Why do tigers attack humans?

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Jim Corbett and man-eating tiger

Tigers attack humans because humans can be prey animals to a tiger under certain circumstances. That’s the bottom line of it. Although the story isn’t as simple as that because tiger attacks on humans are quite rare when you put them in to perspective, bearing in mind the number of encounters between tigers and humans. If wild tigers were treating humans as a primary prey animal there would be many more attacks. Clearly the tiger does not regard the human as a natural prey animal and is, in fact, quite wary of humans but in the words of Jim Corbett a big cat hunter turned conservationist of a bygone era, “a man-eating tiger is a tiger that has been compelled, through stress of circumstances beyond his control, to adopt a diet that is alien to it. The stress of circumstances is, in nine cases out of 10, wounds and in the 10th, old age”.

So the kind of wild tiger who attacks a human is either old or infirm and unable to attack their usual large prey animals. And tigers need large animals to feed on because they are huge animals themselves.

Jim Corbett and man-eating tiger

Jim Corbett and man-eating tiger. Photo in the public domain.

Tigers also attack their owners in private zoos and visitors to private zoos. Once again this is because although they might look relatively tame when they are captive behind the bars of a cage, their predatory instincts will always come out driving them to attack prey. This instinct can be suppressed tremendously in semi-domesticated tigers but it is always there and cannot be completely quelled. Captive tigers are bored and have no opportunties to express their hunting desires until a human arrives on the scene.

Perhaps the place on the planet where tigers attack people the most is on the border between Bangladesh and India in a massive delta called the Sundarbans where tigers have to live and where thousands of locals receive permits to enter this tiger reserve to collect wood, fish and make a living. Between 1975 and 1989, 521 people were killed in the Indian portion of the Sundarbans of whom 82% were fishermen. It is estimated that between 100 to 150 people per year were being killed by tigers in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh. These figures are a bit out of date (1998) but they give a clear impression as to the numbers and it is because people and tigers were and still are pushed together unnaturally.

When people working in the Sundarbans wear a human face mask on the back of their head it dramatically reduces attacks by tigers. The idea is that tigers attack from behind so when the tiger is being looked at by the person it deters them. This clearly points to tigers being wary of humans. Humans are dangerous even to tigers and they are aware of this.

The human, after all, is the top predator on the planet and it’s been found that in certain parts of Africa leopards and lions have altered their behaviour to be active exclusively at night i.e. they become entirely nocturnal creatures, although it’s not entirely natural to them, in order to avoid people.

Some locals living in India say that when a tiger gets a taste for human blood they come back for more. And they have to be shot dead to stop them. I’m not sure if that is true but I would take the words of Jim Corbett as being true. The tigers of India attack people because they no longer have the ability to attack their usual large prey animals. And if a person gets attacked in their private zoo by their tiger it is because they’re living with the world’s largest cat and one of the world’s greatest predators who will instinctively attack and kill opportunistically.