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Carnivores Are Attacking People More Often. Here’s Why.

Bears, big cats, and wild canines are attacking humans more frequently than at any time in modern history. That’s according to a sweeping new international study released in the journal PLOS Biology last week. But it’s not just that there are more people on the planet—or more carnivores. Instead, a complex interplay of climate, socioeconomic factors and human behaviors may be to blame. 

With more animal attacks in the media than ever, this research feels particularly salient. Just last month, a polar bear killed a mother and her son in Alaska—the first such fatality in more than three decades. While a number of studies have looked into the relationship between melting sea ice and increased polar bear-human interactions, none have looked at carnivore attacks across so many species and at a global scale. 

Image by Janpiter Frans S/EyeEm

This project included more than 5,400 reported attacks collected over a 70-year period. Overall, researchers found that “The number of reported attacks increased over time, especially in lower-income countries,” the study states.

While wealthy, developed countries have experienced some increase in animal attacks, most of these incidents occurred while the victim was hiking, camping, hunting recreationally, dog-walking in bear country, or otherwise engaging in “risky,” avoidable behaviors. In lower-income countries where the majority of the attacks took place, however, the victims were engaging in activities required for their livelihoods. That includes farming, subsistence hunting, and commuting by foot. 

The results were grim. The researchers found that about 32% of all large carnivore attacks were fatal, and 68% resulted in human injury. 

Image by Franz Aberham

This wasn’t true across the board, however. Location played a big role in these statistics. The majority of the fatalities were from big-cat attacks in Asia and Africa. Incidences of wolf and bear attacks were also higher in these areas of the world.

“In Europe and North America, very few wolf attacks occurred in the 70 years covered by our study,” the researchers note. “And in almost all predatory/unprovoked attacks…the animal was food-conditioned.” This means that the local carnivores were used to eating human food—either in the form of handouts or garbage left irresponsibly contained. The attacks, therefore, could have been prevented by better stewardship and safety practices.  

Another study, conducted in 2016, specifically noted that wolf attacks in North America were on the decline. 

Wolves were the only species to show a decreasing trend in the number of attacks, declining from 10 attacks during the decade 1975 to 1984 to only two or three attacks per decade starting in 1985,” that study said. 

But as far as bear and big-cat attacks are concerned? Researchers expect things to get worse as humans continue to encroach on wilderness areas. Things will also get worse with climate change. In Canada and Alaska, melting sea ice will continue to force polar bears onto land, where they’ll interact with humans more frequently. And in Sub-Saharan Africa, “extreme drought frequency has been associated with increased carnivore attacks on livestock,” the study states. 

The good news is that most large-carnivore attacks are preventable. If you live in an area where bears or mountain lions thrive, secure your garbage, avoid traveling solo or in silence, walk pets cautiously, and don’t leave your children unattended. 

And, this should go without saying but please—please—don’t feed the animals.  

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  1. Bob MacKinnon

    Encroaching into typical bear and mountain lion territory by human development should be banned in North America.

    If we expect to be able to protect these species as well as be able to view both from a distance into the future, which I am a huge fan of, we ought to limit human encroachment into Mountain areas in Canada and Northwestern U.S..
    I realize this may upset some people but education as to “why” should be advertised prolifently now and forever.
    Sharing the land allowing bigger carnivores to have their own space too I believe is paramount in protecting these species.

    I add, the allowance of hunting these species should be banned in Canada and the U.S.!

    1. I could not agree more. Having said that, I just moved from the suburbs of one deteriorating state to the beautiful mountains of another. It is an existing house on 13 acres that is designated as conservation land in perpetuity. I did not cut down trees and scar the land to build the house. However, someone else did. I never had children, so I have not contributed to over-population. While no one alive today is to be blamed for the space they must take up, it is past generations having too many children and people today continuing to overpopulate. Now, because past generations; i.e. baby boomers, had so many children, we need young people to be able to support “the system” of which the coming huge elderly population will depend upon. It seems like we are doomed. Not that very many people will care enough about the planet and it’s inhabitants to be less selfish and limit their family size. I have tremendous respect for all animals and it breaks my heart to see what irresponsible people are causing to happen to the animals. There was a recent story about a janitor working in a zoo here in the U.S. that was hired only to clean the common areas such as the kitchen, cafeteria, etc. Well, he decided to crawl over at least one fence and stick his arm into the tiger’s cages. So, when the tiger did what tigers do, the police were called and they arrived without a tranquilizer gun. So they shot and killed the tiger. BTW, it was a critically endangered sumatran tiger. There are only a few hundred left in the world. In the end, the person was not prosecuted. I know he lost all or part of his arm, but I believe he should have also been prosecuted. Why, oh why is a beautiful, majestic, innocent and almost extinct animals life not given more respect and protection? But if that were the case, he would not have been in the zoo in the first place. Which brings me to another can of worms, which is the alarming amount of seriously mentally ill people (of which we can safely assume he was) walking around this country, untreated, committing violent acts, homeless, etc. I feel very pessimistic about so much that is happening in the world and I don’t see people becoming any less selfish anytime soon. Even though apex predators can and do attack and sometimes kill humans, not only are they only behaving the way that God made them, but almost all incidences are the fault of humans. We are on the fast track of destroying this planet and all of its inhabitants. What wise person once said, what befalls the animal kingdom will also befall us (or something similar).

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