It’s March 1898 and British soldier, hunter, and author Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson has been sent to southeast Kenya’s wild Tsavo district to oversee the construction of a railway bridge over the Tsavo River. By day, the sound of drilling and blasting echoes around the rock cliffs, but at night, when the construction noise has stopped, and the laborers have retired to their mud and grass huts to sleep, the night silence is often shattered by piercing screams. Two male lions, lurking in the darkness, are picking off the workers one by one. These nocturnal hunters will soon be known as the Man-Eaters of Tsavo.
Rumors had been circulating for a while about “killer lions.” Just a few days after Patterson’s arrival, news of missing workers lands on his desk. At first he takes no action, but as the days pass, news of more workers disappearing comes through, and rumors turn to a grim reality. There are a pair of maneless male lions stalking the railway construction workers’ campsite at night, dragging people from their tents as they sleep.
After the incidents in March, there comes a period of calm, with no lion attacks. A few months later though, the killer pair returns and start again, with increasing intensity. The workers attempt to ward off the lions by lighting fires at night and surrounding the camp with thorn fences. But to no avail. The attacks continue on an almost nightly basis. “Hundreds of men fell victims to these savage creatures, whose very jaws were steeped in blood,” writes one railway worker. “Bones, flesh, skin and blood, they devoured all, and left not a trace behind them.”
Patterson was a keen writer and kept a record of the Tsavo lion drama, later publishing it in his book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures (1907). He records that initially only one lion at a time enters camp to take a victim, but as the weeks and months progress, the pair become bolder and more brazen, both walking into camp together and seizing a victim each. By this stage, the terror became too much. Workers were fleeing, paralyzing work on the railroad. Construction was put on hold until British colonial support arrived in the form of 20 armed men. They set traps and prepared to ambush the lions.
Patterson’s initial attempts to kill the lions are unsuccessful. Using the workers to beat tin cans and drums, he has them advance through the bush, positioning himself behind an anthill in wait. The first lion passes within 45 feet of his position, but his double-barrelled rifle misfired. The noise created by the workers disorients the lion, however, giving Paterson time to shoot again. This time he hits the lion in the hind leg, but still, the lion doesn’t fall. Nightfall comes and Patterson improvises, setting a dead donkey as bait while he perches on a chair to wait. The lion returns. Patterson gets another shot off. The next morning the lion’s carcass was found not far from camp, measuring 9 feet, 8 inches from nose to the tip of its tail. Twenty days later the second lion was found and shot six times over the course of 11 days before it, too, eventually died.
When the story gets out, Patterson becomes an international hero, and with the lions dead the railway is completed just a few months later.
The total number of people the two lions killed during their nine-month reign of terror was never verified. Reports vary from 50 to 150 people. In his book, Patterson claims 135 people were eaten, though he may well have sensationalized the numbers in an effort to help sell his book! The railway company reported 28 dead workers. More than one hundred years later, using chemical analysis of the lions’ hides, Chicago’s Field Museum suggests a more accurate number to be 35 people eaten, 11 by one lion and 24 by the other.
In addition to Patterson’s written account, several movies are based on his tale of the man-eating lions, including The Ghost and the Darkness. The film does contain some inaccuracies (like casting lions with manes!), but it’s still worth watching.
Frequently Asked Questions About The Killer Lions Of Tsavo
1. What Happened To The Lions?
Patterson initially had the two dead lions made into floor rugs for his house, where they remained until 1925, when he sold the skins and skulls to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for $5,000. Taxidermy experts at the museum restored the lions, turning the two rugs into exhibits (but because they had been made into rugs, they ended up much smaller than they were after the restoration). They are still on display there today.
2. Why Were The Lions Maneless?
Maneless male lions are not actually that unusual. There are several hypotheses why. Firstly, the larger and fluffier the mane, the more insulation, which is not ideal in extremely hot climates. Secondly, all that extra hair can prove quite a hindrance to hunting in thorny vegetation.
3. What Motivated The Lions To Target Humans?
The answer seems to be poor dental health. X-rays of the lions’ remains showed they both suffered from dental problems. One had severe dental disease, a broken canine, three lost incisors, and a severe root-tip abscess. These issues were no doubt painful and as a result, researchers believe the lions may have started preying on humans for the simple reason that they were easier to catch and chew. The second lion had less severe injuries but also appears to have killed and eaten less human prey.
Interestingly, the location in question is in an area the local tribe had given the name “place of slaughter,” which was actually a reference to numerous tribal conflicts that had occurred in the area over the years. Given the legacy of the lions, however, the name does seem apropos. The region is now home to two large national parks — Tsavo East and Tsavo West, which you can visit on safari.
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