The story of the man-eaters of Tsavo



Tsavo Lions: The Man-Eating Lions

The two lions that killed 135 people in nine months

Tsavo is a region of Kenya with a history of two male lions that became man-eaters, killing and eating over 100 people – the highest ever number of human deaths recorded by lions. Unsurprisingly these two lions became known as Tsavo’s man-eating lions.

While lions are amongst the most dangerous animals in Africa, very few lions earn a reputation for being man-eaters, so what was it about these two Tsavo lions that gave them such notoriety? To understand this we’ll need to go back to 1898…

In early 1898 British soldier, hunter, and author Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson was sent to oversee the construction of a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya’s large and wild Tsavo region.

Construction of a railway in this part of Kenya was planned to connect Uganda with the Indian Ocean at Kilindini Harbour, to improve the infrastructure and extend the power of the British Empire in Africa.

Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson

Before Patterson’s arrival to supervise the construction work rumors of ‘killers lions’ had already started circulating.

In March 1898, just a few short days after his arrival, news of some missing workers appeared at Patterson’s desk. At first, he took no action, but as the day passed, news of more workers disappearing came through, and the rumors turned out to be a reality. There were a pair of maneless male lions stalking the railway construction workers campsite at night and dragging people from their tents as they slept.

After these incidents in March, there was a period of calm with no lion attacks. However, a couple of months later the pair of Tsavo lions returned and started attacking again, this time with increasing intensity. Despite the worker’s attempts to ward off the lions with campfires and thorn fences, the attacks continued to the point where they were happening every night.

As a keen writer, Patterson documented all of the happenings in Tsavo, which was later published in his book, The Man-eaters of Tsavo (1907). He noted that at the start of the attacks only one lion at a time would enter the camp to take a victim, but as the weeks and months went on the lions became more brazen, both walking together into camp to seize a victim each.

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Killing the Tsavo lions.

At this point workers were fleeing from Tsavo and the bridge construction was put on hold. British colonial support arrived with reinforcements of 20 armed men to hunt and kill the lions, with traps set and men hiding in trees to ambush them.

On 9th December 1898, Patterson shot one of the lions in its hind leg. It escaped, however, and came back to camp that same evening and began stalking Patterson as he tried to hunt it. Patterson shot the lion again, and the next morning found its dead body not far from camp. It measured 2.95 meters from nose to the tip of its tail.

Twenty days later, on 29th December the second lion was found and shot six times over the course of 11 days. Patterson claimed the lion died gnawing on a fallen tree branch, still trying to reach him.

The total number of people the two lions killed was never verified, though in his book Patterson states that in all 135 people were eaten.

“Between them no less than 28 Indian coolies, in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives of whom no official record was kept…“

The aftermath of the Tsavo lion attacks.

Once the Tsavo lions were both killed the construction workers returned and finished the bridge in February 1899. The story had caused such a commotion in both Kenya and the United Kingdom that Lord Salisbury, the UK Prime Minister at the time, spoke in Parliament about the incident:

“The whole of the works were put to a stop because a pair of man-eating lions appeared in the locality and conceived a most unfortunate taste for our workmen. At last the labourers entirely declined to carry on unless they were guarded by iron entrenchments. Of course it is difficult to work a railway under these conditions and until we found an enthusiastic sportsman to get rid of these lions our enterprise was seriously hindered”

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Chicago’s Field Museum has the bodies of two lions on display.

Col John Henry Patterson turned the two maneless lions into rugs for his house, where they remained as trophies until 1925 when he sold them both to the Field Museum during a trip to Chicago. Taxidermy experts at the Field Museum restored the lions and turned the two rugs into rather good looking exhibits, placing them in a diorama where they’re still on display today.

X-ray imaging of the lions’ remains found that they both suffered from dental issues. One of the lions had a severe root-tip abscess in one canine tooth. As a result, researchers believe that the lions started preying on humans for the practical reason that they were easier to catch and chew.

Many years later the Field Museum bought a third man-eating lion from Mfuwe, Zambia, killing and eating six people in 1991. This specimen is also on display in the museum.

In addition to the accounts written by Colonel Patterson, and later Bruce Patterson, there are a number of films based on this incredible story such as The Ghost and the Darkness. (See more safari movies.)

Why did the Tsavo lions start eating humans?

According to Bruce Patterson in his 2004 book The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa’s Notorious Man-Eaters, these lions started hunting men for one or more of these four reasons:

(1) In 1898, an outbreak of cattle plague left the lions with no food. They had to find some other food source, and they turned to humans.

(2) The lions may have developed an appetite for humans from eating dead men found in the Tsavo River region.

(3) The Hindus working on the railway had cremations for their dead, which may have initiated scavenging by the lions.

(4) Several dental disease meant that the lions migrated to humans as prey that was easier to catch and chew.

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Want to know what lions usually eat?

Why were the two lions nameless?

The two lions were maneless for biological factors. It is not that they are special – there are many male lions that are maneless. As the popular depiction of a lion shows it with a gracious mane, we are accustomed to this image. In reality, it’s not unusual for a male lion to be maneless.

How big were the Tsavo man-eating lions?

According to John Henry Patterson’s book The Man-eaters of Tsavo, the first lion was 2.95 meters long from nose to tip of the tail and took eight men to carry it back to the campsite. There is no reference made in the book about the size of the second lion, but the two were more or less similar in size to other adult male lions living in that region.

Who killed the man-eating lions of Tsavo?

Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson killed the man-eating lions of Tsavo in December 1898. The first lion was killed on 9 December 1898 and the second lion was killed after 20 days.

Why did the Tsavo lions kill?

The two lions killed men for several reasons. According to the latest theories regarding the man-eating nature of the lions, they couldn’t find enough food for the cattle plague in the region in 1898.

Where is Tsavo?

Tsavo is a large, wild area in southeast Kenya. The location of the bridge over the Tsavo River is very close to the confluence of the Tsavo and Athi-Galana-Sabaki rivers, an area the local African tribe the Kamba people call the ‘place of slaughter’. This name is a reference to the many tribal conflicts that have occurred in the area over the years, rather than the Tsavo lions… but the name ‘place of slaughter’ is particularly apt given the number of people the two lions killed.

The region is now home to two large national parks – Tsavo East and Tsavo West.


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