Tiger in March 2001 at Ranthambhore, India © Don Roberson (above)
Tyger Tyger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
If there is a single “Monster of God,” it is the Tiger Panthera tigris.
More than 200 years ago William Blake wondered whether his God had
created such a magnificent monster [see the full poem in sidebar to the
The word's largest cat and perhaps
the most feared land predator, large male Tigers may reach a total body
length of up to 3.3 m (11 ft.) and weigh up to 306 kg (675 lb).
Although normally elusive and often actively avoiding interactions with
people, some opine that Tigers are responsible for more human deaths
from direct attack that any other wild mammal (Novak 1999). There have
been various notable man-eaters within the Indian subcontinent. The
Champawat Tiger, a tigress with broken canines and thus rendered unable
to capture usual prey, was responsible for 430 deaths in northeast
India. She was shot by Jim Corbett in 1907 (Corbett 1946).
(1946) wrote that "the frequency with which a man-eating tiger kills
depends on (a) the supply of natural food in the area in which it is
operating, (b) the nature of the disability which has caused it to
become a man-eater, and (c) whether it is a male or a female with
cubs." Most of the man-eaters shot by Corbett proved to have painful
disabilities (broken teeth, embedded porcupine quills) that made
acquiring natural food difficult. But coming upon a tigress and cub is
also dangerous. Sadly, a friend of mine (David Hunt) was killed by such
a tigress in Corbett NP while leading a birding tour; he left the group
to go into the forest to locate a tiger he had heard about, and was
killed and partially eaten (see Bill Oddie's 'foreword' to Hunt's 1985
Quammen's (2003) book includes a chapter on Tigers, but his focus is the near-mythical Siberian Tiger subspecies, P. t. altaica,
more accurately termed the Amur Tiger [there are actually no tigers
within the inland province called Siberia in Russia; rather, their
range is in the Russian Far East, within the watershed of the Amur
River, adjacent to northeastern China]. The people here are Udege, an
indigenous tribe of Mongol stock. Quammen visits this remote locale,
spends a lot of time in the bitter cold drinking vodka and listening to
village gossip, but never sees a tiger. The Amur Tiger remains little
known and very difficult to observe.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
William Blake (1794 )
traditional terms, Tigers have been split into 8 subspecies (3 of them
now extinct) but recent genetic studies have found little evidence to
support this level of differentiation (Sunquist & Sunquist 2009).
For most of us, the best chance to see a wild tiger is in India or
Nepal, where the population involved is called the Bengal Tiger (the
nominate subspecies P. t. tigris). It is the most common
remaining Tiger population and yet it is endangered, with estimates of
less than 2500 adults. For the most part the remnant populations are
limited to a few Tiger reserves and National Parks. When Rita and I and
two friends visited India in 2001, we structured our trip for the March
dry season when chances to see Tiger would be at their highest. We were
lucky to have good success, seeing Tigers on 3 of our 4 game drives in
Ranthambhore: a total of four different individuals (one large male
seen on two drives, one young male, and two females, one of which was
in heat and calling). Note, though, that we missed it during one
half-day drive in prime time and habitat — one should not rely solely
on a one-day visit to a reserve if seeing a Tiger is priority! Late in
our trip another male crossed the track in front of our jeep on the
final stretch of the last day's drive in Kaziranga NP, Assam, India — a
truly unexpected wild tiger. It dashed into a roadside bush (flushing
up our only Chestnut-capped Babbler Timalia pileata of the trip!) and then stuck its head back out to look at us in what Dan Singer called the most memorable moment of the trip.
Tiger in March 2001 at Ranthambhore, India © Don Roberson (above)
Lion on 6 Aug 2002 in Tarangire NP, Tanzania © Don Roberson (below)
Until the late Pleistocene, Lion Panthera leo
was the most widespread large land mammal on earth (after humans),
ranging across much of the Old World. With the end of the ice ages,
humans have spread further. Lions have declined. Today they exist only
in sub-Saharan Africa, with a tiny population still in the Gir Forest
of India. In Monster of God (2003), it was the Gir Forest lions and their interactions with local villagers, that Quammen explored.
lions do not typically hunt people, some have sought human prey. In the
well-publicized case involved the "Tsavo man-eaters," perhaps 50 or so
workers building the Kenya-Uganda Railway were eaten by lions during
the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya in 1898
(Patterson 2004; in the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness
the attacks are attributed to two brother lions). The record for
man-eating is not the Tsavo brothers, but a entire pride in what is now
Tanzania during the early 1930s through the late 1940s. Three
generations of lions are thought to have eaten 1,500 to 2,000 people
(Rushby 1965). Even in recent years, it is estimated that 200
Tanzanians are killed each year by lions, crocodiles, elephants,
hippos, and snakes, and that the numbers could be double that amount,
with lions thought to kill at least 70 of those; Packer et al. (2005).
Lions have attacked people even within large villages. A study of 1,000
people attacked by lions in southern Tanzania between 1988 and 2009
found that the weeks following the full moon (when moonlight declines)
were correlated to increased night attacks on people; Packer et al.
On the other hand, researchers have lived
with lions for years without being attacked [e.g., Mark & Delia
Owens's work in Botswana (1985)], and there is context between lions,
prey, and people that depend on location and circumstances. Hordes of
tourists observe lions peacefully among the great National Parks of
course one is keenly aware just how misleading wildlife photography can
be. What looks like a close encounter with a sleeping lion (left) is
actually a gaggle of a dozen jeeps surrounding a bored and acclimatized
beast (right; © D. Roberson).
there is something unsettling just being in "lion country." During
apartheid, many Mozambican refugees crossing the border into Kruger
National Park, South Africa, were killed at night by lions; Frump
(2006). Rita and I spent most of a week in Kruger NP in post-apartheid
South Africa in 1996. One is required to stay within your car at all
times when driving in the park — except for designated picnic areas and
camps — for one's own safety. We enjoyed following some roads away from
the main tourist drives, and occasionally one does need to stop to
answer the call of nature. After doing so one morning, we got back in
the vehicle and turned the very next corner to find these two lionesses
standing in the middle of the road (true story; below). It is wonderful
to be close to nature . . . but perhaps not too close.
Lions July 1996 in Kruger NP, South Africa © Don Roberson (above)
Leopard Aug 2002 in Tarangire NP, Tanzania © Don Roberson (in tree at dusk, below)
In Man-Eaters of Kumaon
(1946), dealing with the situation in India, Jim Corbett wrote that "in
the case of human beings killed by carnivora, the doubt is often
expressed as to whether the animal responsible for the kill is a tiger
or leopard. As a general rule — to which I have seen no exceptions —
tigers are responsible for all kills that take place in daylight, and
leopards are responsible for all kills that take place in the dark."
So it is the Leopard Panthera pardus
that, in Asia at least, is the alpha predator of the dark. In Africa,
lions and hyenas both hunt after dark, so there is more competition.
Tiger and Lion are endangered, but Leopard is not. The Leopard's
success as a species is due to "its opportunistic hunting behavior, its
adaptability to habitats, its unequaled ability to climb trees when
carrying a heavy carcass, and its notorious ability for stealth." It is
the great generalist of the big cats, and it ranges from rainforests to
Leopard Panthera pardus
is a distinct species. Once divided into as many as 24 subspecies,
recent genetic evidence essentially reduces that named diversity to
three major clades — African, Indian, and Central Asian — with isolated
subspecies from Southeast Asia and China to Java (Sunquist &
Sunquist 2009). Leopard should not be confused with Snow Leopard Panthera uncia or the two species of Clouded Leopards [Indochinese Clouded Leopard Neofelis nebulosa and Diardi's Clouded Leopard N. diardi], none of which are man-eaters.
(1946) wrote that "Those who have never seen a leopard under favorable
conditions in his natural surroundings can have no conception of the
grace of movement, and beauty of coloring, of this the most graceful
and the most beautiful of all animals in our Indian jungles. Nor are
his attractions limited to outward appearances for, pound for pound,
his strength is second to none, and in courage he lacks nothing."
to man-eating, Corbett thought that, in addition to disabilities that
hinder capture of normal prey, leopards acquire a taste for human flesh
when scavenging on corpses thrown into the jungle during an epidemic.
He wrote: "A leopard, in an area in which his natural food is scarce,
finding these bodies very soon acquires a taste for human flesh, and
when the disease dies down and normal conditions are established, he
very naturally, on finding his food supply cut off, takes to killing
human beings." Of the two man-eating leopards of Kumaon, which between
them killed 525 people, the " 'Panar Leopard' followed on the heels of
a very severe outbreak of cholera, while the 'Rudraprayag Leopard'
followed the mysterious disease which swept through India in 1918 and
was named 'war fever' "[i.e., the influenza pandemic]. Corbett tracked
and shot them both.
This young Leopard (right) is
simply yawning, both does show a nice set of canines. Although Leopards
do not typically dominate one's nightmares —as Lions or Tigers may do —
they can be very dangerous. When visiting Kruger NP, South Africa,
1996, we were told that a guard — sleeping in a guardhouse at one of
the designated camps — had been killed just that year by a Leopard
leaping through an open window and attacking him. Big game hunter
Kenneth Anderson described man-eating Leopards as bolder and far more
threatening than tigers, but also more difficult to track: "Because of
his smaller size he can conceal himself in places impossible to a
tiger, his need for water is far less, and in veritable demoniac
cunning and daring, coupled with the uncanny sense of self preservation
and stealthy disappearance when danger threatens, he has no equal."
Famed African naturalist Jean-Pierre Hallet fought and killed a Leopard
that launched an unprovoked attack on a friend during a walk in the
forest. Hallet used only his knife and the stump of his arm to subdue
the cat [he had lost a hand while dynamiting fish to feed villagers
during a famine; see Congo Kitabu (1965)].
a Leopard in the wild is quite difficult in Asia (I've not seen one
there), but is more regular in the open savanna of some African parks,
including Mara, Serengeti, and Tarangire in east Africa. The latter
park — with a wider variety of habitats and not dominated by Lions (as
are the Mara and Serengeti, for example) — provided us much success
during a brief few days, in which we saw a Leopard or two almost every
day in the dry season.
Leopard on 5 Aug 2002 in Tarangire NP, Tanzania © Don Roberson (both photos above)
Jaguar on 22 July 2010 along Rio Cuiabá, Brazil © Don Roberson (below)
Jaguar Panthera onca
is the third-largest cat in the world (after Tiger and Lion) and is the
alpha predator of the Neotropics. It has a huge range from Mexico (and
rarely in the southwestern United States) to northern Argentina, and
uses habitats from dense lowland rainforest to the open Pantanal
wetlands. As a spotted cat it may recall a Leopard, but has more
complex rosettes across its sides and back; is usually larger and of
sturdier build; and has a broader head and neck. Some have pointed out
that its behavior is closer to that of a Tiger. It is strongly
associated with the presence of water and is, along with Tiger, a cat
that enjoys swimming.
Jaguar is a compact and
well-muscled cat; males are substantially larger than females. Larger
males have been recorded to weigh as much as 160 kg (350 lb), roughly
matching a Sumatran Tiger or a lioness. Jaguars in the Pantanal are the
largest of the Jaguars, about 50% larger by weight than those in the
Amazon and about 100% larger than those in northern Middle America.
Recent genetic work indicates there are only two major populations —
one from Mexico to northern South America, and the other from Peru and
Brazil south through the Pantanal — rather than nine subspecies as
previously thought (Sunquist & Sunquist 2009).
is largely a solitary, opportunistic, stalk-and-ambush predator at the
top of its food chain. It plays an important role in stabilizing
ecosystems and regulating the populations of the animals it hunts.
Jaguar is a stalk-and-ambush rather than a chase predator. The cat’s
ambushing abilities are considered extraordinary by both indigenous
people and field researchers.
had long wanted to see a Jaguar in the wild. Rita & I undertook a
private tour of the Pantanal in 1999, during which we requested a
special emphasis on the search for Jaguar. With local guides we went
driving back roads at night; we did evening canoe rides on small rivers
(and heard one); and we found fresh scat and fresh footprints (below)
on a sandy road early one morning. We had driven that road slowly just
the night before. But we missed seeing a Jaguar.
Jaguar footprint in Aug 1999 in Brazilian Pantanal © D. Roberson
have changed dramatically since our 1999 visit to the Brazilian
Pantanal. Focused Jaguar studies began in the early 21st century within
the Cuiabá River watershed. It was learned that a reasonably
successful way to see Jaguars was to search the riverbanks during the
day from boats. With a couple of friends, Rita & I returned to the
Pantanal in 2010. This time — after several days' search —we had close
encounters with two different Jaguars — a male and a separate female —
along river-edges. Nothing is quite so thrilling as to be sitting in a
small boat just a few yards from the shoreline when a big male Jaguar
suddenly appears from out of the forest (photo above).
Donahue advises that researchers have positively identified 83 Jaguars
in the Cuiabá River area since work began there in 2004. Our
large male with a torn left ear (above) was new to the area. As our
photos were among the first of this particular male, we were permitted
to propose his research name. Since we were told he had been observed
consorting with a female named "Alexandra,"we proposed the name
"Nicolas," which was initially adopted. But another tourist also had a
photo and proposed a different name ("Peter Schmidt") and since that
tourist had booked his trip with the research company, ultimately his
name was chosen. Donahue now advises that "Nicolas/Peter Schmidt" has
been radio-collared by another research group — something these cats
hate; they sometimes injure themselves trying to remove the collar — so
an encounter with "Nicolas/Peter Schmidt" would no longer be quite as
primeval as our jungle-edge view.
"Patricia" in July 2013 Brazilian Pantanal © Paul Donahue
Jaguar shown just above is a female named "Patricia." Donahue says that
she is "a gentle-looking two-year-old female who was the most accepting
of boats of any of our Jaguars." Even so, Donahue reminds us that she
is very much a wild and dangerous animal.
is generally thought that Jaguars rarely attack humans, and (like
Tigers and Leopards) many such attacks were by cats that were either
old, wounded, or had damaged teeth. Further, some attacks are
defensive. Researcher Paul Donahue was once charged by a Jaguar when he
inadvertently approached too closely to the large cat eating its prey.
A Jaguar can easily kill a person, and occasionally does.
advises that there have been three relatively recent attacks in their
Pantanal research area: "The first was when a mother and nearly
full-grown cub ripped into the tent of a sleeping fisherman and ate
him. The father of the deceased subsequently went on a rampage, killing
about 15 Jaguars in retaliation. In the second incident a Jaguar leapt
into the boat of a local fisherman and attacked him. The fisherman
escaped, but with a serious bite to his face. The third and most recent
incident again involved fishermen. Three sport fishermen were fishing
from a boat anchored fairly close to shore. Two were facing one
direction while the third was facing the other way. The two felt a
movement and looked around to see that a Jaguar had swum up to the
boat, reached up and snagged their companion and was making off with
him. They grabbed paddles and began beating the Jaguar over the head —
fortunately saving their friend's life."
have the most powerful bite of any of the cats, even more powerful than
the larger Lions and Tigers. This allows it to pierce the shells of
armored reptiles and to employ an unusual killing method — it may bite
directly through the skull of prey between the ears to deliver a fatal
bite to the brain. Alternatively, the powerful bite may go to the neck
Paul Donahue’s photo series of an
attack on a large Yacare Caiman (a few of which are shown below) are
the most incredible shots that I have ever seen of a Jaguar — and they
clearly illustrate the power of this incredible cat. Donahue says that
"The cat in his photos is Mick Jaguar, one of two very large males we
observed regularly this past season, [who was] about the meanest
looking of our Jaguars."
Jaguar attack on Yacare Caiman Caiman yacare on 25 Aug 2013 in the Pantanal, Brazil © Paul Donahue (above)
Click below for the next page of this project
OR use these LINKS to the SPECIES PAGES
Photos: All photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise attributed; all rights reserved.
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Corbett, J. 1946. Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.
Frump, R.R. 2006. The Man-Eaters of Eden: Life and Death in Kruger National Park. The Lyons Press.
Hallet, J.-P. 1965. Congo Kitabu. Random House, New York.
Hunt, D. 1985. Confessions of a Scilly Birdman. Christopher Helm, Ltd., London.
Novak, R. M. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. 6th edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Owens, M. & D. 1985. Cry of the Kalahari. Robert Hartnoll Ltd., London.
C., D. Ikanda, B. Kissui, and H. Kushnir. 2005. Conservation biology:
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Quammen, D. 2003. Monster of God: the Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind. Scribner, New York.
Rushby, G. 1965. No More the Tusker. London: W. H. Allen.
Sunquist, M.E., and F.C. Sunquist. 2009. "Felidae (Cats)," pp. 54–169 in Handbook of the Mammals of the World, Vol. 1 (D.E. Wilson & R.A. Mittermeier, eds). Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.