Interestingly were-beasts are a common thread across different cultures. Men and women who have the ability to change into animals. Shape-shifters who are able to travel between the human and the animal world – berserkers, loupgarou, aswangs and werewolves with the aid of magical salves; pacts with the devil and infection can a be man-beasts with a hunger for blood and meat of humans. No one was immune , even those who would say their prayers at night may be come wolf when the moon was whole.
This is of course myth and folklore. Embedded in fairy tales and even urban myths that most of us are familiar with. The most famous of all would be tale of Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. This was and is a cautionary tale that tell us when in the woods do not talk to strangers and never stray from the path.
There are of course true accounts of people killed by man-eaters, not werewolves although some, because of the kill and stories woven around them have became legendary.
The Beast of Gevaudan
In a region in France. a beast described as a giant animal resembling a wolf killed a shepardress – decapitating her head in the process. Gevaudan was a forested area and wolves have been known to attack travellers – one pack of wolves entered Paris before and created havoc until they were cornered and stoned to death by the Parisians. The attacks happened during the reign of Louise XV and people did not believe in werewolves anymore. Although, as the attacks increased and the beast seems to fiendishly evade capture and death; the notoriety of the beast increased to the point that it become to be known as The Beast Its infamy spread beyond Gevaudan, beyond Paris and beyond France: The British newspapers made fun of the French for failing to capture the Beast. A number of wolves were killed but still the attacks continued. The Beast was killed not once but twice before its legend died down.
There have been many theories about the Beast. A giant lone wolf; an ancient hyaena; a dog-hyaena hybrid and even a chimpanzee. Recently an academic study came out that theorised the attacks done in Gevaudan were done not by one wolf but by different wolf packs.
Louis the XV were shown the remains to the two beasts at Versailles. The first beast was deemed un-impressive since it failed to live to its reputed size; while the second one was dismissed outright because it was properly preserved, making it repugnant to look at.
The Beast of Gevaudan is a favourite topic of cryptologists and there are many theories surrounding the incident; and one of the theories inspired the French film The Brotherhood of the Wolf
The Ghost and the Darkness
A railway project that followed an old slave route in Africa becomes the setting of the other story. It happened in the Tsavo region of Africa. British engineers and Indian workers where building a railroad when the attacks came. Workers began to disappear and soon talks of two demons were responsible. Soon they found out two male Tsavo Lions were responsible for the killing of the workers/ The Tsavo male lions were and are not the usual lions we might be used to, they lacked the mane that are frequently shown in media. Like the Beast of Gevaudan the Lions had the uncanny ability of evading measures devised to stop them from attacking people and measures to kill them. Eventually they were killed separately by the engineer building the railway named Patterson. The first news and stories came out about the Lion man-eaters were that they devoured around 130 individuals. Later studies reveal the actual number was thirty. They were not the first or last Tsavo Lions that killed humans.
Patterson kept the Tsavo man-eaters as trophies their skulls and lion skins in his house in England. Eventually, row remains were bought by the Chicago museum, where it was stuffed, put on displayed and studied. And studies later revealed that the Lions main diet were not human but included other animals. Other encounters of Big Cats also came to be known man-eaters, the Tigers of Asia featured mainly in these stories.
The story of the Lions of Tsavo was adapted to two films one of them happens to be the Ghost and the Darkness, which were the names given by to the lions during their spree in Africa.
Saddam the Killer Chimp
The last story we have is the lone male chimp who came to be known as Saddam in Africa. Children and infants began to go missing in a village near a reserve in Africa.In one instance a baby was snatched from the mother while she was tending the fields in another a baby was snacthed from within the family hut when no one was looking. The remains of the babies were found after they were eaten. A lone and ostracised by the tribe male chimp was believed to have been responsible. At one point people saw him running away from a field or a house with the infant in his arms. He was nicknamed Saddam by the locals, after then Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein.
The reserve administration and the locals rook action. Like in the case of the Beast of Gevaudan and the Tsavo Lions it took some time but eventually he was killed. Saddam was cornered and shot.
Despite the depiction of Chimpanzees in television and film as fun loving and cute they do grow up and like man has a habit of violence as a way of life. Violence in and between different groups. It is their cousins the Bonobo who are more peaceful and opting to use sex rather violence to settle things. Interestingly enough, the Bonobos were able to develop their own behaviour because of a river that separated them from the Chimpanzees. Also the Chimpanzees and the Bonobos are the Great Apes genetically close to Man.
Frank Herbert wrote a passage in his novel Dune that states that Ecology is the study of consequences. If you notice from the three famous or infamous stories of man killers two things readily standout. FIRST, All encounter happen when humans and animals come into contact and conflict. Nature and human civilisation collide there are effects and consequences. The ecology or inter-relationship in the area is disrupted and changed: Predator and prey relationship change; keystone species are displaced; Food source can become scare or even totally depleted; and species that eat only specific food, once it is gone moves away or disappear; And one notices those that survive can eat almost anything or omnivorous. These in turn has been having an impact on its flora and fauna. Given these things, There are usually two short term options adaptation or extinction. SECOND, In all stories, like all werewolf stories, it ended terminally. Is this the only ending when conflict between civilisation and nature happens.
In Attenborough’s documentary series The Life of Mammals carnivores or meat eaters were given one episode and near the end an ironic scene, the Tiger, probably the worlds most successful carnivore, was walking in a field of snow only to be confronted by a wire fence. Man and Nature has met again. Who knows if this is the future state of affairs; animals living in walled enclosures, cages.
This also highlights the challenges of conservation and management of reserves. What can and should be done mn and nature comes face to face. Is there a solution that does not involve extinction. How can you manage natural resources effectively? For Red Riding Hood journeying through the forest to see Grandmother there were only two rules – Do not stray from the path and Do not talk to Strangers. If we want to preserve Nature and save ourselves what two rules do we follow to avoid the Big Bad Wolf or Absolute Extinction?
First respect and understand Nature; and Second stay clear from the twins – greed and corruption?