Hunters and the Hunted

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A Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer), photographed at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Outside of the trash-grubbing black bears I occasionally come across when driving to hikes in northern New Jersey, I never encounter large predators near my home. The imposing carnivores which once roamed the "garden state" were extirpated long ago. This is a very unusual thing. For the majority of the past six million years or so hominins have lived alongside, and have regularly been hunted by, an array of large carnivorous animals, but humans have not been entirely helpless. Rather than a one-sided war, our relationship with large predators is a deeply-rooted and complex exchange in which we have eventually come to fret over the survival of the animals we have traditionally feared.

The contents of a cave in Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain emphasize the long-running tensions between our species and large carnivores. Described in the Journal of Archaeological Science by Ruth Blasco, Jordi Rosell, Juan Luis Arsuaga, José M. Bermúdez de Castro, and Eudald Carbonell, the Middle-Pleistocene-age level TD10-1 of the Gran Dolina cave preserves a moment in time in which the hunted may have become the hunters. Along with stone tools, level TD10-1 contains the remains of bears, wolves, horses, elk, bison, lions, and other animals. Many of the herbivore bones bear cutmarks made by stone tools, but, interestingly enough, so do a lion fingerbone and rib. The additional presence of a lion lower arm bone (a radius) fractured as if it was slammed against something or whacked with a stone hammer suggests that the humans occupying the cave ate just about everything on the lion that was edible, from meat to marrow, and after they left small carnivores entered the cave to gnaw on the scraps still clinging to the carcass.


Cut marks on the rib of a lion from Gran Dolina cave. From Blasco et al. 2010.

The evidence is clear that humans butchered the lion to which these bones once belonged, but how they obtained the carcass is uncertain. Even though hunting a lion is a dangerous prospect, such events have been recorded among modern people, particularly the Maasai in which killing a lion is part of cultural initiation rites, and so the researchers assert that this particular lion was hunted in a rare episode by the people living in Gran Dolina. Yet this is not the only possible scenario. Perhaps the humans stumbled across a recently dead lion or killed a lion which was prowling around the area out of defense and decided not to let good meat go to waste. The hunting scenario is certainly plausible, but it is not the only possible way in which the events could be reconstructed.

The cutmarked lion bones may indicate that prehistoric humans did not always come out the losers during interactions with large predators, yet the rarity of cutmarked carnivore bones attests to the danger creatures like lions presented. Even if lion tasted good, it wasn't worth the risk to go hunting it regularly, and despite our present ability to defend ourselves against or kill large predators there are still places in the world where people are still killed and eaten by big carnivores. One such place is Mozambique, a poverty stricken nation in southeastern Africa, and according to a new report by Kevin Dunham, Andrea Ghiurghi, Rezia Cumbi, and Ferdinando Urbano wildlife killed 265 people there between July 2006 and September 2008 (though, as the authors point out, the incidence of attacks on people is still low compared to raids by wildlife on crops or the number of domestic animals killed by predators).

The short list of animals responsible for the majority of the deaths - Nile crocodiles, lions, elephants, and hippos - was not surprising. As magnificent as they are, they are also extremely dangerous, and their presence is simply a fact of life for people in poor, rural areas. What was remarkable about the collected reports, however, was that it was just one species which was responsible for the majority of reported attacks which concentrated in the southern part of the country - the Nile crocodile. According to the collected reports, Nile crocodiles were implicated in 66% of the fatalities, and most of these occurred along the Zambezi River while people were bathing, fishing, or otherwise undertaking some kind of daily activity in the water. They knew full well that there were crocodiles they, but, as the authors of the report state, these people may have been forced to place themselves at risk as they may not have been able to feed themselves or their families without centering their activities around crocodile habitats. These conflicts between human and crocodile have been going on for millions of years, though today poverty places some people at increased risk of a deadly encounter with predators like crocodiles.

(Interestingly, however, the retaliation against dangerous animals was reversed from what might be expected on the basis of this data. For every one person killed, two elephants or hippos were killed on average in retaliation, whereas the predator/human ratio was 0.6:1 for lions and 0.5:1 for crocodiles.)

Mozambique is not the only nation to harbor large, dangerous crocodylians. Northern Australia is well-known to be home to one of the largest reptiles on earth, the saltwater crocodile (affectionately known as "salties"), and the notorious predator continues to inspire sensational news stories and big-screen horror yarns. Unlike the situation in Mozambique, however, the majority of saltwater crocodile victims are not poor people risking their lives to put fish on the dinner table. In fact, as a review of Australian crocodile attacks published several years ago suggests, different causes may trigger crocodile attacks elsewhere in the world.

Looking at the pattern of 62 unprovoked attacks by wild saltwater crocodiles in Australia between 1971 and 2004, researchers David Caldicott, David Croser, Charlie Manolis, Grahame Webb, and Adam Britton found that saltwater crocodiles most regularly (81% of cases) attacked people swimming or wading in the water for recreation during the day. (Though out-of-water attacks did happen, and in two chilling exceptions crocodiles came entirely out of the water to grab victims from their tents.) Most of these victims were adult males about 31 years old, a trend consistent with the pattern of attacks made by American alligators, and in 29% of the cases the victims had been drinking alcohol before the attack - having a few beers before going swimming in croc country is obviously not a good idea.

Compared to one another, the number of attacks by saltwater crocodiles in Australia is dwarfed by the number of attacks by Nile crocodiles in Mozambique, even over a two year period. Even in a place where large predators are present the standard of living in an area can make a big difference in how often a person has to risk coming in contact with a creature that sees them as a food source. Nevertheless, the number of people killed by wild animals is relatively small compared to other causes of death. There are other greater risks in life - disease, traffic accidents, homicide, etc. - but the fear of being killed and eaten by something monstrous is an ancient terror which commands our attention whenever it happens. Part of the shock may even be because it is so rare - it happens just often enough to remind us of that not-too-distant-past when predators ruled the landscape.

Blasco, R., Rosell, J., Arsuaga, J., Bermúdez de Castro, J., & Carbonell, E. (2010). The hunted hunter: the capture of a lion (Panthera leo fossilis) at the Gran Dolina site, Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2010.03.010

Dunham, K., Ghiurghi, A., Cumbi, R., & Urbano, F. (2010). Human-wildlife conflict in Mozambique: a national perspective, with emphasis on wildlife attacks on humans Oryx, 44 (02) DOI: 10.1017/S003060530999086X

Caldicott DG, Croser D, Manolis C, Webb G, & Britton A (2005). Crocodile attack in Australia: an analysis of its incidence and review of the pathology and management of crocodilian attacks in general. Wilderness & environmental medicine, 16 (3), 143-59 PMID: 16209470


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By darwinsdog (not verified) on 21 May 2010 #permalink

I am really impressed of how the western countries talk about poverty in other countries.
I mean seriously, some people believe that there's just jungle and bunch of poor people in africa, but if you go there you'll see big and huge cities with some wealth people.

Nice post. Do you have a reference for patterns of alligator attacks? Just today I was thinking how amazing it is that there are not more alligator attacks, given how many there are and how dense the human population is in the southeast.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 21 May 2010 #permalink

Outside of the trash-grubbing black bears I occasionally come across when driving to hikes in northern New Jersey, I never encounter large predators near my home.

The largest, meanest, nastiest predators near your home are these guys.

Interesting post. Do you know Quammens Monsters of God? It's about the predators of humans that are left, and it's quite excellent (as is all of Quammen).

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 22 May 2010 #permalink

Anon. - The ref. is Conover MR, Dubow TJ. Alligator attacks on humans in the United States. Herp Rev. 1997;28:120â124.

Sven - Yes, I have read 'Monster of God', and I thought of it while writing this post. Like you said, it is a great book on human-predator conflict.

The Beast In The Garden by David Baron is another excellent book that really brought home the point about living alongside a species more than capable of preying on humans.

Even in developed areas people can be vulnerable to some predators. There have been numerous leopard attacks in the Mumbai area (13 in 2005), often in broad daylight. Because leopards are so adaptable in habitat and preferred prey, there can be high densities close to large urban areas. The situation is a bit similar to many of the newer urban areas in the US, where Mountain Lions can come into conflict with humans as cities expand.

Expanding agriculture shifts the relationship between people and dangerous animals. For example, humans and elephants may not make good neighbors, especially since the elephant part of the 'hood is shrinking fast. Elephants, wild and captive, kill over 200 people a year in India, and some of this is related to crop raiding.