Image: Polar bear
Patrick Endres
Nowhere are polar bears more accessible than the northern reaches of the Canada’s Manitoba province. Astride one of the major ursine migration routes on the western fringe of Hudson Bay, the town of Churchill endures a veritable bear rush each fall as the hungry creatures awake from hibernation and flock to the pack ice for a feeding frenzy.
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updated 8/15/2007 9:57:35 AM ET 2007-08-15T13:57:35

After barely surviving a lion attack, explorer David Livingstone wrote one of the most vivid descriptions of what it’s like to have the jaws of death literally clamped around your neck, an animal bent on munching you like so many corn chips. The lion “caught me by the shoulder as he sprang, and we both came to the ground together. Growling horribly close to my ear, [the lion] shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. The shock ... caused a dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening.”

Livingstone survived his frightening encounter, but many others have not been so lucky — the hundreds of people around the world who perish from wild animal attacks each year. Despite mankind’s much ballyhooed “conquest” of Planet Earth, there are an awful lot of things out there still waiting to pounce — and an ever-increasing number of adrenaline junkies bent on getting as close to these creatures as possible and (hopefully) living to tell about it.

Ironically, the most deadly members of the animal kingdom are not those that inspire the most fear. Mosquitoes are responsible for more human deaths each year than all other creatures combined. And, of course, there are snakes — many different poison serpents that inflict suffering and death.

“Most African safari guides say that buffalo are the most dangerous animals because they are easily startled and their first instinct is to charge,” says Matt Kareus of Colorado-based Natural Habitat Adventures, which organizes wildlife safaris all around the globe. “Most also say though that nothing is more lethal than getting between a hippo and its water at night. And many of our Alaska guides say moose are more dangerous than bears. A lot depends on circumstance and the likelihood of an encounter in the first place.”

But it’s the things that might actually digest us, that seem to frighten people the most. “Lions and tigers and bears,” as Dorothy once chanted. And for good reason — those three species account for a good number of human attacks and deaths each year. Oh my, indeed.

A lot of the fear is unfounded. Nobody really paid that much attention to great white sharks until the 1970s, when writer Peter Benchley penned a little ditty called Jaws that Steven Spielberg later transformed into a movie that kept millions of people out of the water for years. The number of shark deaths each year is actually quite small. According to the International Shark Attack File compiled by the Florida Museum of Natural History, there have been around 470 confirmed fatal shark attacks since the year 1580 — an average of just over one per year. Yet sharks remain the object of our nightmares — and our vacation dreams.

Image: Anaconda
Guamanchi Expeditions, Merida
The anaconda isn't a man-eater per se, but more of an opportunist who will dine on anything living that happens to come its way. Although its modus operandi is constriction, you are more likely to drown as the reptile drags you into whatever swamp or stream it calls home.
At the same time, fictional films and books remind us that animals can — and often do — turn on humans. As the unfortunate Timothy Treadwell demonstrated in the mesmerizing Werner Herzog film Grizzly Man, bears can go from cuddly to predatory in the blink of an eye.

Why is it that people crave such close contact with deadly creatures?

Image: Bengal tigers
Aditya Singh / The Ranthambhore
Although exact figures are hard to come by, it’s estimated that as many as a hundred people each year succumb to tiger attacks in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The greatest killer of all time – the Champawat man-eater – dispatched more than 430 people in the early 20th century.
“What we're seeing is a larger trend of people craving close encounters with nature and animals in general,” says Kareus. “A growing awareness that as we've become more urbanized and our lives have gotten busier and busier, we've lost something important and that something is a primal connection to nature. This is why ecotourism is by far the fastest growing segment of the travel industry. I think people craving close encounters with dangerous animals is a corollary to this. Some people are natural thrill seekers, so rather than merely seeing a bear from a bus they want to look it in the eye. What is more primal than that?”

There are any number of ways to rub shoulders with beasts that can do you harm. Sometimes it can be very close to home — last year, a suburban California mountain biker was attacked and killed by a cougar not far from Disneyland. But generally you will have to venture into the wilderness, and in some cases the ends of the Earth, where the wildest animals are more likely to dwell these days, far away from the world’s most deadly species — homo sapiens. Click here for some ways to see them in safety and style (and without harassing or provoking the animals).

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