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Are large carnivores dangerous?

Wolf

There is no doubt that the wolf, a large predator weighing around forty kilograms with a sprinting speed of up to thirty-five miles an hour, and equipped with jaws capable of crushing bones, lined with sharp slicing teeth, is potentially dangerous to humans. However, confirmed records of attacks by wolves on people are very rare, especially in modern times and the risk of being attacked by a wolf in Europe is extremely low. In 2002, the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research published a report titled “The fear of wolves: A review of wolf attacks on humans”, compiled by a number of leading wolf experts across Europe, which remains the best source of information on the subject.

Whilst there are hundreds of historical (pre-twentieth century) reports of people being attacked and killed by wolves in Europe, these are largely anecdotal and were rarely properly investigated, and accounts may have suffered in subsequent re-telling and translations. For example, a famous incident in the Gevaudan area of France, involved over 100 people reportedly killed by wolves during a three year period in the 18th century. Debate continues today as to whether wolves, dogs, or hybrids of the two were responsible, and the ‘Beast of Gevaudan’ has acquired mythological status.

 

Are wolves dangerous?

There are also records of people reportedly killed by wolves in the 18th and 19th centuries from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Russia; it is likely that wolf attacks on humans have occurred throughout history but must be viewed within a context of changing environmental, social and economic factors which have significantly changed the relationship between wolves and humans up to the 21st century. The majority of wolf attacks where investigation has been carried out have been by individuals with rabies; this disease has been eliminated from some parts of Europe and efforts continue to eradicate it elsewhere, and attacks by rabid wolves are therefore not considered in detail here.

There are only a small handful of credible records of non-rabid wild wolves attacking and killing people in Europe since the beginning of the 20th century. This includes reports of ten children being attacked in July and August 1937 in part of what is now Belarus. Five of the children were killed. Attacks also occurred in Galicia, in north-western Spain between 1957 and 1959, when three children were attacked, two fatally, and in 1974 when four people were attacked, resulting in the death of two young children.  There were eleven reported fatalities in Lithuania in the first half of the 20th century, but insufficient detail exists for these to be considered reliable. An eight year old girl and an elderly woman were reportedly killed in France during the First World War. There are several reports from Russia of as many as 36 children being killed by wolves in the years immediately after the Second World War, but the source of these, a controversial book by Michail Pavlov, has been criticised as having an anti-wolf bias by modern researchers (Pavlov was a hunter and game manager, not a scientist), and the author admitted that circumstances in this period where unusual, with high wolf numbers with little or no control during the war, low prey numbers and poor social conditions.

The victims of wolf attacks have mainly been children, and some common threads have been drawn from these cases: scarcity of natural prey resulting in wolves feeding on livestock and rubbish dumps; social deprivation and children being left unattended or in charge of livestock, and limited access to weapons to kill wolves or scare them away. The attacks also occurred in clusters, suggesting individual wolves that became accustomed to killing and eating children. The attacks generally ceased once the wolves were killed.  Outside Europe, investigation of killings by wolves in three states in India in the 1990s revealed the same pattern, with mainly unaccompanied children under 16 years old taken from areas with low natural prey density and high human population living in poverty. It can be concluded that under certain circumstances, wolves will take children, but there is no evidence that wolves regard humans as prey under normal conditions.

Non-fatal attacks by wolves are also extremely unusual in Europe, with the “Fear of wolves” report listing only thirty-one cases since the beginning of the 20th century; most of these involve people being bitten whilst defending livestock, or by trapped or cornered wolves. Although reports continue to appear in the media of wolf ‘attacks’, these are usually mis-reported incidents where someone has felt threatened by an encounter with a wolf or wolves without any physical contact or injury occurring. These cases should not be considered attacks as there may have been no aggressive intention, and the behaviour of the animal(s) may have been misinterpreted.

Assuming that numbers of wolf attacks reported from the 18th and 19th centuries are to some extent accurate, then incidences of wolves attacking and killing people dropped dramatically during the 20th century. This coincides with wolves being eliminated or drastically reduced in much of Europe through human persecution, and it is likely that this, together with the increased ability of people to defend themselves against wolves, as well as a change from a largely rural society, where people frequently encountered wolves, to an increasingly urban one, and a reduction in poverty in many areas of Europe, has contributed to the reduction in wolf attacks. 

The authors of the “Fear of wolves” report point out that there has been no increase in attacks by wolves since populations began to recover in the last quarter of the 20th century (for example, there has been no reported attack on a human in France since wolves returned in the early 1990s); the authors believe that centuries of persecution have resulted in genetic selection for wolves that are afraid of people and avoid them (wolves that attacked or showed no fear of people would have been quickly killed and therefore less likely to produce offspring with similar genetic traits) . The report concludes that with only four records of people being killed in Europe in the last fifty years, despite a population of around 12,000 wolves, that the risk of being attacked by a wolf is extremely low.

However, with wolves increasing their range and numbers in Europe, steps can be taken to reduce the risk further. In the USA there have been a small number of injuries and deaths caused by wolves that have become habituated and lost their natural shyness towards people as a result of being fed at campsites, rubbish dumps and remote work camps; so far this has not occurred in Europe, and information campaigns in areas where wolves are present are important in educating people not to feed wolves or leave food where it is accessible. Some wildlife agencies organisations have produced educational leaflets advising the public how to behave in areas where wolves are present and what to do if they encounter a wolf, such as this example from Sweden.  It is important to keep wolves wary of humans, and this may mean that carefully regulated hunting is necessary some circumstances, and wolves that become habituated to people must be quickly removed.  Conservation measures to ensure good habitat and adequate wild prey are also important to reduce the risk of wolves seeking alternative food sources and coming into contact with people.

Fear of wolves: A review of wolf attacks on humans can be downloaded here.

Brown Bear

Despite its size and physical strength, the European brown bear is generally considered to be less aggressive towards humans than brown bears in North America and Asia, and the risk of being attacked is very low provided sensible precautions are observed when in areas where bears are present.

Since the beginning of the 20th century there are records of 36 people being killed by European brown bears, 24 of which have been in Romania (which has around 6,000 bears, the largest population in Europe). Two people gave been killed in Scandinavia (Sweden and Norway) in this period, and one in Finland since 1936 (a well-documented case of a jogger who apparently surprised a female bear with a cub). Fatal bear attacks have also occurred in Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Russia.

A number of people are also injured by bears every year, but again the figures are relatively low. For example, between 1977 and 2012, 31 people were injured by bears in Sweden and Norway, and in Slovakia an average of 9 people were injured each year between 1985 and 1987 (there have been no fatalities since the bear population began to recover after a temporary hunting ban was imposed in 1932).

 

Are bears dangerous?

In the majority of encounters between brown bears and people, the bear will run away, but several factors have been identified that increase the risk of an attack occurring. These are: the presence of cubs; proximity of a carcass; a bear unaware of human approach; proximity of a den, and presence of a dog. Wounded bears are also extremely dangerous and historically the majority of attacks were on hunters.

There is no evidence of predatory behaviour against humans by brown bears in Europe Most attacks fall into two categories: defensive, where the bear feels threatened and reacts in self-defence, for example if its escape route is blocked, it is guarding a carcass or other food, if someone comes between a mother bear and her cubs, or if a bear is simply not aware of a person approaching until they are very close; and food habituated, where bears are attracted to human food sources and become used to human presence they can sometimes become aggressive trying to get to food. A number of people have been attacked by bears which became used to people when visiting rubbish containers on the outskirts of cities in Romania. For this reason, wild brown bears should never be fed.

In North America, information leaflets and educational films explaining how to stay safe in bear country are widely available, and similar education campaigns have been developed in Europe in recent years. A good example of this is the Slovak Wildlife Society’s BEARS (Bear Education, Awareness and Research in Slovakia) project, which has a website with excellent information on reducing the risk of being attacked by a bear:

Lynx

The smaller size of the lynx compared to the other large carnivores discussed here - adults weigh on average 12-35 kilograms - means that it poses little threat to humans, even though its sharp claws and teeth could potentially cause serious injury. The only documented cases where this has happened involved wounded, captured or rabid lynx; there are no recorded cases of a spontaneous attack on a human by a wild lynx.  Mammals of the Soviet Union, Vol. 2  contains reference to attacks by lynx on people in the Moscow and Vladimir regions of Russia prior to 1935, but the authors concede that the reports are not reliable, before going on to state that “Nevertheless, albeit rarely, lynx does attack people, primarily children”. Other anecdotal reports of lynx attacking people are rare; a 2007 conference paper entitled Conflicts between lynx, other large carnivores, and humans in Macedonia and Albania states that: “Reports of lynx attacks on people are very few in Macedonia and non-existent in Albania”.


However, although there appears to be negligible risk of being attacked by a wild lynx, it is still advisable that responsible behaviour and alertness is observed when in areas where lynx are present.

Are lynx dangerous?

Attacks on humans by Europe’s large carnivores are rare, and the risks are well understood. Good education campaigns and availability of information on how to avoid an aggressive encounter by being alert and behaving sensibly when in habitat where carnivores may be present can further reduce the risk of attacks happening in the future.