Animals are beautiful and fascinating but they can also be dangerous. In fact, it is estimated that one half of the world’s population will be bitten by an animal at some point in their life (the majority of which will be domesticated animals or pets) and that the impact of animal-related injures on healthcare systems can be comparable to car accidents and occupational incidents.
Given the amount of overlap between humans and animals in all areas of the world, it is hardly surprising that there are numerous animal attacks on humans but what may be surprising is the relative incidence of different types of animal attacks. In other words, our perception of the most dangerous animals – according to media coverage – may be very far from the truth!
The Deadly List
When most people think of animal attacks, their minds usually turn to one of a shortlist of deadly animals with the ability to severely maim, poison or even kill man. Attacks from these animals are widely covered by the news media and stir up great interest, as well as fear and revulsion. While they may not happen very often, the animals more than make up for this by the ferocity of their attacks:
- Sharks – despite most people’s fears, only 4 species of sharks have been involved in a significant number of fatal attacks on people and of these, the Great White and the Tiger shark are the ones to watch out for, as they are often involved in unprovoked attacks. The Great White is the biggest predatory shark and the perfect ambush predator. The Tiger shark, meanwhile, is notorious for eating everything and anything, including car tyres, car plates, large items of rubbish, whales, fish and humans in some instances. But while shark attacks are fearsome and cause horrific injuries, if not outright deaths, it is important to keep things in perspective. For example, according to statistics from the Florida Museum of Natural History, the average annual number of deaths from sharks worldwide is just 1 compared to 3,306 deaths of people from drowning.
- Snakes – there are few people that don’t fear snakes and it’s easy to see why. A fear and hatred of snakes is deeply ingrained in many cultures. While this may be unfair as many snakes are harmless, it is a fact that about 2 million people suffer from snake bites each year, around the world, and that of these, more than 50,000 are fatal. While the seasnake and taipan are probably considered the most venomous snakes in the world, the two types most widely feared are the black mamba and the king cobra, as these snakes are aggressive and often live in close proximity to man, leading to more encounters and thus a greater threat.
- Crocodiles – in some countries, such as Australia, crocodile attacks are very real and something to take seriously when venturing into the wilderness. Saltwater crocodiles are treated with fear and respect and are a legend in animal attack circles, partly due to the fact that they actually do see humans as a food source and so unlike many other animals, aren’t just attacking out of self-defence or to protect territory. These crocodiles stalk their victims, sometimes for weeks, can attack without warning and have the ability of “gallop” on land, making it difficult for its prey to escape. However, bear in mind that in Australia, on average only 1 person per year is killed by crocodiles, compared to the thousands that die from car accidents.
- The Big Cats – for many people, the tiger and the lion represent the ultimate killers. These powerful animals possess formidable arsenal in the form of razor-sharp teeth and claws and combine this with stealth and cunning, meaning that they are fast, lethal and very likely to kill you in any attack. It has been particularly noted that tiger attacks on humans in India are on the rise, as resources diminish, the tiger’s natural prey is dwindling and they are being forced from their normal territories by human encroachment.
- Box Jellyfish – you don’t have to be big and strong to be deadly and the box jellyfish amply illustrates this fact. These simple organisms – also known as the sea wasp – may look beautiful and harmless floating in the water but in fact have the ability to kill a human within 4 minutes, with toxins from their tentacles – they are the most venomous sea creatures in the world.
- Spiders – spiders are another group of creatures that provoke fear in many people and again with good reason. Although many spiders are harmless and play an important role in our ecosystems, there are several which can pack a deadly punch. Like snakes, the most dangerous spiders may not be determined by the strongest venom but by which species causes the most deaths. Some spiders with extremely powerful venom don’t have fangs powerful enough to pierce human skin and therefore are not considered dangerous. Of the ones that are considered dangerous, the species that top the list include the Sydney funnel-web spider and the redback spiders – both of which are prevalent in Australia, although again it is worth bearing in mind that since antivenom has become available, the number of deaths from spider bites in Australia since 1979 is zero.
The Real Culprits…
While the media love to generate a frenzy over wild animal attacks and while the animals in the list above have caused significant trauma and even deaths, it is actually the animals closest to us – the domesticated animals and pets – that have caused the largest number of injuries around the world. For example, in Australia – the country famed for having several of the world’s most “dangerous” animals – statistics show that more people are injured by dogs and horses than from any of the “deadly creatures”; in fact, there were more significant reportings of injuries from chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, ducks, cats and even mosquitoes!
Research shows that domestic animals are the main source of warm-blooded animal bites around the world, requiring hospitalisation and medical treatment. Dog bites are the most common, followed by injuries from cats and horses. And – most surprisingly – human bites also represent a significant proportion and are one of the most serious types of bites, as the human mouth carries a number of bacteria and other infectious organisms, as well as diseases like hepatitis and HIV. So the next time you think of blaming an exotic monster for the top animal injuries around the world, don’t forget that a large part of the blame might lie with ourselves!