit of a hazard to young babies, toddlers and the elderly.
Most foxes maintain a healthy wariness around people that prevents this sort of problem. However, the enjoyment that many city-dwellers derive from watching the antics of these wild animals in their back yard encourages some people to feed foxes by hand, thereby reinforcing the association between people and food. This is a local and fairly inconsequential example of the same issue that leads to maneaters in other places.
We should remember that humans are made of meat. We may be the top predators on the planet as a species, but not every other animal knows that and sometimes barriers are a good thing to maintain for the safety of the inhabitants on both sides. With foxes the broken barriers result in nipped fingers or in the worst case some mauled babies. In the Sunderbans and in Tanzania the broken barriers result in death and suffering for individuals and terror for whole communities. With foxes the barriers are broken by individuals hand-feeding for their own enjoyment, but in the Sunderbans and Tanzania the barriers are broken by wider issues of climate change, over-population and habitat destruction – something that we are all responsible for.