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 The series of attacks has been confirmed by a great variety of historical documents and is not called into question by scientists.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)


  1. Karl
    October 21, 6:31 am

    @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.

  2. Fred
    October 19, 2:07 am

    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 ?

  3. Karl
    October 11, 11:13 am

    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.

  4. Michael
    October 10, 3:50 pm

    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.

  5. Karl
    October 8, 11:33 am

    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.

  6. Michael
    October 7, 4:44 pm

    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.

  7. Karl
    October 7, 10:19 am

    @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.

  8. Michael
    October 6, 4:16 pm

    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.

  9. Karl
    September 29, 6:18 am

    @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.

  10. Alex
    September 28, 5:35 pm

    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!

  11. M G Balarin
    Eastern Cape South Africa
    September 28, 3:16 am

    A fascinating article.