Man-eater is a colloquial term for an individual animal that preys on humans as a pattern of hunting behavior. This does not include the scavenging of corpses, a single attack born of opportunity or desperate hunger, or the incidental eating of a human that the animal has killed in self-defense. However, all three cases (especially the last two) may habituate an animal to eating human flesh or to attacking humans, and may foster the development of man-eating behavior.
Although human beings can be attacked by many kinds of animals, man-eaters are those that have incorporated human flesh into their usual diet and actively hunt and kill humans. Most reported cases of man-eaters have involved lions, tigers, leopards, and crocodilians. However, they are not the only predators that will attack humans if given the chance; a wide variety of species have also been known to adopt humans as usual prey, including bears, Komodo dragons and hyenas.
Tigers are recorded to have killed more people than any other big cat, and tigers have been responsible for more human deaths through direct attack than any other wild mammal. About 1,000 people were reportedly killed each year in India during the early 1900s, with one individual tiger killing 430 people in India. Tigers killed 129 people in the Sundarbans mangrove forest from 1969 to 1971. Unlike leopards and lions, man-eating tigers rarely enter human habitations in order to acquire prey. The majority of victims are reportedly in the tiger's territory when the attack takes place. Additionally, tiger attacks mostly occur during daylight hours, unlike those committed by leopards and lions. The Sundarbans is home to approximately 600 royal Bengal tigers who before modern times used to "regularly kill fifty or sixty people a year". In 2008, a loss of habitat due to the Cyclone Sidr led to an increase in the number of attacks on humans in the Indian side of the Sunderbans, as tigers were crossing over to the Indian side from Bangladesh.
A theory promoted to explain this suggests that since tigers drink fresh water, the salinity of the area waters serve as a destabilizing factor in the diet and life of tigers of Sundarbans, keeping them in constant discomfort and making them extremely aggressive. Other theories include the sharing of their habitat with human beings and the consumption of human corpses during floods.
Man-eating lions have been recorded to actively enter human villages at night as well as during the day to acquire prey. This greater assertiveness usually makes man-eating lions easier to dispatch than tigers. Lions typically become man-eaters for the same reasons as tigers: starvation, old age and illness, though as with tigers, some man-eaters were reportedly in perfect health.
The lion's proclivity for man-eating has been systematically examined. American and Tanzanian scientists report that man-eating behavior in rural areas of Tanzania increased greatly from 1990 to 2005. At least 563 villagers were attacked and many eaten over this period—a number far exceeding the more famed "Tsavo" incidents of a century earlier. The incidents occurred near Selous National Park in Rufiji District and in Lindi Province near the Mozambican border. While the expansion of villagers into bush country is one concern, the authors argue that conservation policy must mitigate the danger because, in this case, conservation contributes directly to human deaths. Cases in Lindi have been documented where lions seize humans from the centre of substantial villages. It is estimated that over 250 people are killed by lions every year.
Man-eating lions studies indicate that African lions eat humans as a supplement to other food, not as a last resort. In July 2018, a South African news website reported that three rhino poachers were mauled and eaten by lions at Sibuya Game Reserve in Eastern Cape province, South Africa.
Man-eating leopards are a small percentage of all leopards, but have undeniably been a menace in some areas; one leopard in India killed over 200 people. Jim Corbett was noted to have stated that unlike tigers, which usually became man-eaters because of infirmity, leopards more commonly did so after scavenging on human corpses. In the area that Corbett knew well, dead people are usually cremated completely, but when there is a bad disease epidemic, the death rate outruns the supply of cremation pyre wood and people burn the body a little and throw it over the edge of the burning ghat. In Asia, man-eating leopards usually attack at night, and have been reported to break down doors and thatched roofs in order to reach human prey. Attacks in Africa are reported less often, though there have been occasions where attacks occurred in daylight. Both Corbett and Kenneth Anderson have written that hunting the man eating panther presented more challenges than any other animal. In 2019 in India, an infant was stolen and decapitated by a leopard.
Jaguar attacks on humans are rare nowadays. In the past, they were more frequent, at least after the arrival of Conquistadors in the Americas. The risk to humans would increase if there were fewer capybaras, which the jaguars mainly preyed on.
Due to the expanding human population, cougar ranges increasingly overlap with areas inhabited by humans. Attacks on humans are very rare, as cougar prey recognition is a learned behavior and they do not generally recognize humans as prey. Attacks on people, livestock, and pets may occur when a puma habituates to humans or is in a condition of severe starvation. Attacks are most frequent during late spring and summer, when juvenile cougars leave their mothers and search for new territory. Unlike other big cat man-eaters, cougars do not kill humans as a result of old age or food preference, but in defense of their territory. Such behavior has been documented in hunts by humans, where the cougar is flushed out by dogs which it either outruns or mauls some distance away. Then, the cougar circles around and mauls the hunter in ambush attack.
The only documented man-eaters among the great apes are humans themselves and chimpanzees. As humans encroach further on chimpanzee habitat in Africa, the occurrence of chimpanzees killing human children has allegedly become more common. A cultural practice of cannibalism was practiced in some societies across the world, but was never widespread and is now very rare.
Contrasted to other carnivorous mammals known to attack humans for food, the frequency with which wolves have been recorded to kill people is rather low, indicating that, though potentially dangerous, wolves are among the least threatening for their size and predatory potential, except for the dog which poses lethal hazards for reasons other than predation. In the rare cases in which man-eating wolf attacks occur, the majority of victims are children. Habituation is a known factor contributing to some man-eating wolf attacks which results from living close to human habitations, causing wolves to lose their fear of humans and consequently approach too closely, much like urban coyotes. Habituation can also happen when people intentionally encourage wolves to approach them, usually by offering them food, or unintentionally, when people do not sufficiently intimidate them. This is corroborated by accounts demonstrating that wolves in protected areas are more likely to show boldness toward humans than ones in areas where they are actively hunted.
Attacks on humans by dingoes are rare, with only two recorded fatalities in Australia. Dingoes are normally shy of humans and avoid encounters with them. The most famous record of a dingo attack was the disappearance of nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain. Her parents reported that they both saw a dingo taking Azaria out of their tent when she and her family were out on a camping trip to Uluru. In 2019 in Australia, a father saved his 14-month old infant from a dingo which had dragged it away.
Although dogs have many of the characteristics of bears and Big Cats known to be man-eaters, they are unlikely to act as man-eaters themselves. Predatory acts by dogs upon humans have occurred, however, and many such incidents were the result of human misconduct. During World War II, Nazi prison guards such as Irma Grese and Kurt Franz reportedly set dogs upon live prisoners in Nazi concentration camps with the dogs killing the victims and partially devouring the corpses.
Almost all known predatory coyote attacks on humans have failed. To date, other than the Kelly Keen coyote attack and the Taylor Mitchell coyote attack, all known victims have survived by fighting, fleeing, or being rescued, and only in the latter case was the victim partially eaten, although that case occurred in Nova Scotia where the local animals are eastern coyotes (coywolves).
Polar bears, being almost completely unaccustomed to the presence of humans and therefore having no ingrained fear of them, will hunt people for food, though with the right precautions they are easily deterred. Although bears rarely attack humans, bear attacks often cause devastating injuries due to the size and immense strength of the giant land and shoreline carnivores. As with dogs, predatory intent is not necessary; territorial disputes and protection of cubs can result in death by bear attack. Truly man-eating bear attacks are uncommon, but are known to occur when the animals are diseased or natural prey is scarce, often leading them to attack and eat anything they are able to kill. In July 2008, dozens of starving brown bears killed two geologists working at a salmon hatchery in Kamchatka. After the partially eaten remains of the two workers were discovered, authorities responded by dispatching hunters to cull or disperse the bears.
While American black bears rarely attack people, lone, predatory black bears are responsible for most fatal black bear attacks on humans in the United States and Canada, according to a study from 2011. Unlike female bears, motivated to attack humans to protect cubs, male black bears actually prey on humans, viewing them as a potential food source.
Though usually shy and cautious animals, Asian black bears are more aggressive toward humans than the brown bears of Eurasia. Brown bears seldom attack humans on sight, and usually avoid people. They are, however, unpredictable in temperament, and will attack if they are surprised or feel threatened. In some areas of India and Burma, sloth bears are more feared than tigers, due to their unpredictable temperament.
Although hyenas readily feed upon human corpses, they are generally very wary of humans and less dangerous than the big cats whose territory overlaps with theirs. Nonetheless, both the spotted hyena and the smaller striped hyena are powerful predators quite capable of killing an adult human, and are known to attack people when food is scarce. Like most predators, hyena attacks tend to target women, children, and infirm men, though both species can and do attack healthy adult males on occasion. The spotted hyena is the more dangerous of the two species, being larger, more predatory, and more aggressive than the striped hyena. The brown hyena and aardwolf are not known to prey on humans.
Although not true carnivores, pigs are competent predators and can kill and eat helpless humans unable to escape them. Numerous animal trials in the Middle Ages involved pigs accused of eating children. In 2019, a woman was attacked and killed by a herd of feral hogs in rural Texas. She died due to exsanguination from bite wounds.
Crocodile attacks on people are common in places where crocodiles are native. The saltwater and Nile crocodiles are responsible for more attacks and more deaths than any other wild predator that attacks humans for food. Each year, hundreds of deadly attacks are attributed to the Nile crocodile within sub-Saharan Africa. Because many relatively healthy populations of Nile crocodiles occur in East Africa, their proximity to people living in poverty and/or without infrastructure has made it likely that the Nile crocodile is responsible for more attacks on humans than all other species combined. In Australia crocodiles have also been responsible for several deaths in the tropical north of the country. The Mugger crocodile is another man-eater that kills many people in Asia each year, although not to the same level as the Saltwater and Nile crocodiles. A lot of other crocodile species are also dangerous to humans, but most of the others will usually not actively try to hunt them.
Despite their manifest ability to kill prey similar to or larger than humans in size and their commonness in an area of dense human settlement (the southeastern United States, especially Florida), American alligators rarely prey upon humans. Even so, there have been several notable instances of alligators opportunistically attacking humans, especially the careless, small children, and elderly. Unlike the far-more dangerous saltwater and Nile crocodiles, the majority of alligators avoid contact with humans if possible, especially if they have been hunted. Incidents have happened, and they may not all have been predatory in nature.
Only very few species of snakes are physically capable of swallowing an adult human. Although quite a few claims have been made about giant snakes swallowing adult humans, only a limited number have been confirmed. In 2017 in Indonesia, an adult was discovered inside of a 7-metre-long (23 ft) python, and on June 14, 2018 a 54-year-old woman named Wa Tiba was eaten by a reticulated python, which had slithered into her garden at her home. Large constricting snakes will sometimes constrict and kill prey that are too large to swallow. Also, multiple cases are documented of medium-sized (3 m [9.8 ft] to 4 m [13 ft]) captive Burmese pythons constricting and killing humans, including several nonintoxicated, healthy adult men, one of whom was a "student" zookeeper. In the zookeeper case, the python was attempting to swallow the zookeeper's head when other keepers intervened. In addition, at least one Burmese python as small as 2.7 m (8.9 ft) constricted and killed an intoxicated adult man.
A large constricting snake may constrict or swallow an infant or a small child, a threat that is legitimate and empirically proven. Cases of python attacks on children have been recorded for the green anaconda, the African rock python, the Burmese python, and possibly the Australian scrub or amethystine python.
In the Philippines, more than a quarter of Aeta men (a modern forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer group) have reported surviving reticulated python predation attempts. Pythons are nonvenomous, ambush predators, and both the Aeta and pythons hunt deer, wild pigs, and monkeys, making them competitors and prey.
In South Africa in 2002, a 10-year-old boy was swallowed whole by a 6-metre-long (20 ft) African Rock Python, but cases like these are empirically observed and recorded, but not entirely confirmed unlike the cases mentioned above.
Large Komodo dragons are the only known lizard species to occasionally attack and consume humans. Because they live on remote islands, attacks are infrequent and may go unreported. Despite their large size, attacks on people are often unsuccessful and the victims manage to escape with severe wounds.
Some evidence supports the contention that the African crowned eagle occasionally views human children as prey, with a witness account of one attack (in which the victim, a seven-year-old boy, survived and the eagle was killed), and the discovery of part of a human child skull in a nest. This would make it the only living bird known to prey on humans, although other birds such as ostriches and cassowaries have killed humans in self-defense and a lammergeier might have killed Aeschylus by accident. Various large raptors like golden eagles are reported attacking human beings, but its unclear if they intend to eat them or if they have ever been successful in killing one.
Some fossil evidence indicates large birds of prey occasionally preyed on prehistoric hominids. The Taung Child, an early human found in Africa, is believed to have been killed by an eagle-like bird similar to the crowned eagle. The extinct Haast's eagle may have preyed on humans in New Zealand, and this conclusion would be consistent with Maori folklore. Leptoptilos robustus might have preyed on both Homo floresiensis and anatomically modern humans, and the Malagasy crowned eagle, teratorns, Woodward's eagle and Caracara major are similar in size to the Haast's eagle, implying that they similarly could pose a threat to a human being.
Contrary to popular belief, only a limited number of shark species are known to pose a serious threat to humans. The species that are most dangerous can be indiscriminate and will take any potential meal they happen to come across (as an oceanic whitetip might eat a person floating in the water after a shipwreck), or may bite out of curiosity or mistaken identity (as with a great white shark attacking a human on a surfboard possibly because it resembles its favoured prey, a seal).
Of more than 568 shark species, only four have been involved in a significant number of fatal unprovoked attacks on humans: the great white shark, tiger shark, bull shark, and the oceanic whitetip shark. These sharks, being large, powerful predators, may sometimes attack and kill humans; it is worth noting that they have all been filmed in open water by unprotected divers.
Attacks by piranhas resulting in deaths have occurred in the Amazon basin. In 2011, a drunk 18-year-old man was attacked and killed in Rosario del Yata, Bolivia. In 2012, a five-year-old Brazilian girl was attacked and killed by a shoal of P. nattereri. Some Brazilian rivers have warning signs about lethal piranhas.
Individual man-eater death tolls include: