Man and the Great Cats

By Warren D. Thomas, D.V.M., Zoo Director

This article originally ran in the March 1975 issue of Zoo View, the quarterly magazine of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association.

African Lion
Bengal Tiger

The Great Cats epitomize nature’s predatory realm. With their highly developed nervous systems, stereoscopic vision, and all the other attributes that go into the making of a successful predator, they are some of nature’s most adept examples of predatory animals. These animals live by the destruction of other animals; each with its own characteristics of survival.

The lion is the the only social member of the group, living in families called “prides.” The lioness is the primary food gatherer. For the most part, they hunt prey which is more agile and more fleet than they, so a technique has evolved where often two females hunt on a cooperative basis. One female acts as a decoy and driver, stampeding the prey animals into the path of the other lioness waiting in ambush.

The tiger, on the other hand, is a solitary hunter utilizing the classic stalk and short charge to obtain its prey. The lion and tiger rarely leave their back legs in making a kill. Their front legs and mouth are the primary killing implements. The most request cause of death to their prey is a broken neck or severed spinal cord. This procedure varies distinctly from the cheetah.

The cheetah is a flat-land speedster and literally runs down his prey. He is the world’s fastest four-footed animal, being able to accomplish speeds of 50-60 miles per hour in 200 yards. However, this explosive burst of speed is short-lived and most of the animals he preys on can outlast him with stamina. Therefore, before the cheetah makes his furious dash, he must be close enough to overhaul his intended victim very quickly. His method of kill differs from the other cats. He slaps his prey, knocks them off balance at a dead run, and fastens his jaws with an unyielding vicelike grip to their throat and windpipe. The prey simply dies of suffocation.

Of all the Great Cats, the most efficient killing machine is the leopard. He is lithe, graceful, and capable of prodigious feats of strength. He is a very adaptive and resourceful hunter, primarily obtaining his prey from ambush. His spotted or black coat makes him difficult to see in his native habitat. He has adapted to a wide range of environments, from the evergreen Tiga of Manchuria to the steaming jungles of South East Asia, from the fringe deserts of the Takla-makan of Central Asia to the fringes of the Kalahari of South Africa. The leopard is at home in almost any environment.

The lot of a great carnivore, however, is not all that we often think. It is easy to oversimplify and imagine that an animal as powerful and resourceful as a tiger or a leopard has a relatively easy time supporting himself in the wild. Recent observations have shown that this is not true, and often life hangs by a thin thread. Most great carnivores are only successful in one of every twenty-four attempts to make a kill. If prey is few and far between, a cat, even in its prime, can hang in a delicate balance between survival and starvation. Couple this intense pressure and struggle to survive with the fact that these great carnivores are themselves preyed upon by an even more successful predator called “man,” who has coveted their beautiful coats for his own personal adornment since before written history.

One of the fascinations that the great carnivores had for man is the fact that man has more than once become the object of their predation. In literature we read of this diabolical cat or that evil man-eater as if we are saying that these animals are some sort of criminal. By human standards, one human taking another’s life constitutes a criminal act. This can not be considered the case for a meat-eating animal, who is simply doing what nature has programmed him to do, and that is to destroy other animals simply to live. Actually, it is astonishing that man himself has not more often become the primary food of these Great Cats. Consider that man is very numerous, is not difficult to find, and unless he is armed, he is not a very formidable prey. He is easy to run down and dispatch once you catch him. Man, however, has not been a popular food for carnivores for several reasons. First, man is a very noisy, belligerent species that tends to repel almost all other species. Second, man’s odor is also a deterrent and thirdly, man’s bipedal or upright posture is so foreign to the rest of the animal kingdom that it too tends to repel. However, once a predator overcomes these deterrents, there is no reason why he should not prey upon man as easily as he would any other animal.

These encounters have not happened very often, but when it has happened, it has been spectacular. Some more notable examples would be the tigress known as the “Man-eater of Champawat,” who in her career of about 4-5 years killed over 200 people in Nepal and then later changed her area of hunting to India and killed over 234 people before she herself was destroyed by a superb hunter and naturalist names James Corbett. Then, there was the example of the man0eater of Rudjaprayang who turned out to be a male leopard. In this case the animal accounted for 125 known deaths and probably a great many more. Often, a rash of man-eaters would follow great epidemics in Africa or India. After World War I the death losses from influenza were so great that the corpses were not buried but thrown into the bush. Some tigers and leopards, who on occasion are scavengers, developed an affinity for human flesh. Occasionally, there are animals that show no obvious reason why they turn into man-eaters, such as the man-eaters of Tsavo, where two young male lions held up the construction of the Uganda railway for months. There was no apparent reason for their unusual eating habits. However, in spite of all the known cases, humans are rarely prey to the carnivores.

We humans have finally faced up to the fact that these predators are very necessary to the balance of nature. Now laws exist to help protect these magnificent animals from total destruction. Fortunately, most of them reproduce readily in captivity, and if given a chance are capable of making spectacular recoveries from critical low numbers in the wild. With our help and protection, hopefully, the Great Cats will have a place in the world of tomorrow.


This article originally ran in the March 1975 issue of Zoo View, the award-winning quarterly publication of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. A subscription is complimentary with any level of membership.