Changing Planet

Solving the Mystery of the 18th-Century Killer “Beast of Gévaudan”

By Karl-Hans Taake

From 1764 to 1767, in the historical region of Gévaudan, located in southern France, and in adjacent areas, about one hundred children, youths, and women were killed by a so-called “Beast”. Numerous other humans survived the attacks, many of them seriously injured. The series of attacks has been confirmed by a great variety of historical documents and is not called into question by scientists.

Karl-Hans Taake is the author of "The Gévaudan Tragedy: The Disastrous Campaign of a Deported 'Beast'" (click the image for the Kindle edition). His book traces the story of the “beast” and its victims; it deals extensively with the identity of the “beast”, and proves that in Gévaudan a manmade catastrophe occurred.
Karl-Hans Taake is the author of “The Gévaudan Tragedy: The Disastrous Campaign of a Deported ‘Beast'” (click the image for the Kindle edition). His book traces the story of the “Beast” and its victims; it deals extensively with the identity of the “Beast”, and proves that in Gévaudan a manmade catastrophe occurred.

Historians claim that wolves, or a hybrid of a wolf and a domestic dog, had attacked the victims; the “hybrid-assumption” is based on the description of a canid, shot in June 1767, that was said to have strange morphological characteristics. However, a critical evaluation of historical texts, including the publications of the French abbots François Fabre and Pierre Pourcher, revealed that neither this animal, nor any other wolf killed in Gévaudan, had anything to do with the attacks of the Beast. Nevertheless, there were, indeed, a few attacks of rabid and non-rabid wolves on humans in Gévaudan at that time.

Statistics of Beast Attacks

John D. C. Linnell et al., who published in 2002 a review of wolf attacks on humans, present the age distribution of human victims of wolves from the 18th to the 20th century. In their tables the attacks of the Beast are included, since they are considered as wolf attacks. However, if the table row “France 1764-1767” is excluded and analysed separately (nearly all data in this row refer to victims of the Beast), the following emerges: The Beast’s data show a drastic shift towards higher age. Grown-up victims of the Beast are proportionally six times more frequent than grown-up victims of wolves. Children under the age of ten, in contrast, are only represented by a third compared to the data for wolves. The victims of the Beast were older on average and therefore able to defend themselves more powerfully, they were heavier and energetically more “lucrative”. The Beast’s data are significantly different from the wolves’ data. Since the average prey size normally increases with the body size of predators, the data present indirect, but, nevertheless, clear evidence that the witnesses of that time had not exaggerated: they had encountered an animal that was much bigger than a wolf.

Wolf Attacks in Gévaudan

Antoine_de_Beauterne“An 18th-century engraving of Antoine de Beauterne slaying the wolf of Chazes.” (Source: Wikipedia)

About 95 percent of the carnivore attacks on humans in Gévaudan during the years 1764 to 1767 can be attributed to that single animal that was referred to as la bête: The Beast. There is no doubt that the remaining attacks were executed by rabid and non-rabid wolves. Wolves were a common species at that time and therefore easily recognized by the rural population.

Wolves Labelled as “Beast”

"The wolf shot by François Antoine on 21 September 1765, displayed at the court of Louis XV“ (Source: Wikipedia)
“The wolf shot by François Antoine on 21 September 1765, displayed at the court of Louis XV.“ (Source: Wikipedia)

From 1764 to 1767, more than a hundred wolves were killed in Gévaudan. Half a dozen of these wolves were thought to be the Beast. However, surviving victims, helpers of the attacked humans, and hunters of the Beast had described a carnivore that was very different from a wolf. Therefore, several tricks were applied to change a killed wolf into the Beast. One wolf was said to have appeared as big as a donkey; brown fur portions in wolves were described as reddish; the Beast’s dark line along its spine was interpreted as the usual saddle-shaped patch on a wolf’s back; pieces of cloth were (very probably) manoeuvred with a stick into a dead wolf’s stomach and so on.

Descriptions of the Beast

The reports of the eyewitnesses provide details about the Beast that cannot have been invented because they add up to a coherent picture.

There can be no reasonable doubt that the Beast was a lion, namely a subadult male. The description of size, appearance, behaviour, strength – it all fits together: the comparison of size with a bovine animal; flat head; reddish fur; a dark line along the spine occasionally occurring in lions; spots on the sides of the body that appear especially in younger lions; a body that becomes conspicuously sturdier from the rear towards the front; a tail which appears to be strangely thin (since shorthaired); a tassel on the tail; enormous strength that allowed the animal to carry off adult humans and to split human skulls as well as to jump nine meters [30 feet]; the use of a rough tongue to scrape tissue from skulls so that these appeared as if they were polished; roaring calls described as terrible barking; a paw print of 16 centimeters [6 inches] length; using claws during an attack; attacking big ungulates by jumping on their backs; throttling victims, that is: killing by interrupting the air flow; a preference for the open country.

Drawings like this one show how residents of Gévaudan tried to depict the Beast as wolves or fabulous creatures. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Beast disappeared around the middle of the year 1767 from Gévaudan, after poisoned baits had been placed there on a large scale. Since 1764 it had suffered a dozen or more gunshot wounds, some of the shots fired at close range, whereas wolves were often fatally struck by a single shot.

Lions were, in 18th Century France, a well-known species, but most people had at best seen only stylized representations of males with well-developed manes, e.g. as heraldic animals. The people in Gévaudan certainly had no idea of the appearance of a subadult male with its developing mane and its “Mohawk haircut”. Nevertheless, the dragoon officer Jean-Baptiste Boulanger Duhamel, one of the hunters of the Beast, was very close to the solution when he wrote in January 1765: “This animal is a monster whose father is a lion; it remains open what the mother is.” The attacks of the Beast of Gévaudan are only one of several series of attacks of bêtes féroces (wild beasts) in France during the 17th and 18th centuries – at a time when menageries, where exotic animals were displayed, had become fashionable.

Karl-Hans Taake is a biologist and a former academic assistant of the University of Osnabrück (Northwest Germany), where he wrote his doctoral thesis on behavioural ecology. He published zoological research papers, contributed to manuals about mammals, edited and translated books on biology, and was the scientific editor for a universal encyclopaedia.

This image depicts the Beast as a lion; it was published in the 20th Century French medical Journal Æsculape. (Source: Fabre, François: La bête du Gévaudan. Edition complétée par Jean Richard. De Borée, 2002; p. 15)
  • M G Balarin

    A fascinating article.

  • Alex

    Looks like a good book, but concerning the lion theory:

    What about cold weather? Lions cannot survive on icy habitat or below 0ºC temp. (harsh winters in central France for a tropical hot loving animal like lions)

    Mane not always, reported claws present (lions have retractable nails)

    Lions need much food to survive, it is a hyper carnivore (many kg. /day), the beast sometimes would leave corpses untouched etc. absence of big game in French woods, few wild deer etc. much human hunting pressure, not enough for this top and heavy predator

    Anyway, congratulations to the author!

  • Karl

    @Alex. Lions tolerate winter conditions of the temperate climate zone: they lived in South-East Europe and nowadays live in the Bale Mountains in Ethiopia where night frost occurs. Claw imprints: these were reported from places of attack. Lions use their claws during attacks; they also extract their claws while running on slippery ground. Prey: We are talking about the years before the French Revolution. The nobles had the exclusive hunting rights and their gamekeepers cared for the game. There were plenty of prey animals for the Beast.

  • Michael

    I’ve long suspected that the most likely suspect is a leopard. Leopards were definitely present in Europe, many had been brought to Europe and released. Easily frightened away from a kill (without necessarily being seen) leaving kills untouched. leopard of Rhudraprayag killed 125 people, mostly women and children, as written about by Jim Corbett who eventually killed the animal. The way they kill humans also would fit and they could certainly adapt to the conditions. As for descriptions at the time, they were likely to be distorted and or exaggerated. There are many references to man eating leopards. They are extremely stealthy and very secretive…just a thought, but way more likely than lions, hyenas and wolves.

  • Karl

    @Michael: Yes, some leopards became notorious as man-eaters, but this is not the cat species that the people in Gévaudan described. The Beast was neither stealthy nor secretive; it entered gardens in daylight, was observed dozens of times, and it defended its human prey against helpers, even those armed with lances or other weapons. Leopards are either spotted all over or they are black; both colorations are very conspicuous. The Beast was reddish and had spots only on the sides of its body; it had a dark line along its spine. Furthermore, the fur on the front body of a leopard is not conspicuously long, a leopard does not wear upright hair on the back of its head und neck (but a subadult male lion does), and the tip of a leopard’s tail does not appear extraordinarily thick. The body size of a leopard can hardly be compared with the size of a one-year-old bovine animal; and the body of a leopard does not taper towards the rear. And only a very strong leopard would be able to carry off adult humans over longer distances through a difficult terrain.

  • Michael

    Dear Karl, I’m not arguing with you, it is just a point of view. I was in the Police criminal investigation for many years, and although it is not always the case, many descriptions of events by witnesses are a long way from the truth and often wildly off the mark. Also, descriptions can be influenced by writers and investigators of the time. That aside, I am looking at the killings themselves. The man-eater of Panar killed 400 people, the targets mainly women and children, and the details of the attacks are not dissimilar. Evidence from these attacks show leopards carrying adult human beings (9 stone and more) over 500 metres at a time without a drag mark. Leopards are known to carry prey, much heavier than themselves, into tall branches of trees, etc. Their strength is not in doubt and well documented in both the past and the present. In relation to animals seen on the kill, I would surmise that they are other scavengers, large dogs etc seen at the kill, not unusual and has also been documented. These scavengers, more familiar with humans, would be less likely to be scared off a kill. The angle I am looking at to find the culprit is the way it kills and the prey it targets. Lions and Tigers are very distinctive and also very bold and I believe if either was the culprit it would have been definitely identified and probably killed. Wolves certainly can kill, but they cannot drag the victims away significant distances and would have been well known and recognised in those times.

    It is only a theory of mine from studying man eaters in India and Africa, but I think deserves more than a simple dismiss. In my experience of crime, I would look closely at the method of killing and less at witness accounts. Just my theory, not an attempt to discredit.

  • Karl

    Dear Michael, we are discussing, not arguing. A debate is useful only when different views are presented; and you are referring to interesting points. I think that testimonies are more credible when different witnesses report similar observations on different occasions and when their statements are supported by facts such as specific injuries. No one of those who described the Beast reported that he/she had seen an animal that was spotted all over or entirely black. Many observations from that time are available in original documents, e.g. reports of officials to their superiors. As I wrote earlier, I do not dispute that a strong leopard can carry an adult human. In the Gévaudan attacks scavengers played a tangential role: many attacks of the Beast were either observed directly or the disappearance of a person was soon detected. In both cases helpers immediately started to search for the carried-off victim; they often found that person within minutes or a few hours. In most cases there was hardly any time for scavengers to detect a corpse. The people in Gévaudan would have been able to identify a tiger easily, but identifying a male lion that has no fully developed mane would have been more difficult – difficult for them, not for us nowadays. The Beast was tracked down by hunters several times and was hit by bullets. Two shots were fired from a distance of about ten steps: the Beast was hurt and went down, but it escaped. Firearms at that time were suited to kill wolves and humans, but obviously hardly suited to kill lions. The method of killing: the Beast attacked human victims by their neck and interrupted the air and blood flow. As far as it is known the Beast did not kill by piercing the carotid artery and trachea of a victim. It attacked horses by jumping on their backs.

  • Michael

    Dear Karl, It is a fascinating set of circumstances. We can certainly agree on one thing, and that is that this is definitely the work of a large cat and not, in my opinion, a wolf, hyena or a hybrid of the same. My main doubts regarding my leopard theory is that ,although perfectly capable of killing humans, as is widely documented, man eating leopards almost always kill at night. This, as you know, is not the same for man eating tigers, that almost always kills during daylight hours. Lions will kill during daytime hours and at night, and as with tigers are very bold animals. Many man eating cats (leopards, tigers and lions) have been driven to their role as a result of injury, often having been shot and this would also conform to reports of animals that are strong enough to withstand poorly aimed shots. Other reasons would be old age, broken teeth, porcupines quills, lack of natural game etc, basically an inability to hunt is natural food. Once the animal realises how easy to catch human prey as compared to their natural prey the change is easy to understand. Dependant on the witnesses, local farmers as opposed to aristocracy, I’m not certain how familiar people would be with either tigers, leopards or lions. The descriptions speak of a reddish colour and the fur round the neck, so I understand your notion of a young adult male lion but also an adult European tiger would fit this. Lions and tigers are also more fitting of descriptions of animals the size of a horse. I still find it difficult to be wholly reliant on witness statements and their familiarity with these animals. In the cold light of day, for us, it would be easy to discern which animal was responsible, but in the fear of an attack by an animal you had only ever heard about it would be very different. If you have stood beside an adult tiger or lion, which I’m sure you have, it is still incredible to see how big these animals really are…if the first time you saw one was at ten feet distance during a full on attack I should imagine it was simply terrifying. I do think that the survivability in that region, over a prolonged period of time, would be more suited to a leopard or a tiger which are much more familiar with these conditions and more adept at keeping hidden when hunted. Lions, by their very nature are much bolder and easier to find. Lions all over Africa will happily lie out in the open for all to see. Leopards, Tigers, Cougars (mountain lions) etc are solitary animals, not sociable animals, much more secretive animals and very much harder to find or hunt.

    Anyway, extremely fascinating and I’m certain that you are correct in establishing that the animal responsible was a large cat and not any of the other culprits.

  • Karl

    Dear Michael, yes we agree on a very important point: it was a cat. And maybe, if you would find the time to read the historical books written by Pourcher and Fabre and the 21st century books of Moriceau and Smith, we would even reach an agreement about the cat species.

  • Fred

    While not very familiar with any big cats, as the last such animal here – a Marsupial Lion – is long extinct ! Anyway, I digress – could the mysterious big cat be a Liger ?

  • Karl

    @Fred: Nice to hear even from Australia and (@ M G Balarin) South Africa. The descriptions of the Beast are detailed enough to allow us not only to classify the species, but, moreover, the animal’s sex and relative age. When observations may be fully explained by a an obvious solution, we need not look for unlikely possibilities that explain the observations less well. Ligers normally have stripes, but the Beast had only one stripe. For a lion, the Beast was neither exceptionally big nor exceptionally strong: if it had been an older, stronger, fight-experienced male lion, there would have been even more human victims.

  • NanaAnn

    Here’s the closest I can come to a red lion (although I suspect the face is blood hehe) I couldn’t find any w/spots except very young ones who were quite small & had no hair to even suggest a mane in progress. I would be nice if this article was amended to show a pic of a similar lion as that which was suggested here.

  • Karl

    @NanaAnn: You will find subadults with spots and mohawk manes here:

  • Sven

    The article neglects the fact that many of the killed victims were completely nude i.e. stripped of their clothes with very often the clothes neatly rearranged nearby. This can not be attributed to any animal, therefore a human factor must be added. In my opinion, the beast was a very big wolf-dog hybrid trained by someone of the infamous Chastel family to attack and kill people. A dog race like the mastiff comes into mind, they were used as dogs of war in ancient times and protected by a “cuirasse” of toughened boar-skin which would further explain the unusual appearance. The Chastel family is rumored to have kept several of these beasts in these mountain areas with the complicity of the local noblefamily of the de Morangies. They seemed to be sadistic madmen who used these animals to kill the local people and commit their sadistic crimes using this cover. For a more thorough explanation of these facts see the article in the French wikipedia.

  • Karl

    @ Sven: As far as I know, the clothing was never taken off in the normal manner, but was ripped down in some cases. Scraps of clothing were lying on the site of attack, on the deposit site of the body, or between both places. Stories about a “fou sadique” (sadistic madman) date back on the medical doctor Paul Puech from Montpellier. Puech had read in an early 20th Century newspaper descriptions of the dead bodies of some female Beast victims (“stripped, frazzled breast”) that reminded him of the misdeeds of Jack the Ripper. Without studying historical texts, Puech published his assumption in 1910. Puech’s “ahistorical argument” (Jay M. Smith: “Monsters of the Gévaudan”, 2011) was already rejected by François Fabre in 1930. The French university professor Jean Marc-Moriceau wrote in “La Bête du Gévaudan” (2008) about Puech: “premier auteur à imaginer l’intervention d’un assassin sadique au mépris de toutes les sources”: “first author who imagined in disregard of all sources the intervention of a sadistic killer”. – Yes, the wildest rumours were circulating about the Chastels, especially about Antoine Chastel, who was believed to be a werewolf. In serious historical research, none of these rumours plays a role. The beast was several times seen from nearby; hunters saw it from a distance of ten steps, surviving victims even closer. No one reported that it wore any sort of armour.

  • Holly

    I personally have other thought about La Bète Gèvaudan. Seriously think about it. Doesn’t it seem strange? A beast bigger than a wolf, looks like a Lion but its not is it? What was it really? Wolves and Loins DONT kill for sport, they kill for food and only attack if they feel threatened. So unless these people did something to threaten the Beast BEFORE they went hunting for it or those people it killed threatened it. Then that was NOT a wolf nor lion. So what was La Bète Gèvaudan really?

    • TroyTroodon

      1. There were two lions who technically did kill for sport; The Ghost and The Darkness, ei The Maneaters of Tsavo

      2. I think my best guess to Le Bête’s identity would have to be a serial killer who uses an animal as their murder weapon; and my theory is that animal/weapon was a wolf-dog cross, an animal that would look surprisingly like a large wolf, hence why many of the people blamed Mr. Lupe for all the killings but with the trainability of a dog.

  • Karl

    @ Holly: The Beast’s motive is undisputed among historians and beyond any doubt: it killed because it was hungry. The Beast devoured in some cases within minutes large parts of a human body, much more than a wolf or a big dog would be able to eat. Witnesses handed down horrific details about the remains of some victims. An animal that looks like a lion, behaves like a lion, and leaves lion-sized paw imprints, is very likely to be a lion.

  • Andrew

    The Beast of Gevaudan killings are one of the most perplexing mysteries of European history. The exceptionally large body-count and consistency of witness descriptions paints a vivid picture of what must have been a nightmarish three-year period for the isolated rural peasants of the region.
    I think your assessment of the data is very convincing. I’ve seen videos of big cat hunts and attacks, and understand just how resilient and deadly they are.
    The size, victim profiles, behavior, and durability all definitely point to some type of big cat, likely imported for the menagerie of some wealthy French aristocrat at the time.
    I’ve never heard of any account of victims being found in the trees, which would be telling of a leopard or jaguar. So I have to respectfully disagree with Michael’s theory. An African Lion seems the much more likely candidate.
    Plus, the similarities between the Gevaudan attacks and those of the Tsavo man-eaters are significant. Dozens of victims, brazen attacks at day and night. Almost supernatural resistance to bullets, etc.
    Talk about an invasive species…

  • charli

    le bete gevaudan. the supernatural think about something thats not a wolf but with the looks of a lion but are neither. im not saying that the suppernatural is real but it could no ones proved that its impossible

  • Alexander Bukovsek

    Did someone ever search scientifically for rests of the beasts DNA for example on spears or sticks with blades used by the shepards or kids who did hit the beast in defence of themselves? Or maybe rests of the beasts DNA on the remains of some victims? If there are remains of the beasts DNA it would be easy to identify the species…
    By the way congratulations on the book Mr. Taake, I found it in the same manner interesting as also thrilling to read!

  • Karl

    @ Alexander Bukovsek: A very interesting aspect. However, I do not know of any material from that time (blade, human bone) that could be examined for DNA traces. If there was such material, it would have to be ensured that the DNA is actually from the Beast. Lances were also used to kill wolves. Furthermore, wolves eat from corpses that have been only superficially buried. So human remains from the Gévaudan might contain for this reason wolf DNA. A clear case, however, would be the DNA of an exotic carnivore species on a lance or a human bone.

  • Liz Kaspar

    Thing like a lion, but size of a horse/donkey, reddish fur, dorsal stripe, no mane, but like spiky hair around the face/neck – and you think that’s a juvenile male African lion??

    Tell you what it sounds like to ME: a flippin’ Cave Lion! An ancient relict species, probably native to the region!

    oh I’m no paeleozoologist – but I do know my Jean Auel! 😉

    But yeah: first time I saw theory was today on Forbes; but I can buy your “big cat” theory! Seems more likely than a lot of other weird stuff; incl serial killers with armoured mastiffs! [eyeroll]

    And lions when they turn maneater can get pretty prolific, can’t they? Just like those Tsavo lions. They were maneless, too. But genetically so, I understand.

    Anyway. The only other remotely likely theories to my mind that I have heard have involved things like Dire wolves, which I don’t even know if they ever lived in France! And there was one involving some other really strange paeleo beast – one of those hoofed predators, a whatchumacallit! But I believe those were even pre paeleolithic! In era. (But didn’t one account say the thing had hooves? Mind you in some illustrations it looks more like a giant greyhound!)

    Probably quite natural. But doubt it was a normal lion!

  • Karl

    @ Liz Kaspar: Sorry, no hooves (four toes per leg imprinted into the soil), no spiky hair (but upright hair on the neck), no greyhound-like appearance (most sketches are based more on the fantasy of the artist than on descriptions of witnesses), and definitely no species that became extinct thousands of years ago. I agree with you that male lions may be maneless for genetic reasons. The Beast, however, showed signs of a developing mane. And thanks for your hint on the article (by David Bressan) on that is worth reading.

  • Rob

    Very interesting article, and having read everything else in English about ‘la bete’, I’ll be reading Herr Taake’s book forthwith.

    I would agree that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. However, I still have a few reservations. I’m not sure I’d agree that there would be no-one there who would recognize an adolescent male lion, certainly among the nobility, who would have more likely to have been to Africa. Trading ports had been established in North Africa well over 100 years before the events in Gevaudan, and I can imagine that lions of all ages would have been commonplace in such markets.

    Secondly, I’d ask why the beast was intent on killing people for food when surely, the herds of sheep, goats would have been far easier pickings. Man-eaters may develop a taste for human flesh, I suppose, but I’m sure a stealth attack on the flocks at night would be preferable to human attacks in broad daylight.

    Thirdly, an African lion is a difficult thing to lose. I would imagine that anyone who notices a lion missing from their private menagerie might have said something.

    From memory, it has always struck me as strange that the attacks stopped immediately after the death (?) of Jean Chastel. I’m prepared to be corrected on that, but I remember thinking it a strong coincidence that when he died, then all attacks immediately ceased.

    I haven’t read anything new on this for years. It’s a great story – I’ll get back into it tonight. I’d love it to be an old throwback to a cave lion, that popped up coelacanth-like, in 18th century France, but alas, my money is also on Panthera Leo!

  • Karl

    @Rob: interesting aspects!

    1) Most of the witnesses who encountered the Beast were desperately poor, illiterate peasants. And the Dragoons, who hunted the Beast, were simple soldiers. Their commander Duhamel, who had fought abroad in the Seven Years’ War, was the only one who referred to the species lion. The hunts were coordinated by a few educated (or at least: high-ranking) persons. I do not know if any of them had been to Africa. So there were probably only a few witnesses (if any) who saw the Beast and had had the chance to see a lion in Africa.

    2) It is not known if the Beast preyed on goats, but it hated mutton. The Beast had several times the choice either to attack a sheep or a human. In all these cases it decided to attack the shepherd. It was only once observed killing a sheep, but it did not eat from it. But it is certain that the Beast also preyed on animals.

    3) Without doubt the owner of the Beast noticed that it had escaped. I am not sure if it escaped from a menagerie or during a transport. Maybe animal traders who transported the Beast feared the judiciary and the revenge of victims of the Beast and therefore decided to remain silent.

    4) No, Jean Chastel died in 1789, but the attacks of the Beast stopped in 1767. It is believed that the Beast was a wolf that was killed by Chastel on 19 June 1767. But it seems that the attacks had already stopped before that date.

  • Sanjeev

    Its definitely an European cave lion.. The enormous size, spots on its side, reddish fur, thickness of the tail and its small mane.

    • James

      And this is more likely than a sub-adult lion, or a liger, both of which have similar characteristics?

  • Michael

    Have you guys seen Brotherhood of the Wolf,they used the lion for the beast years ago.

    • James

      I have. My first thought when I saw this article was, ‘well. Looks like the film got something right after all, if only by accident’.

  • SB Jones

    Quote “This animal is a monster whose father is a lion; it remains open what the mother is.” – Jean-Baptiste Boulanger Duhamel.

    Could it be a Liger? (Lion Father, Tiger Mother) Ligers grow to be larger than either parent due to a growth restricting gene not being passed on. Refer ‘Hercules’ the Liger, World’s Biggest Cat’ for NIGHTMARE FUEL!

    Had it been ‘crossbred’ (by accident or by ‘design’/ ‘fashion’) from a tiger variant (golden, etc), that would affect coat colour and markings.

    Finally, Man-Eater Big Cats have been known to ‘develop a taste’ for Human flesh, to the point they decline other/easier prey.

  • Karl

    @SB Jones: It is doubtful whether Duhamel or any other hunter of the Beast knew the appearance of young male lions with their ‘Mohawk’ manes. Descriptions of the Beast depict a subadult lion that was not unusual regarding its size, strength, and appearance. It was not extremely big or strong. It selected children, youths, and women for prey; it mostly avoided adult men, who were better able to resist an attack. In several cases people armoured only with lances chased the Beast away from its human victim. This would hardly have been possible if the attacker had been a Liger (or a strong and experienced old male lion). And it is very unlikely that the Beast was a crossbreed from a tiger variant: it showed characteristics that lions have, but tigers do not, for example, a tassel on the tail. Yes, the Beast could not prey any longer on its natural prey in the African savannah, and therefore it developed, as you wrote, ‘a taste’ for human flesh: in Gévaudan it preyed on beings it could easily catch and overwhelm. The good news is that nearly everyone who participated in this discussion seems to agree that the Beast was a cat.

  • Klaudia

    if it was a lion how can we explain that it stood still and wagged it’s tail like a dog when it saw Chaumette? A lot of historians don’t even mention this. Chaumette and his brothers saw the Beast as it was about to attack a shepherd they then tried to shoot it, but it managed to ascape into the forest. It acted like this too when it saw Chastel who was about to kill it

  • Karl

    @ Klaudia: If many historians don’t mention this: what then is your source? The book written by Pierre Pourcher provides very detailed information on the hunt of the three brothers of the family Marlet de la Chaumette, including the behaviour of the Beast on that day (this book, first published in 1889, is available in English: see the pages 262 ff.). Pourcher copied the texts from the original sources. In these sources there is no evidence that the Beast stood still and wagged its tail like a dog: when the Beast noticed the hunters, it started to run over a meadow to escape. And that animal that was killed by Chastel (certainly not the Beast, but a normal wolf) was tracked down together with a female wolf during a battue and then pursued by dogs before it was shot. To my knowledge there is no evidence of tail wagging either. However, Jean d’Enneval, another hunter, reported about the Beast: “the tail [is] very long and it swings it like a cat before pouncing on its prey”.

  • Richard Freeman

    By far the most convincing theory to day. Wolves and hyenas simply do not fit the bill.

  • Sabine

    I recently read your book. It’s very matter of fact and well reasoned. Occam’s Razor suggests that you outlined the most likely solution of this fascinating mystery.
    As a criminal psychologist I tend to agree that it is a good idea to go back to the original eye witness accounts since the Beast has been seen often enough. While size and sounds are often distorted even by witnesses who have no reason whatsoever to lie, independently reported details like fur color, stripes or a tassled tail have the ring of truth – especially since the peasants of 18th century rural France most likely had no clear idea of a lions’s exterior in their heads which might otherwise have distorted their perception of the Beast. If we encounter something we cannot easily categorize we tend to fill in the gaps with something we’re familiar with. And if the beast had been a canine (large dog, wolf or hybrid) the witnesses would’ve said so, since they were very familiar with these animals. The familiarity with canines also explains why so many artist’s renditions of the Beast have decidedly canine features. The artists have probably never seen the Beast personally. Therefore they drew what they knew best.
    As some commenters have pointed out, the killings of the Beast have a lot of striking parallels with the famous Man-Eaters of Tsavo who over a period of ten months killed and ate a large number of railway workers at the end of the 19th century in Kenia. The construction of the railway was halted for three weeks because the workers refused to work under these murdeous conditions. Like the Beast the lions became bolder and bolder and showed up openly in various camps. They snatched their victims and carried them off in plain sight. They became incredibly cunning and they had lerned that humans are easy prey – at least as long as they were unarmed. And the common railway workers had no fire arms – just like most peasants of Gevaudan in the 18th century. Their knifes and stakes which were a defense against wolves, couldn’t easiy pierce the resilient skin of a lion, and the contemporary fire arms were notoriously inaccurate. Unlike horned buffalos or other African hooved animals who are able to put up quite a fight if they are healthy – humans without appropriate arms are totally defenseless when they encounter a hungry lion. They are easy prey and lions who have realized that, can become incredibly dangerous. Today in many African regions where human settlements and lion habitats are next to each other man-eating lions can become a huge problem. Lions are an endangered species and shouldn’t be killed lightly . But tell that to the people who have to live with that threat every day!
    There’s one thing, though, I wish you had explored in greater detail – even if some speculation would’ve been necessary: why was there a man-eating lion on the loose in the Auvergne of the 18th century?? Did you explore the exotic animal trade of that period? I don’t doubt that at the time lions have been imported and were kept in menageries (early private zoos) and traveling exhibitons. But as others have remarked: shouldn’t an accidentally lost lion have been reported immediately – before the killing of humans started? Those animals were expensive after all. And shouldn’t that have triggered a warning and a big search? At least some people who were involved in the handling of the animals would’ve known that a lion had gone missing. I have a hard time to believe that none of them would ever have come forward – not even later. I’d like to offer a slightly more sinister explanation, which may be supported by your idea that the Beast was a subadult lion and that the Auvergne at the time could be called a wilderness: I think it’s not unlikely that the lion was let loose deliberately in that area by someone who had acquired the animal when it was still a cute cub. When it grew too large it may have been set free by it’s owner for a variety of ill conceived reasons. Maybe, he wanted just to get rid of it once it got too big for handling. Or there was the romantic notion that a formidable beast like a lion deserved to be free and belonged into the wild. At the time the Auvergne was a wild and sparsely populated area and Rousseau’s ideas were circulating at the time. Maybe the owner wanted to test if the lion could survive on it’s own. But when the killings of humans started the former owner might’ve been mortified and he never came forward for understandabe reasons. I think it’s not a far fetched idea at all. It happens all the time that owners of exotic pets let them loose for various reasons. We can witness the dire consequences today in the Everglades which are plagued by Burmese pythons which have been let out by irresponsible owners who couldn’t handle the growing snakes anymore. A lion owner during the 18th century might not have forseen that the Beast would start to kill humans in order to feed itself.
    Anyway, thanks for exploring the mystery of the Beast of Gevaudan thoroughly with the tools of science.

  • Karl

    Sabine, it is a pleasure to read your inspiring comment,
    all the more because you point to a new aspect. Your suggestion that someone
    could have bought a lion cub and set it free after he had noticed that it grew
    bigger than he had expected (or for any other reason) is a plausible
    alternative to my idea that something went wrong during the transport of the
    animal. My idea is based on the observation that the Beast entered Gévaudan from
    the East, i.e. from the direction of the Rhone valley, an important trade
    route. Either the animal owner or trader decided to keep silent, because he was
    afraid to run into difficulties, or he became the Beast’s first victim whose mortal
    remains were not found. You also refer to another aspect: the inaccurate fire
    arms of that time. Insufficient accuracy was not the main problem, which the
    hunters of the Beast were facing. The Beast was hit several times by gun shots,
    even from very short distances. The problem
    were the spherical bullets, which were able to kill humans and wolves, but
    obviously caused only superficial wounds to a very big animal.

  • Luc Kramer

    If you take a close look at the skull drawings, it seems to look more like a bear . Not suggesting that it was a bear, but the skull drawings appear to have distinct features of the Ursus arctos arctos skull. In fact it looks more like bear then a wolf. Furthermore, in late 16th century, Pierre Boaistuau, a french humanist noted in his Histoires prodigieuses, after reporting on a show in london, that dogs and bears were intentionally crossed, sometimes a hybrid resulted. Examples of such hybrid monsters where shown in London to the french during some royal visit. Marquis de Trans was given one of such beast which he brought to the Count of Alphestan (embassador of the french king) . So it seems that the french royals were already familiar with crossbreeding of dog-bears hybrids , way before one (?) showed up in Gévaudan.

    Of course this is all speculative, but the skull drawings are pretty clear and very bear-like. Maybe some french royals were still breeding such monsters in the 18th century, for entertainment (they were originally used in animal fights) or for other purposes, I find it a bit odd that the french king personally interfered in the Gévaudan situation, after all, in that time there were lots of incidents with wolfs in France and Europe, so why did he even bother? Maybe it was an escaped crossbred “monster”, dog(wolf)-bear.

    As for the lion-hypotheses, I find it very hard to imagine that no one in Gévaudan would think of a lion when they would see one (even if they’d never been in Africa before). Lions had been around in south of Europe for nearly 2 thousand years, the Romans used them in large numbers for shows way before this. And there was plenty naturalistic lion drawing and painting material around in books, prints and so on. Even village people go to school (school system till age 14 since 1692 in france) and church. So its not possible that there would be a lion walking around without being recognized as such, but above all, the skull simply doesn’t look like a Leo skull, whatever subspecies of lion you compare it with.

  • Karl

    @ Luc Kramer: You probably mean the head (not the skull) as it was portrayed in the drawings. These drawings were not created by persons who had seen the Beast, but by artists who transformed descriptions of witnesses into drawings. While doing so, these artists added their own ideas to the drawings. Therefore the sketches are the most unreliable source for identifying the Beast. In the book written by Jay M. Smith (Monsters of the Gévaudan; 2011) you’ll find a collection of these drawings, some of them showing fantastic creatures with strange heads and bodies. Many of the heads remember to the head of a wolf – not surprising, as the artists knew wolves very well. – It is very improbable that anyone succeeded in creating a dog-bear hybrid, because these animals are genetically so distinct that they are classified into different zoological families. Furthermore, as discussed here below, there is no need to look for a strange creature, because nearly each detail about morphology, behaviour, and physical strength that was handed down to us leads to a very normal species: In my view, there is no logically possible alternative to the species lion. – Jay M. Smith provides in his book a careful and convincing analysis why King Louis XV interfered personally in the Gévaudan situation. In short: The Seven Years’ War had ended in 1763 with disastrous consequences for France. The defeat had damaged the King’s reputation, who therefore seized the opportunity to present himself as a monarch who cared for the people’s worries and miseries. Smith provides a highly informative historical picture of the 1760s in France, but his explanation for the Gévaudan attacks (“Gévaudan had a serious wolf infestation”) conflicts with zoological facts. – As written here before, a lion (now I come to your last point) was one of the suspects already at Gévaudan times. But the witnesses saw a big male animal that had no lion’s mane, it had upright hairs above its ears and on its back, and a dark stripe along its back. If I had lived at Gévaudan times and visited school there, I would probably not have been able to identify this animal as a lion.

    @ Michael: I saw the film “Brotherhood of the Wolf” a long time ago and remember a catlike monster in armour. If they said in the film that this monster was a lion: It is obvious to present the Beast as a lion, because you find the name of this species in historical texts from the Gévaudan.

  • Luc Kramer

    @Karl To not being able to identify a lion is very questionable, given the hundreds of witnesses, during and after the killing of the beast. Even in the 17th century, France, small village. Yet this seems to be a main argument of yours. You somehow seem to suggest that all these people would never have come across a common ancient lion-doorknob, or any other lion decoration or depiction (which can be found in numerous numbers in a lot of 17th century home decoration, flags, symbols etc. Take a close look at any old village center drinking pump in France next time, lots of lions on those as well ! ). Besides, there have always been lions in Europe, since mankind, so lets not assume that all these people wouldn’t report it as a lion if they had seen one.

    But yet you also claim that a lion was already a suspect in the time of the crimes, which seems to contradict your own argument, that no one could identify it as such.

    Furthermore, eye witnesses and post-mortem reports simply don’t offer any solid match with a lion sighting. No mentioning about the typical lion cat-like snout or whiskers, reports state black eyes, lions are yellow, reports speaks of straight ears, no round ones..etc. Various independent reports about the beast walking, even running, on its back legs only, ever see a lion doing that?

    Yet the idea of some hybrid origin of the beast seems very plausible, is consistent with most reports, autopsy measurements and is shared by many researchers and writers. Only thing I want to add to that possibility, is that some of the reported features and behaviors of beast seem to carry bearlike characteristics, the drawings of skull and teeth are the most remarkable, they have clearly bear like features, as said before. I don’t know who draw them and when, but they match the beast autopsy measurements and as such they seem accurate enough, and clearly dont show any lion like features.

    As for bear/wolf hybrids, this wolf certainly does it, see for yourself 🙂
    Its not impossible that offspring can be created, it has been done already before.

    Now to the more speculative part of my earlier reply. Lets not forget that dog breeding was a popular hobby among french aristocrats for ages, and the earlier quoted report of a crossbred wolf/bear being offered to the kings ambassador seems accurate and very possible. This means that inclusion of bears in dog/wolf-breeding was known already with the french royals 80 yrs before the beast showed up. Animal husbandry and breeding of fearsome animals offers aristocrats all kinds of benefits, not only for the hunts.

    And to add a bit more to that, its very odd that the french king ordered direct burial of the remains, upon its arrival at Versailles, without having examined the remains of the beast.

  • TroyTroodon

    While I can understand why a good chunk of folks here seem to be inclined to the lion theory, reports described The Beast NOT as a cat.

    • Karl

      What reports? What do they say?

      • TroyTroodon

        Remember, the beast was said to have had a dog-like head.

        • Karl

          Maybe you are referring to one of the wolves that were shot and then presented as “the beast”. Abbé Fournier described the beast in a letter from 6 December 1765 after an attack: “the neck (is) thick and extremely short, the head flat” (see Jean-Marc Moriceau: La bête du Gévaudan). The profile of a lion’s head is flat.

          • TroyTroodon

            No, that was before the wolf hunting happened. Most of the descriptions of The Beast prior to the hunt were definitely dog-like, and I’m sure the French would know a lion at that time.

          • Karl

            Wolves were hunted in Gévaudan throughout the 18th century, long before the beast appeared. The first wolf that was believed to be the beast was shot on 20 September 1764. The first description of the beast dates from an attack in spring, probably April, 1764. The animal that the attacked shepherdess described was definitely not at all dog-like. What other descriptions “prior to the hunt” are you talking about? Please specify your source. The question, if the people in Gévaudan would have recognized a lion, was discussed here below.

          • TroyTroodon

            It was described as having a dog-like face with a dog or pig-like snout, and it either had black fur with a white stripe on it’s belly or red fur with a black stripe on it’s back. Lions don’t have those colors, and The French have seen lions before.

            Further-more, why would a lion attack women and children specifically and not men, or for that matter why not attack their livestock? And why would the beast lay low for a year or so then resume the killings? Seems more like a trained wolf-like dog orchestrated by a serial killer than a lion.

          • Karl

            Please read the original sources from Gévaudan, available e. g. in the books written by Pourcher, Fabre, Moriceau, Smith. Our discussion would be more effective then, and it would not be necessary to discuss about a serial killer who had trained a killer-dog. The idea of a trained wolf-dog hybrid was published in 2004 by Hervé Boyac (title: La bête du Gévaudan), he also supposed that the alleged hybrid wore a protective covering. Borac’s idea was based on that of Gérard Ménatory, who claimed in 1976 (title of his book as well: La bête du Gévaudan) that the beast was a hyena, lead by a trainer. These stories have nothing to do with the historical reality.

          • TroyTroodon

            Then what evidence do you suppose would back up that it was a lion?

          • Karl

            The lion-hypothesis could be verified, if lion-DNA would be detected on a lance that was used in Gévaudan in the 1760s or if remains of a lion were found preserved in a bog. Swampy areas in Gévaudan were one of the retreats for the beast. The carcass of the beast was never found; the animal killed by Chastel in June 1767 (“the real one”, as you wrote above) was very probably a normal wolf. By the way, the beast also attacked adult men, but as far as it is known it did not succeed in killing a man. And it ate much more of a dead body than the entrails. In some cases the parish priests refused to bury the mortal remains because very little was left. Whatever your source is: it is not reliable.

          • TroyTroodon

            I see, that latter bit does make sense, but could it have been intelligent enough to act like a serial killer, and evade draw the public to a false security with a hiatus? And it still doesn’t explain why just humans and not sheep.

          • Karl

            I am not familiar with the strategies of human serial killers, but I am certain that the beast acted as an animal. The longest hiatus was from 1 November 1766 to 2 March 1767: four months, not a year. Maybe prey animals were rare after the winter; and the beast was forced again to change to the dangerous human prey. Attacking humans had the consequence that it was chased by hunters and hurt in several cases. It tried to prey on horses, but was not successful in the known cases, because people intervened. But it must have preyed on wild ungulates, otherwise it would not have survived. But it is certain that it did not prey on sheep. It was once observed killing a sheep, but it did not eat from it. The reason for this is unknown.

          • TroyTroodon

            Alright then. Well this argument has gone on long enough, so i guess you and I will have to agree to disagree.

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