Jaguars- Manu National Park (Peruvian Amazon)
This classic “stalk and ambush” predator is the largest and most dangerous big cat in the Western Hemisphere. Although deadly encounters with humans are rare, jags have all the tools to rip you apart in seconds: incredibly powerful jaws combined with razor sharp teeth and claws. Unlike other big cats, which debilitate their prey with a bite to the back of the neck, the jaguar wraps its vice-like mouth right around the victim’s head, plunging its fangs directly into the brain. Peru’s sprawling Manu National Park is ideal habitat for jaguars—thick rainforest with numerous streams and oxbow lakes where prey like deer gather. Inkanatura Travel can arrange customized camping expeditions in search of jaguars. Or bunk at the comfy Manu Wildlife Center lodge on the banks of the Madre de Dios River, downriver from the park entrance.
Great White Sharks- Isla Guadalupe (Baja California)
The ocean’s most feared creature may congregate off South Africa in greater numbers than anywhere else on the planet, but they also seem to like the waters off California. Swimmers have succumbed to great white attacks at Avila Beach and Solana Beach in recent years and in August of 2009 a teenage surfer survived a great white strike near Carlsbad. San Diego-based Shark Diver organizes great white cage dives around the isolated Isla Guadalupe off Baja California where as many as 50-100 of the carnivourous fish gather between August and November. Because cage divers breathe through air hoses connected directly to the boat rather than via tanks, no extensive scuba experience is necessary—just guts.
Cobras- Khao Sok National Park (Thailand)
The world’s largest venomous snake is found throughout tropical Africa and Asia, but its largest concentration is Southeast Asia, where they are responsible for several hundred human deaths each year. King cobras can grow up to 18 feet in length and harbor enough venom to kill a fully-grown elephant. Spitting cobras are smaller but just as dangerous, fully capable of launching their venom up to six feet into their victim’s eyes. Drawn to populated areas by the prospect of easy meals (rodents, cats, etc), they are found everywhere from suburban Singapore to Vietnamese rice paddies. The untouched rainforest of Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand harbors four different cobra species including the king and spitting. In addition to information on how to avoid and treat snakebites, Earth Lodge Khao Sok provides overnight digs in jungle bungalows.
Hippopotamus- South Luangwa National Park (Zambia)
Lions may have a more ferocious reputation, but the large animal responsible for the most human fatalities in Africa is the hippopotamus—an estimated 100-150 deaths per year. Although the lumbering “water horse” is primarily a plant eater, they have been known to consume munch large mammals (including people) on occasion. Despite their comical persona in Western pop culture, hippos are irritable and aggressive, especially when they have young. Although they have been known to flip boats, they are far more dangerous to humans at night, when they forage on dry land. Found throughout tropical Africa, Zambia is thought to have more hippo (40,000) than any other nation. One of the largest concentrations is found in wildlife rich South Luangwa National Park. They often gather in groups of more than 60 animals along the Luangwa River, where they resemble steppingstones between the banks.
Wolves- Lake Baikal (Russia)
From legends about lycanthropes (werewolves) to Call of the Wild, wolves have always been one of mankind’s most revered and feared creatures. Though the old tales of ravenous predators have given way to a more benign view of wolves, there are numerous historical accounts of wolves stalking (and consuming) humans, including several incidents in Russia. The Kirov wolf attacks occurred after World War II during which 27 children fell victim (most of them “torn to pieces” according to one government report). Nowadays the best place to see Russian wolves is the Lake Baikal region of Siberia, where national parks and nature reserves harbor a sizable population of wolves and other large predators like lynx and brown bear. Based in Irkutsk, Baikal Nature organizes trips into local parks and reserves and experienced wildlife guides.
Saltwater Crocodiles- Kakadu National Park (Australia)
Steve Irwin may have died from a stingray tail, but “salties” remain Australia’s most dangerous creature. On average, one person is fatally chomped by a crocodile each year Down Under, mostly while swimming murky inland waters, but sometimes taken from banks or boat ramps. They lurk in rivers, swamps and bays along the entire north coast, but the best place to stare into their craw is Kakadu National Park and environs where watercourses like the Adelaide River and Yellow Water billabong harbor some of the world’s largest and most ferocious reptiles. Best time to see them is the Aussie winter (June-August) when the cold-blooded creatures sun themselves on the shore. Infuse your trip with a touch of irony by sleeping at the Aboriginal-owned Gagudju Lodge Cooinda, where the restaurant menu that features crocodile steak
Lions- Serengeti Plains (Tanzania)
Unlike other parts of the world where deaths from animal attacks are actually declining, Tanzania has experiencing the opposite effect—a dramatic increase in lion attacks and fatalities over the past two decades. More than 600 people (mostly farmers and herders) have been killed by lions in Tanzania since 1990, a phenomenon that authorities attribute to habitat encroachment and a lion baby boom fueled by less hunting and higher birth rates. Serengeti National Park harbors one of the world’s largest lion populations and offers superb open terrain for close encounters of the feline kind. There is nothing quite as awe-inspiring (or bone-chilling) as listening to lions groan and moan around at tent at night while camped on the Serengeti Plains. Third generation Tanzanian guide George Mavroudis lays on the lions with cocktails and comfy camp beds.
Polar Bears- Churchill (Manitoba)
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 fridge 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. The bears are at their best in the wilderness, seen from heated four-wheel-drive “tundra mobiles” with huge tires and panoramic windows. But nothing beats sleeping with the bears. Not in their dens, of course, but portable lodges on the tundra—humans inside the cage (so to speak) with the big white bears looking in. Natural Habitat books a wide variety of polar beat encounters in the Churchill area.
Bengal Tigers- Ranthambhore Bagh (India)
Although exact figures are hard to come by, it’s estimated that as many 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. Thanks to poaching and habitat loss, the beautiful beasts are now scarce in most of India, but still flourish within the boundaries of Ranthambhore Bagh. The reserve’s dry deciduous forest makes for easy viewing, especially during the arid winter months when feline stripes stand out amongst the dry bush. With hunting banned for more than 40 years, many of the local tigers have relinquished their nocturnal ways for daylight activity. Overnight visitors to “The Bagh” crash at the upscale lodge or luxury safari tents.
Komodo Dragons- Komodo National Park (Indonesia)
No where on the planet is there a more efficient killing machine than the Komodo dragon, an alligator-sized lizard that hunts in packs, can smell prey more than two miles away, chews into your flesh with hundreds of razor-sharp teeth, and leaves behind saliva laced with 50 different kinds of bacteria, including several that are highly infectious and others that have no known cure. They have been known to attack animals much larger than themselves including horses, water buffalo and people. (The editor of the San Francisco Chronicle had one such encounter at a zoo.) The only reason there have not been more human deaths is because the three Indonesian islands that constitute their present range are largely uninhabited. Park accommodation is primitive—thatched ranger huts with limited running water and only three hours of electricity per day. Komodo Tour organizes live-aboard boat tours from Bali to the national park that combine scuba diving and lizard watching.