Could you survive a tiger attack? It seems like a strange question – when would you foreseeably be attacked by a tiger?
But tigers actually claim around 50 lives per year – mostly in South Asia, and they take more lives than any other cat in the world. There used to be many more deaths averaging close to 2,000 per year; the numbers have sharply decreased in recent years likely due to declining populations.
But back to the original question – could you survive one? Sure – and we’ll talk about how. But will you? Probably not.
First because it’s unlikely to happen, but even if it did, the odds are against you. Bear in mind that tigers are 70% muscle mass and weigh 300 pounds, with three inch claws and seven inch teeth.
They’re twenty times stronger than the average human, five times stronger than the strongest human, and have a bite force of 1050 psi.
Only polar bears and brown bears are more dangerous. They’re extremely smart and naturally predatory. So rather than ask if you can survive an attack, learn how to avoid one.
It’s a lot easier to do, considering there aren’t many of these beautiful creatures left and the survival odds are much lower should you encounter one.
Table of Contents
Why Would A Tiger Attack?
Why would a tiger attack? This is the most important question if we want to avoid the situation in the first place. Here are a few reasons you might face a tiger attack:
- Surprising a sleeping or feeding tiger
- Surprising a tigress with cubs
- Mistaken identity for prey
- Tourist gets too close
- Provoking the chase
Many deaths by tiger are accidental; the tiger does not deliberately kill, but zoo accidents happen, and it’s rare but India in particular is known for man-eating tigers. Indian man-eating tigers are actually a direct result of the good deed of preservation efforts.
Greater populations exist there, so they move closer to human settlements while searching for food.
Interestingly, while we debate surviving an attack, in fact tigers who become man-eaters generally do so as a diet change due to poor health – humans are easier prey than the tiger’s normal dietary choices, though it is thought that some tigers naturally develop a taste for human flesh after successful attacks.
But, generally, tigers don’t like how we taste very much, and so avoid preying humans for food in the absence of a motivating factor.
In the case of many historical man-eaters, captured and killed specimens have usually shown signs of substantial injuries or physical shortcomings that would prove prohibitive or even deadly if they tried to take down their usual prey.
Commonly, severe damage or degradation of teeth is a motivating factor, as are problems with claws, paws or limbs.
Humans, as it turns out, for all of our success and deadliness that we enjoy when in groups and armed with our tools and weapons, are not very impressive physically compared to the usual prey animals of a tiger.
This means that a tiger will have a much easier time of bringing down a human being, particularly one that is alone and unarmed, compared to a powerful mammal equipped with hooves and horns.
In essence, aging or ailing tigers are forced to begin eating humans if they want to eat at all.
Keep in mind, this does not mean a tiger would not attack and kill a human being for some other reason as discussed above, but a true “man-eating” tiger, one that keeps humans on the menu regularly, is a rarity even in the most densely populated areas.
They can also develop a taste for humans during war, feasting on corpses who remain unclaimed.
This actually happened after World War II and in Vietnam. Soldiers in the field weren’t just battling enemies; they were defending themselves against attacks from vicious wildlife who’d developed a taste for the humans left behind.
Now, there was this one case of a Royal Bengal tiger around the 1900s which successfully hunted an estimated 400 people, but this isn’t by far typical.
Tigers typically hunt easy prey such as livestock such as deer, wild pigs, and even baby elephants. They’re not particularly fond of how humans taste.
It should be noted that measures to prevent tiger attacks aren’t known to be particularly successful if the tiger has already shown interest.
In the Sunderbans of India, where the man-eating tigers live, some success was briefly demonstrated when people wore masks on the backs of their heads.
Tigers attack from the rear, so this worked for some time until the tigers caught on. Cats are extremely intelligent beings too, so humans have to stay a step ahead.
The best measures remain staying upright, traveling in groups, and staying in populated areas.
How To Avoid a Tiger Attack
First, the best advice is to stay calm and be realistic. Unless you are living in tiger attack country, it probably won’t happen. And even if you do live in tiger attack country, it probably won’t happen.
Most likely everyone in the Sunderbans of India can tell you stories of someone they know who got killed by a tiger, but the population is still high enough that it’s rare.
Only 3 out of a 1,000 tigers are man-eaters, and there are fewer than 5,000 in the wild, so we’re worrying about a population of 15 tigers (other than occasional zoo attacks that do occur as well), so the odds are in your favor that you won’t be attacked.
However, destruction of their habitat, expansion of human settlements as well as declines in the species they usually eat – all of these may mean you may run into one if you’re the adventure traveler kind.
Don’t panic if you see one. Be smart and get away from it as quickly as possible – but definitely do not panic. Instead, follow some well-advised rules…
1. Stay upright.
Tigers also often stalk humans they find crouching while working in fields. Once they stand, the tiger loses interest – people simply are not the prey they prefer. This is why it’s believed that often attacks are mistaken identities.
So if you find yourself crouching in an area known for tiger presence, get yourself upright
2: Stay close to populated areas.
Tigers usually stalk for some time before attacking, but they avoid populated areas. Therefore, if you stay within well-traveled areas and especially within towns, you significantly reduce your chance of running into one, and if there is one stalking you undetected, it will likely back off when you approach a town.
3. Go with groups of people.
Tigers choose solitary people before they choose groups, and again, they follow for some time. If there is more than one person with you or someone joins you, a tiger will likely not engage.
4. Change direction constantly.
Tigers usually attack from behind or the side, approaching upwind or lying in wait downwind. If the tiger is spotted before the ambush begins, they usually do not follow through. Therefore, change direction constantly so that they cannot stay upwind of you.
5. Carry a firearm with you.
If you have to shoot the firearm, the tiger will be scared off likely by the sound of the shot even if you miss – but a heavy-powered firearm is also likely the only tool you’d be able to use against a tiger that might actually slow them.
In fact, tigers have been known to attack while injured from bullet wounds, so the most deadly one at your disposal along with some intense target practice may be your best defense.
6. Don’t make sudden loud noises unless you’re actively discouraging an attack.
If the noise is steady, for example conversation in your group, you’re more likely to warn or even not disturb at all a sleeping, feeding, or mother tiger.
They’ll likely stay away from you. But sudden noise will make them feel under attack, and they’ll defend themselves and their cherished sleep, food, or children.
7. Follow the zoo’s rules.
If you’re in a zoo or a safari park, follow the rules and stay away from enclosures. Almost every attack story is the result of a tourist or visitor disregarding rules.
You’re invading the space of a violent animal who might be hungry or tired. Rules exist for your safety.
8. Walk – don’t run and stay off of bikes!
Moving fast sounds like a good idea in theory, but have you seen dogs who go after cars and bikes? Wild animals are the same when they’re in the right mood.
Hunting instinct kicks in and you become their prey because of the speed with which you’re moving. Despite your urge to move through quickly, the best way to go through is calmly, without showing fear.
Methods Some Swear Will Work – and Why They’re Wrong
1. Grabbing the tiger from behind.
First, tigers attack you from behind, so if it surprises you, how are you going to get yourself at a better angle to do this? But the point is really moot. This suggestion comes from someone who has surely never taken on a tiger.
A tiger – like most cats – has a non-load bearing spine. That means it’s flexible enough that it can reach onto its back and attack quite easily.
Their back legs are actually stronger than their front legs – hence their amazing leaping ability – and they can actually trap you underneath them if you try this, ensuring a faster death than just about any other method.
They can also get to your arms with their powerful claws – possibly the strongest part of their body, which will damage your arms so badly they’ll be rendered useless and the animal is free to kill you with ease. Nope, not a good idea.
2. Poking it in the eye.
Really, it’s a suggested method! It might actually work…no one likes being poked in the eye! If you dig your finger into its eye, you may create so much pain that it backs off.
Or not – it might shake you off and right into its mouth! If you happen to have a stick, or a rifle you’re too panicked to actually shoot, those might work better for eye-poking and will keep the tiger a little further at bay. How are you going to get that close anyway and still have enough self-control to attempt this?
Honestly, this might work – by luck, with a frail tiger. If the animal gets that close and you have needle-sharp wits that move faster than its claws, it’s your best bet. Remember this one in case it gets that close – but pray it doesn’t get that close!
3. Taming the tiger.
Tamers have been doing this for thousands of years so surely it’s possible. There was even a movie – “Life of Pi” – about a boy who did it on a life raft. You probably can’t do it in the moment, but it’s said that staring it directly in the eye begins the process of taming.
On the other hand, plenty of lion tamers get mauled and some don’t make it out alive – and we’re talking about tamers who have been with a particular cat its whole life, not one that you came upon in the wild and you decided to hypnotize!
Ask magician Roy Horn if this works – we’ll talk more about him in a moment.
4. Outrunning it.
A very old or infirm tiger can be outrun by Usain Bolt! Tigers run up to 40 miles an hour over short distances. Usain Bolt can run 30 miles an hour over a short distance. I can run a half a mile an hour over approximately ten yards, and the rest of humanity falls somewhere between Bolt and me.
Therefore, Bolt may survive with just his legs and high-priced crosstrainers if the tiger is injured, collecting a pension, or lazy. The rest of us are probably out of luck.
Note: keep in mind older and injured tigers are more likely to attack.
5. Wrapping your arms around your neck.
This is a last-ditch idea but supposedly a tiger aims for your neck. If it’s already covered, it’s less likely to go after you.
This is a pure desperation move – a tiger can swat at your head and break your neck, or it can aim for your arm and let you bleed out. This isn’t likely to work, but you’re welcome to try if it’s the only idea you have left!
False Eye Markings
There are accounts of villagers living in areas populated by tigers who are undergoing regular attacks improvising solutions to the problem.
One solution that showed promise, that was unfortunately proven ineffective, was that of false eye markings. This took the form of crafted masks of human faces worn on the back of the head or neck.
The good news is that because tigers prefer to attack from behind with prey unaware, the presence of the masks did fool the offending big cats for a time.
Attacks slowed and eventually halted. Regrettably, this was only for a short while. The tigers were still there and still on the hunt, and due to their high intelligence quickly discerned that the masks were false, and they began their typical attack pattern of jumping prey from the rear.
Unfortunately for the villagers, this method was only a temporary reprieve and they had to try something else. Don’t believe anyone who is peddling this method as a possible solution for tiger ambushes.
Another method that was initially tried by locals suffering repeated tiger attacks anytime they went to field, even in groups, is the human decoy.
Sort of a relative to a scarecrow, decoys were employed when people harvesting crops or cutting grass had to bend down to do their jobs.
As we already learned, getting close to the ground will invite a tiger attack more often than not. It was believed that a decoy left standing up would give the tiger pause and prevent it from attacking.
Once again, this worked for a time, but the tigers quickly uncovered the deception and resumed their predation. The villagers, undaunted, started further modifying decoys, even rigging up human dummies to deliver an electrical shock when attacked by a tiger.
The idea was that any attacking tigers in the area that were regularly stalking humans would quickly begin to associate an attack on a human with severe pain, and change their behavior.
And once again, the clever cats quickly adapted, learned to identify even high fidelity decoys on sight and began to only target the hapless villagers. It is unlikely that you’ll be able to craft or transport any decoy convincing enough to deter or distract a tiger.
How To Actually Survive a Tiger Attack
The only real weapon an unarmed human has that could take down a tiger is its intelligence. Hence, the best plan is to be prepared no matter how unlikely the scenario. In this case, our intelligence will not allow us to defeat a tiger with our bare hands. That is not humans nor tigers were designed.
We have developed weapons and tools over centuries that we should use instead to overcome it. So barehanded survival? Not likely. Here are other methods, and they involve staying as far away as possible:
1. Carry a firearm and have it ready to use.
If a tiger attack is imminent or unavoidable, your very best defense is a firearm. But there are two major challenges to overcome.
While any firearm is better than nothing under the circumstances, you’ll need a large caliber, deeply penetrating long gun to have any chance of instantly stopping a tiger attack. Tigers are apex predators of large mammals, and built accordingly.
The other major challenge is keeping your nerve and delivering accurate hits on a terrifying animal that strikes with lightning speed from ambush.
It is the understatement of the year to say that this is easier said than done! If you are not a seasoned shooter and able to keep your wits the gun might not do any good.
Anyone who is “loaded for tiger” should be carrying a powerful rifle or a shotgun with slugs.
A handgun might be alright if you are already entangled with the tiger, but in that situation you will be gravely outmatched and likely will not be able to bring the handgun to bear in time to save your own life.
Nonetheless, there’s a reason that professional hunters, guides and security forces traveling in tiger country always do so armed if they have any choice in the matter. You should do the same thing.
2. Carry pepper spray.
Pepper spray, or more specifically wildlife deterrent spray, is your second best bet for deterring a tiger attack.
The ferociously irritating aerosol will likely convince a tiger to break contact and run if it has not begun the attack, and it might convince it to stop on attack and flee if it has.
Sprays of this nature have shown considerable promise against other mega predators like bears, and these sprays are colloquially known as “bear spray” in the United States.
Probably the best advantage of pepper spray or similar solutions in this context is that they can blanket a wide area with a dense fog that provides a far greater margin of error than a firearm.
But there are some disadvantages. First, these sprays might not be readily available or even legal in any country or territory where tigers are likely to be found.
Second, like a firearm, getting it into gear quickly enough to save your life for someone else’s might be challenging once the attack has already begun.
And, not for nothing, the effectiveness of these sprays is likely to be greatly reduced whenever you are dealing with a strong wind or heavy precipitation.
It’s hard for some people to believe that tigers typically avoid direct head-on confrontation whenever possible. I get it, as it seems like an animal that is so large, powerful and capable wouldn’t have cause to fear anything except perhaps an elephant.
But this fact is nonetheless true, and it is possible to intimidate some tigers into backing off for a time or giving up entirely.
One method that has shown some promise in scaring off tigers from an imminent attack or ambush site is the use of a noise maker. It must be sharp, sudden and painfully loud, whatever it is, but it could be unusual enough to startle a tiger into reassessing the situation.
This could be anything from firecrackers to an emergency whistle or a siren or some other audible signaling device. As long as you can spot the tiger ahead of time or see it coming on a prolonged stalk, this method has a decent chance of success.
4. Back Away
One peculiar adaptation that tigers display and they’re hunting preference is taking prey from behind and unawares, and particularly in the case of larger prey, which sometimes includes humans, tigers will rarely attack when their prey is facing them.
Knowledge of this fact led some locals who dealt with constant tiger attacks to wear masks on the back of their heads with large and conspicuous eyes.
Unfortunately, tigers are highly intelligent; they quickly detected the ruse and began attacking from behind again in spite of the masks.
That being said, we can use this knowledge of tiger behavior to our advantage. If it is possible to detect the tiger ahead of time, particularly when it’s executing a long stalk or lying in wait ahead of approaching prey, you might be able to maneuver away safely by keeping the predator in sight and backing away steadily but calmly.
Most predators do not want to risk unnecessary injury by botching an attack. Tigers are the same way, and if they suspect that the jig is up, they might forestall their attack or abandon it entirely.
Wait it Out
Although low on the list of methods likely to be successful in preventing or halting a tiger attack if you have no other option it might be possible to wait out a tiger that is preparing to ambush.
We know that tigers prefer to attack prey unaware and from behind if at all possible. No this does not mean they will not attack directly from the front if prey is aware, given no other choice.
That being said, if you are unable to get away and have no other defensive options it might be possible to maintain an upright, defensive posture and simply wait for a tiger to give up.
You might be in for a long and terrifying wait, but it could be your only option.
Famous Tiger Attack Survivors
Roman gladiators fought a variety of animals and didn’t always survive. In fact usually the shows were beasts versus criminals who weren’t given any sort of weapons or protection, and the audience watched with glee as the criminal was gored.
But when actual gladiators took on the beasts, among them tigers, they had spears and armors. It helped, but it didn’t guarantee survival. The animals weren’t in their natural habitat, and don’t like the taste of human flesh, nor do they generally attack a human who is on to them, as we’ve learned.
Therefore, these protected gladiators were going against animals who didn’t have much
interest in them.
During the late nineteenth century, this man supposedly had such great strength he wrestled tigers for fun. There are elements to his story that sound sensationalized – for example, he calls human blood the tiger’s favorite taste, which we know to be untrue.
Tiger Swami is not widely thought to be a fraud, but his book of tiger wrestling is an autobiography, and there are photos of him – but not wrestling or with any other sort of evidence.
There is some skepticism – are the stories even true? Were the tigers drugged, ill, or tamed in some way? There really is no way to know but evidence is lacking.
Sher Shah Shuri
Known as the “Lion King” of India – lion and tiger were the same words among the people who first bestowed this name – this shah supposedly wrestled a tiger with his bare hands in the forest when it tried to attack him.
It’s most likely a myth, along with one that says he was over seven feet tall, and others. He was one of India’s greatest rulers and military men, but the tiger story is likely false.
Another autobiographical tale, this martial artist was captured by the Russians in World War II and kept as a prisoner of war. He was locked in a cell with the tiger, which was expected to devour him, but he killed it with his bare hands. Again, there are no witnesses.
Now here’s a believable survival story, and not just because it’s modern-day with many witnesses. Half of magician duo Siegfried and Roy, Horn was attacked by his pet tiger, raised in captivity, who had never shown any sign of violence.
He and his partner later claimed the cat had been trying to play with him – and it’s likely true, since Horn survived. But Horn passed out and was taken to the hospital, and he’s been partially paralyzed ever since the incident almost fifteen years ago.
So – could you survive a tiger attack? The answer depends! You can very easily avoid one, so yes!
But if you find yourself in the middle of a tiger attack, you’re probably having the last interesting experience of your life, and what a shame you won’t get to tell the story! It’s possible to survive but that’s based on pure luck, and your luck is likely a bit thin if you’re staring down a tiger.
Focus on avoiding attacks in the first place, and you’ll surely have plenty more stories to tell – even if they have nothing to do with tigers because you never run into one!