Among the throngs of countless people on this Earth stalk a particularly ruthless breed of human being known as the serial killer. These are the cunning, shadowy individuals who kill, bide their time, then kill again in a cycle of gruesome violence. However, we have more than just the bloodthirsty killers of our own kind to worry about. The animal kingdom, too, on occasion rises against us and sends an emissary of death to haunt us and slaughter us one by one.
Some of these serial killers of the natural world have gone beyond merely turning to mindless man eating. They stalk the dark jungles of the world, methodically hunting down their human prey only to lie in wait to strike again. They seem to display a certain demonic intelligence, and an uncanny ability to evade capture or to disappear into the shadows that seem to transcend simple animal instincts. Whether it is out of insanity, revenge, or simply for the thrill of it, these animals seem to kill not out of any real need to feed, but rather seem to be driven by some dark, wicked intent. In some cases, these ruthless killers are often so cunning and elusive that they evolve into something more than a mere animal, becoming ghosts, spirits, or gods, and moving from the animal kingdom into dark folklore and myth.
Here are some of the cases of cunning and murderous animals that turned the tables on us, going from the hunted to the hunter.
The Killer Lions of Tsavo
Perhaps the most notorious killers among these cases are the Tsavo man-eaters, also sometimes referred to as “The Ghost and The Darkness.” They were a pair of male lions that worked in tandem to embark on a terrifying killing spree in 1898 that claimed the lives of at least 35 people and by some estimates as many as 135.
The incident occurred in Kenya, Africa, at the Tsavo River, where construction had begun on a bridge for a railway in March, 1898. The project was undertaken by the British, and led by a Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson. In addition to British personnel, a great many African and Indian workers were employed to work on the ambitious project as well.
A scorching land of dry, unforgiving savannah full of 3 meter high grass and known to the natives rather grimly as “the worst place on Earth,” the rugged terrain of Tsavo was a challenging locale to work in at the best of times, yet the construction crew was to have more to worry about than just the harsh conditions.
Soon after work on the bridge began, workers began to be picked off by a pair of maneless Tsavo lions. Often the unfortunate victims were dragged screaming and kicking from their tents into the darkness of night, where they were brutally killed and eaten. The lions were incredibly bold, and would even attack in broad daylight, on occasion snatching hapless workers away in full view of horrified onlookers.
These grisly attacks continued for months, and the terrified, demoralized workers took measures against the rampaging lions. They first tried using campfires to try and scare the animals off, yet this had little effect against the fearless killer cats. Thorn fences were also erected around camps in an effort to thwart their attacks, but the lions somehow managed to crawl through the barricades to continue their carnage. All efforts were unsuccessful and did nothing to staunch the bloodshed caused by the marauding beasts.
Patterson, well known as a skilled marksman, took it upon himself to try and stop the lions. He set up traps, but the lions displayed an eerie and uncanny ability to avoid them. When the traps failed, Patterson took to using a hunting contraption of Indian origin known as a machaan, which was basically a seated platform held over the ground on tall stilts. For several nights Patterson waited, perched in this flimsy hunting seat up in the air waiting for the man-eaters to appear to no avail. The two lions evaded the set-up and even attacked the camp on several occasions while Patterson sat there waiting to kill them.
Whispers around the camps began to speak of the lions not as animals, but as vengeful spirits from the netherworld, reincarnated as bloodthirsty lions to haunt the living, and named the two spectral lions the Ghost and the Darkness. Workers were afraid to work or to leave their camps at any hour lest they fall victim themselves to these angry spirits.
The British eschewed paranormal explanations and thought that the lions were perhaps injured or starving males that relied on each other to hunt for food. It was thought that if one were to be killed, then the other would soon perish as well. Patterson expanded his search. Since the camps were spread out for miles along the river, it was difficult to predict where the lions would strike next, and Patterson believed that they were cunningly avoiding him.
During his search of the wilderness, Patterson would come across what appeared to be the lions’ grisly lair; a stinking, dank cave with the rotting remains of dozens of mangled victims strewn about. Although some of the bodies had been devoured, others had merely been mauled and dumped in the filthy cave, leading Patterson to the chilling conclusion that the lions were not only killing for food but for the sheer thrill of it.
The hunter scoured the wilderness in his tireless search for the lions, never getting a clear shot, yet often hearing panting and low growls in the darkness just out of the periphery of his vision. The lions would pass quite close to the camp, rumbling threateningly almost as if to taunt him. Sometimes the eyes of the lions could be glimpsed flickering in the darkness from the reflected firelight. It became more apparent to the disconcerted hunter with each passing day that the roles had been reversed, and that it was in fact the lions who were doing the stalking. As the situation grew more intense, Patterson came to the sobering realization that rather than the lions avoiding him, in fact he had become the hunted.
After several unsuccessful attempts to kill the beasts, Patterson was finally able to shoot and kill one on December 9, 1898, approximately 9 months after the start of the bloody attacks. Twenty days later, the second lion was killed. Patterson explained in harrowing detail how it had taken nine shots to bring the second animal down, and that it had died gnawing on a tree, still trying even in its last moments to savagely come at him.
The first of the Tsavo man-eaters, the larger of the two, measured nine feet, eight inches (3 meters) from nose to tip of tail. It was so heavy that it took eight men to carry the carcass back to camp. Construction of the bridge was subsequently completed in February, 1899. The remains of the two lions were sold to The Chicago Field Museum in 1924, where they were mounted and preserved and remain on display to this day.
Gustave the Crocodile
Gustave is the name given to an enormous Nile crocodile that dwells in the Ruzizi River and the northern shores of Lake Tanganyika in Burundi, Africa. He is an absolutely huge specimen for his species, estimated to be up to 7.5 meters (25 feet) or more in length and weighing over a ton, the largest Nile crocodile ever recorded.
One estimate of Gustave’s age was around 60 years old, which makes it possible that he is still growing. It also means that the crocodile has survived countless threats over the years, from civil war to heavy crocodile hunting for sport and bounties during the 40s, 50s, and 60s. The trials of Gustave’s tumultuous past are reflected in his badly scarred eye, thought to be the result of a bullet wound sustained under unknown circumstances, as well as various other scars on his body.
Other than his tenacity and uncommonly large size, Gustave is most notorious for being a prolific man-eater, snatching people with astounding speed and ferocity from the banks of the river and lakeshore. Gustave’s bloodlust is legendary. He is said to be the culprit behind over 300 killings, and has obtained a mythical status in the lore of the area. The crocodile is known for killing sprees lasting several days, during which he will kill up to a dozen people before disappearing for a while only to resurface somewhere else and kill again.
It is claimed that Gustave often kills for the fun of it, leaving the carcasses uneaten, a claim further bolstered by the fact that crocodiles can go without food for several months and have no need to kill so prolifically. The crocodile has been known to creep up on fishermen and pull them under the water until they drown, only to simply swim off afterward leaving the body untouched. He is such a bold and remorseless killer that there have even been reports of Gustave actively killing off whole groups of 5 or 6 people at one time, only to leave the corpses where they lie and slip away into the murky, bloodstained river.
Gustave is highly feared by locals, with some saying that he is some sort of supernatural creature rather than a normal crocodile. Some reports reflect the preternatural reputation Gustave has attained. One such report described how a fifteen year old girl was attacked by the crocodile in full view of a group of soldiers. When the soldiers opened fire, Gustave was said to swallow their bullets.
The infamous Gustave has eluded repeated attempts to capture him over the years. Numerous traps and snares baited with everything from goats, to chickens, to even a live dog, have so far failed to capture the beast. The last verified sighting of the murderous crocodile was in 2008, leaving his fate unknown. However, locals have claimed that he is in fine health and still out there prowling the waterways, biding his time to strike again.
Tilikum, the Killer Whale
Tilikum is a 6.9 meter (22.5 feet), 5,400 kg (12,000 pounds) bull orca, or killer whale, who currently resides at Seaworld Orlando, Florida. His captivity started at 2 years of age, when he was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983. The orca is most well known for being involved in killing three people over the years.
The first killing occurred in 1991 at Sealand of the Pacific, in British Columbia, where Tilikum was originally kept. 20 year old marine biology student Keltie Byrne was working part-time at the park as a trainer and jumped into the tank during a show where Tilikum and two other orcas were kept. Without warning, the three orcas converged upon the hapless trainer, pushed her underwater, and dragged her around the tank in full view of horrified spectators.
Byrne, a competitive swimmer, was nevertheless unable to get to the surface as the orcas repeatedly prevented her from doing so. They also actively kept her from grabbing life-rings that were thrown to her by other trainers. At one point, the terrified, screaming Byrne finally managed to reach the side of the pool, but was dragged back into the water as she tried to climb out. The flailing trainer thrashed about in the water as the orcas tormented her and she eventually drowned. The orcas initially kept anyone from retrieving the body, which was not removed from the pool until several hours later.
After this gruesome incident, Tilikum was moved to Seaworld Orlando. It was here that the orca struck again. On July 6, 1999, the dead body of 27 year-old Daniel P. Dukes was found draped over Tilikum’s back. The man was naked, his swim trunks apparently torn from his body by the orca, and his body was covered in numerous contusions and lacerations. It was later discovered that the man was a visitor who had snuck into the park at night after closing time and had entered the orca tank. It is unknown what compelled the man to do this, although an autopsy found no evidence of drugs or alcohol.
On February 24, 2010, Tilikum killed for a third time. Veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau was massaging Tilikum after a show when the whale suddenly and violently pulled her into the water in front of dozens of stunned onlookers. Witnesses say that the orca dragged her in by her arm. Ignoring all attempts to entice him into letting the trainer go, desperate employees resorted to coaxing Tilikum into a smaller medical pool where it was thought the orca could be controlled more easily.
Tilikum finally released Brancheau’s body, but it was too late. The trainer had suffered extreme blunt force trauma from the wrath of the orca, including a severed spine and numerous fractures. In addition, her scalp and left arm had been practically torn apart from her body.
Although the park was fined for safety violations directly related to Brancheau’s death, Tilikum returned to performing in 2011. It is not known for sure what exactly prompted Tilikum to kill three people or whether he will eventually kill again.
The Leopard of the Central Provinces
In the early 20th century, the Central Provinces of India were terrorized by a man-eating male leopard that is thought to have killed over 150 people and earned itself the nickname of “Devilishly Cunning Panther.” The leopard was extremely aggressive and a prolific killer, reportedly killing a victim every 2 or 3 days.
It was difficult to predict when the killer would attack, as it seemed to roam over a wide area, never attacking in the same place twice and making kills 20 or 30 miles apart. The rising body count and unpredictability of the attacks sent villagers throughout the region into a panic. Many men refused to go to work or even leave their homes.
A British hunter was tasked with finding the beast, but it would prove to be a challenging feat. The hunter searched the terrain for three weeks without success, whereupon a boy came to him claiming that his brother had been brutally killed by the big cat as they were driving cattle.
The hunter set up an ambush for the leopard near the victim’s corpse but when the cat came that evening, it would not emerge from the underbrush for a clear shot. The frustrated hunter attempted to spook the cat into the open by shouting and firing his weapon into the air, but his quarry was not intimidated at all and simply sauntered off into the night.
It was around this time that the hunter came to the realization that the big cat was stalking him as well. This became further apparent when he awoke upon spending the night in the tree to find that the cat had appeared out of the jungle as he slept and was clawing at the trunk. In another incident, the hunter awoke in his tent to find the leopard looming outside and clawing at the fabric menacingly. In this case, the shouts of villagers scared the animal back into the forest.
The leopard continued to prowl the countryside killing both humans and livestock at a prodigious rate until it was finally brought down by a gas propelled shell from a pipe at close range.
What makes this case peculiar is that while most man-eaters have turned to eating human beings due to injuries or age preventing them from hunting their normal prey, the leopard of the central provinces was found to be in excellent health with perfectly normal and formidable claws and teeth. This suggests that rather than eating humans out of necessity, the leopard had simply enjoyed human flesh, perhaps even just relishing in the killing of humans. Some experts suggested rather chillingly that the cat might have been fed human flesh as a cub, its mother a man-eater as well.
The rogue elephant of Aberdare Forest
During the early 20th century, several villages in the Aberdare area of British East Africa were terrorized by a rampaging African Bush Elephant bull. For months the elephant smashed through villages with impunity, devastating crops, damaging property, and making one confirmed human kill, although it is believed to have killed more. It seemed to actively seek out and attack human beings and was so cunning and evasive that it never attacked the same village twice.
Although not having as high a body count as of some of the other creatures mentioned here, this was not from a lack of trying on the elephant’s part. After attacking two villagers and killing one by ripping his arms from his torso and pulverizing the body, the elephant of Aberdare Forest made several more unsuccessful attempts to kill humans. Besides the confirmed kill, many more people were grievously injured and maimed by the murderous, marauding beast. It is believed that the elephant likely killed more unconfirmed victims and that had it not been stopped it would have certainly killed again.
After leaving a wake of destruction, and dead or injured people across the area, the rogue elephant’s reign of terror was finally brought to an end by a hunter by the rather fitting name of J.A. Hunter. Hunter learned of the vicious elephant when panicked villagers interrupted his hunt for antelope to tell him of an elephant that was wreaking havoc in the area and had brutally killed one of their own.
Hunter agreed to hunt the culprit down and tracked it to the Aberdare Forest, where he made an unsuccessful attempt to shoot it and lost its trail. The following day Hunter followed the beast’s path of destruction along a trail of broken and crushed underbrush in the forest after hearing of yet more attacks in the vicinity. When he finally came across the elephant, the infuriated bull immediately charged upon catching Hunter’s scent. The hunter dropped the large bull with a high caliber shot to the head and finished it off with another shot to the neck.
A subsequent autopsy of the elephant’s carcass turned up a bullet from a previous encounter lodged in a nerve center under its tusk, and it is speculated that the pain from the injury may have caused the bull to have become more aggressive than usual. It is also surmised that the perpetrator of the bullet wound could have instilled a festering hatred of humans in the elephant, which when combined with the chronic pain may have compelled the elephant to its deadly rampage.
The Nigerian Killer Snake
In northern Nigeria, in Birnin Kudu, the captial of the northern state of Kebbi, a murderous cobra killed at least 16 people over a 10 day period in 1999.
Whereas snakes generally strike in defense or to paralyze prey, the culprit in this case seems to have had no such motive as all of the attacks were completely unprovoked. The cobra is said to have actively sought out people to bite before disappearing, only to reappear later to strike again. It was reported that the snake attacked its victims one after another from the plentiful tall grass of the area, sometimes giving chase as the person attempted to flee.
This is highly unusual behavior for a snake. Even snakes as notoriously deadly as the cobra typically do not go out of their way to actively hunt down and pursue humans to bite simply for the sake of it. What caused this snake to behave in this way? Since the cobra in question was never caught and remains at large, it is difficult to say for sure.
What do we make of these cases?
Most animals, even large predators, normally avoid human beings, although there are many reasons for why an animal may become a man-eater. Most often it is because they are too old, injured, or riddled with disease to effectively hunt their natural prey, leaving them with no choice but to hunt what they can catch. The fact is that an unarmed human is easy prey for a large predator such as a big cat or alligator.
However, what of the cases outlined here, where the animals were not always killing solely to eat their victims, and in some cases did not eat their prey at all? Are animals capable of malevolence and killing humans out of pure malice? It is difficult to know for sure, but when looking at the animals in these cases it is hard not to imagine that there were perhaps darker, more malicious motives than survival at work behind these brutal acts.
One thing that is almost a certainty is that it will likely happen again. As natural habitats shrink worldwide, we are being brought into ever closer proximity to potentially dangerous wildlife. Be it in some remote jungle of the world, the rivers of Africa, or perhaps even on the outskirts of town or at the local Seaworld, it is only a matter of time before another of these serial killers of the animal kingdom strikes again.