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If you grew up reading Jim Corbett, you’d pray large cats don’t lose their canine teeth. The Champawat tigress in The Man-eaters of Kumaon is a misanthropic beast of mythical proportions. If the author is to be believed, the cat took the lives of more than 400 poor souls at the turn of the 19th century, all because she had lost two canine teeth to a gunshot. Perhaps he was exaggerating, and she killed only a quarter of that number. Even that stomach-churning sum would make Bear Grylls quiver with terror and the darkness of the night seem like a bleak void. Helpless and terrified villagers in Nepal and India could do nothing during the day or night to outwit her until the white hunter destroyed the man-eater. This horror story left me sleepless and panic-stricken in my city home, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest wild tiger. Could merely losing teeth have such sinister consequences?

Canines aka cuspids are curved daggers for precision stabbing. Young adult predatory mammals have especially sharp, pointed ones. As they age, the teeth become blunt but remain lethal. Tigers use their set of four to pierce the nape and snap the neck; leopards puncture the throat and choke the windpipe. These, the longest teeth in their mouths, are the ultimate in dental arsenal.

When the dining begins, predatory mammals wield their canine teeth like cutlery to tear the flesh off a carcass. An owner of a perfect set of cuspids, a successful hunter and formidable rival, wins mates and makes cubs.

Was the Champawat tigress disabled from hunting her normal diet of animals? Scientific answers were in short supply not only in the mid-1940s but even a decade ago. When lions, tigers, and leopards were caught for dining on livestock and humans, latter-day wildlife experts peered into their mouths for an answer to the question: why. They pointed to broken canines on some of these fearsome beasts as the cause. Without their daggers, the handicapped carnivores turned to easy prey. Plausible logic.

Gunshot injuries aren’t the only reason for predators to lose their teeth. If the animals could report on the performance of their pearly whites to their maker, they would complain of a design fault. Tapered canines are longer than the other teeth, the better to sink deep into flesh. But that also makes them brittle. You’d think carnivores would take the best care of their primary tools since their lives and genetic lines depend on them.

Instead, they put their canines through their paces with all the exuberance of test drivers pushing the newest automobile on the market to its limits. The set of four teeth do all the heavy work. When I see lions trying to hold on to bucking antelopes with their claws while their cuspids puncture tough hide and muscle, I fear they may get their teeth kicked in. When a leopard hangs by its teeth from the neck of a deer, the canines bearing their owner’s weight, I wish the cat would not try such a stunt. Then the carnivores haul the entire lifeless carcass, hanging off the mouth, to a secluded spot. Sometimes, they hoist their prize up a tree. Treated roughly, cuspids break, partly or entirely. At least you can buy another car, but the loss of teeth is permanent.

As if their hunting styles don’t stress their canines enough, predatory mammals snap other teeth too. If cuspids are knives, premolars are bone saws. Hyenas are famed bone-crunchers, but not the only ones. Wolves, tigers, and lions don’t go easy on their premolars either. At least they don’t share the scavengers’ single-minded determination. Members of the dog and cat families devour a carcass clean and then gnaw on the skeletal remains as if the marrow were dessert. All that grinding shows on their worn dental set. The frugality is not from choice but by force of circumstances.

Leopard skulls with broken teeth from the museum of the Bombay Natural History Society in Mumbai. Photos: Janaki Lenin  Tigers have the largest canines of all cat species. Their set of 30 teeth is perfect for grasping galloping prey, breaking their necks, and ripping their flesh. Cover Photo: Sam Rino/Shutterstock

Leopard skulls with broken teeth from the museum of the Bombay Natural History Society in Mumbai. Photos: Janaki Lenin
Tigers have the largest canines of all cat species. Their set of 30 teeth is perfect for grasping galloping prey, breaking their necks, and ripping their flesh. Cover Photo: Sam Rino/Shutterstock

When I visited Yellowstone National Park, in the US in the mid-1990s, it seemed like paradise. It must have been more so for the first wolves let loose in this wilderness. If they were to divvy up the horse-sized elk among themselves, each would have had 600 on its plate. With plenty of meat on the hoof, they lived like royalty, eating only the choice bits and abandoning the rest. Despite their family reputation for chewing bones, these wolves turned up their muzzles at them.

The living was easy for a decade, and then as all good things do, it came to an end. Elk became scarce, and the predators consumed whole carcasses, bones and all. Canines snapped; incisors and molars chipped and abraded. Even youngsters, whose gleaming snarls should have been their pride, fractured their teeth. All this damage for the little joy of crunching skeletal remains.

If I had a choice in this matter, I’d make their teeth indestructible, preferably made of steel alloy, so there would be no chance of breakage.

Were the perils of damaged teeth overstated? I began to have my doubts. Over the past decade, I’ve seen photographs of tigers and leopards with missing canines. But those animals didn’t cause any disturbance to humans. I wondered how they coped with life despite losing a major weapon. On investigating the subject further, I found chipped teeth don’t put predators out of commission. Dental breakage is common. More often than not skulls in museum collections had broken or missing cuspids.

Tigers with damaged fangs continue to kill wild prey. Wolves without a perfect set of teeth carry on with business as usual. They may be the last to finish their meals, but they don’t starve. The canines are not as indispensable for killing and feasting as they seem. Wolves have the rest of the pack to back them up. Other teeth, strong jaws, and sharp claws do the cats’ lethal work.

An eleven-year-old snow leopard in Mongolia had cracked three canines, lost two toes in a paw, and ripped her lower lip to the gums. Despite the extent of her injuries, she brought down a hefty male ibex.

The unsightly worn, broken, missing teeth of aged predators are the accumulated wear and tear of a lifetime. But not every feeble carnivore in its dotage takes to mauling humans. Nor does every man-eater have a gap-toothed snarl.

The answer hiding in predators’ maws is: Good teeth are a sign of a good standard of living. Worn teeth with some missing indicate the creatures are nibbling every last scrap they can grind out of their meals.

The real worry is when the breaks cut deep and pieces of meat and debris collect in the cavity where they rot. The awful pain from infection could turn anyone into a murderer.

They need dentists on call already.

Janaki Lenin
Janaki Lenin

A city girl gone feral, she is the author of two volumes of My Husband and Other Animals.

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