Amur tiger (photo by Iain Wanless)
I have never known any other animal, besides humans, to kill just on principle-that is, because the other belongs to a different species. We don't think of animals, even tigers, as capable of revenge. Animals we keep in captivity, of course, such as orcas and elephants, do feel vengeful toward us, and sometimes kill us. But in the case of this particular tiger, he really wanted to hunt down the man who tried to kill him. How human.
But while tigers kill humans, we would not normally say they prey on us. In the Sundarbans of Bangladesh, 100 to 150 people are killed every year by tigers; in the rest of the world humans are not really part of their diet and tigers avoid us. The reason for the disparity seems to have something to do with tradition. Culture, if you like: tigers see other tigers kill and eat humans and they imitate them. But the comment by Jim Corbett, who was once a lion and tiger hunter, still stands many years later: "A man-eating tiger is a tiger that has been compelled through stress of circumstances beyond its control, to adopt a diet that is alien to it. The stress of circumstances is, in nine cases out of ten, wounds, and in the tenth, old age." Man-eating tigers almost always carry old wounds, often the result of being shot by hunters. Isn't it logical to think the tigers knew they had human predators, and fought back? Tigers killing humans is more or less unknown in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Sumatra. In most places on the Indian subcontinent, tigers do not kill humans.
While we may never entirely understand the reason for the high number of humans killed in the Sundarbans, a successful and remarkably inventive method has been discovered to help end the killings. Since it is known that tigers attack from behind,not face-to-face, the area's 8,000 honey collectors were outfitted with rubber face masks to wear on the back of their heads. The next year, not one person wearing the mask was killed, but 29 people who temporarily removed the masks were. What this shows is that the tigers are merely opportunists.Emotions just do not enter into the picture. If the tigers are convinced they are seen, they do not attempt to kill. The reason has to do with safety: no tiger wishes to engage in risky behavior if he or she might get hurt in the process.
If lions and tigers rarely kill humans, what about the big cats killing one another? In a book considered the most thorough study of African leopards ever done, Theodore Bailey writes: "Fighting among leopards was rare . . . Actual fighting among highly specialized carnivores is not advantageous to their physical well being and survival." While fighting is uncommon, it has been observed from time to time: "Fights are usually of brief duration and fights seldom result in the death of either of the combatants. Apparently most fights between males occur when one male is attempting to establish himself in an area already occupied by a resident male."
The most elaborate study of lions remains respected naturalist George Schaller's "The Serengeti Lion," in which there is a description of six lions killed by other lions. Schaller mentions two other authors who also describe instances of lions killing each other. A weird thing about lions is that sometimes the male will chase away females to make certain that cubs eat; at other times, the cubs can actually starve as the adults prevent them from eating after a kill. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mammals acknowledges this behavior, but the editor also points out: "These ‘Maneaters of Tsavo' were themselves the victims of human activity, for just a few years earlier Europeans had inadvertently imported a cattle virus that decimated wild ungulates as well as livestock, leaving little for the lions to eat."
Schaller writes about mortality in young lions and adult lions:
"Of 23 male and female lions 2 years old and older, resident in the Masai and Seronera prides in June 1966, one male was killed in a fight, another male probably died of wounds incurred in a fight,one female died of old age, a second one, also old, was last seen in poor condition and unquestionably died, and a third female suddenly disappeared with one of her two cubs and possibly was killed by other lions. At the end of 1969 eighteen of the original members were left." In other words, 5.5 percent per year were killed, and Schaller did not see a single instance of a female killed by a male. I think that lions are so well endowed with weapons in their claws that even if they do not intend to kill, a wound can end up killing. I see this in my domestic cats: they can be dangerous because they have such sharp claws and are often bad-tempered. But they definitely intend to scare, not to kill. Meghala will sit on my lap, contentedly purring, until I do something he does not like.Then he does not hesitate to sink his claws into me, even to the point of drawing blood. He doesn't seem to feel bad about it at all, even if I do.