Of the most fascinatingly morbid stories in the animal kingdom, the issue of man-eating is probably the most well documented one. Lions, tigers, leopards, brown bears and wolves have all been labelled as man-eaters.

In 1898, two Tsavo male lions reportedly killed over 200 individuals, bringing the plan to build the Kenya-Uganda railway to a halt. This horrific incident was finally brought to an end by Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson when he killed the first lion on 9th December 1898 and the second one 3 weeks after. These 10 months of fear and repeated failings in capturing the culprits received huge media attention and even prompted the making of the films Bwana Devil in 1952 and The Ghost and the Darkness in 1996. These male lions did not have manes which led the men to think they were lionesses instead, extending the period of terror.

In more recent times, the Sundarbans, the largest single block of mangrove forest in the world, is plagued with man-eating tigers. It covers parts of India and Bangladesh and its inaccessible terrain is the perfect home for man-eaters. These tigers are known to be exceptionally bold and would even swim to the middle of the river and jump onto boats to attack humans. Because of the topography of the Sundarbans, it is almost impossible for hunters to track down these man-eaters.

So where do these animals get a taste for human flesh? Are the causes natural? Or is there something darker that will forever be a mystery?

There have been many theories as to why these animals resort to hunting men. For one, these animals are usually sick and old. This causes them to be slower and makes it harder for them to bring down their natural prey. This argument stemmed from the discovery of a root-tip abscess in the lower canine of one of the notorious man-eating Tsavo lions. Furthermore, these males probably had a harder time maintaining a territory seeing that they had no manes. This forced them to be nomads, living on the outskirts of other prides and having to travel large distances to find prey. The number of workers involved in the construction of the railway was probably seen as an abundance of easy prey. Furthermore, normal lions usually shun human company, making the railway site a safe haven for these males.

Another belief on why animals resort to including men in their diets is a shortage of their natural prey. An outbreak of cattle plague that dramatically reduced natural prey, such as gnu and zebra, was also believed to have been a cause of the Tsavo incident. The harsh terrain of the Sundarbans is not suitable for large prey species such as the Sambar deer. This could have been a factor to why the tigers started killing humans. This is supported by the fact that despite close proximity with tigers in India’s Bandhavgarh National Park, there have been no reports of man-eating tigers, where their natural prey is in abundance.

In addition, the habitat of these man-eaters may also have been a motivating factor in hunting men. For instance, the high salinity of the water in the Sundarbans is thought to have caused the tigers there to be highly aggressive, driving them to hunting men who they would normally have avoided.

Finally, this act of consuming flesh is thought to have been a consequence of human sacrifice still practiced in India. This was also the case in Tsavo, when the cremation of Hindu railroad workers enabled the lions to routinely scavenge and hence, develop a taste of human flesh. In Guangdong, there are thought to be giant man-eating catfish which have developed a preference for human flesh based on this reason.

These are all arguments that have been proposed over the years with regards to man-eating. However, this cannot disregard the fact that some of these man-eaters just do not fit those bills. Some of them are in their prime, live in a habitat full of prey and yet, they still actively seek out men. This taste of men could have been passed down from mother to young, creating a line of man-eaters. Efforts to prevent man-eating, such as wearing masks on the back of heads to give the impression that the killer is being watched, have only proved effective temporarily. The animals soon see through the disguise and continue their human-killing spree.

This dark side of the animal kingdom will inevitably be part of our lives. It is indeed a harsh reality that we are not on the top of the food chain, and if they wanted to, these animals could so easily strike back. If anything, it offers a sense of humility that is so often forgotten in our beliefs that we have conquered the world. These animals deserve respect. Don’t get me wrong! I am not supporting the view that men should get killed and eaten by animals. All I hope is that we could all learn from this to learn to respect, understand, tolerate and hopefully, come to terms with nature and embrace all that comes with it.

Only by respecting will we understand,
Only by understanding will we tolerate,
Only by tolerating will we accept,
And by accepting, we love.