The story of the man-eaters of Tsavo, Kenya

It is March 1898 and British soldier, hunter and author Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson has been sent to the Tsavo Wilderness District in south-eastern Kenya to oversee the construction of a railway bridge over the river. Tsavo. By day the sound of drilling and blasting echoes around the rocky cliffs, but at night, when the construction noise has stopped and the workers have retreated to their mud and grass huts to sleep, the nocturnal silence is often broken by shrill cries. Two male lions, crouching in the dark, attack the workers one by one. These nocturnal hunters will soon be known as the Tsavo Man Eaters.

Rumors had been circulating for some time about “killer lions”. Just days after Patterson’s arrival, news of the missing workers landed on his desk. At first he doesn’t take any action, but as the days go by, the news of new workers missing and the rumors turn into a grim reality. There is a pair of male manless lions that stalk the railway construction workers’ encampment at night, pulling people out of their tents as they sleep.

After the incidents of March, comes a period of calm, without lion attacks. A few months later however, the pair of killers return and start again, with increasing intensity. Workers attempt to repel the lions by lighting fires at night and surrounding the camp with thorn fences. But in vain. The attacks continue almost every night. “Hundreds of men were victims of these wild creatures, whose very jaws were soaked in blood,” writes a railway worker. “Bones, flesh, skin and blood, they devoured everything and left no trace behind. “

Tsavo West National Park (Photo credit: Syrus Neilson /

Patterson was an avid writer and kept track of Tsavo’s lion drama, later publishing it in his book, The man-eaters of Tsavo and other East African adventures (1907). He reports that initially only one lion at a time enters the camp to pick up a victim, but over the weeks and months the couple become bolder and more cheeky, both entering the camp together and grabbing each other. a victim. At this point, the terror has grown too strong. Workers fled, crippling work on the railroad. Construction was suspended until the arrival of British colonial support in the form of 20 gunmen. They set traps and prepared to ambush the lions.

Patterson’s first attempts to kill the lions are unsuccessful. Using laborers to beat cans and drums, he drives them through the bush, placing himself behind an ant hill on the prowl. The first lion passes within 45 feet of his position, but his double barreled shotgun misses the mark. The noise created by the workers, however, disorients the lion, giving Paterson time to shoot again. This time he hits the lion on the hind leg, but the lion still doesn’t fall. Night falls and Patterson improvises, placing a dead donkey as bait while it perches on a chair to wait. The lion returns. Patterson gets another shot. The next morning, the lion’s carcass was found not far from the camp, measuring 9 feet, 8 inches from the nose to the end of its tail. Twenty days later, the second lion was found and shot six times in the 11 days before it too died.

When the story comes out, Patterson becomes an international hero, and with the lions dead, the railroad is completed a few months later.

The total number of people killed by the two lions during their nine-month reign of terror has never been verified. Reports vary from 50 to 150 people. In his book, Patterson claims that 135 people were eaten, although he may have caused a sensation in an attempt to help sell his book! The railway company reported 28 workers who died. Over a hundred years later, using chemical analysis of lion skin, the Field Museum in Chicago suggests a more precise number of 35 people eaten, 11 by one lion and 24 by the other.

In addition to Patterson’s written account, several films are based on his story of man-eating lions, including The ghost and the darkness. There are a few inaccuracies in the movie (like throwing lions with manes!), But it’s still worth watching.

Lion prowling at night (Photo credit: Alta Oosthuizen /

Frequently Asked Questions About Tsavo Killer Lions

1. What happened to the Lions?

Patterson first had the two dead lions made into a floor mat 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. $. The museum’s taxidermy experts restored the lions, turning both rugs into exhibits (but because they had been turned into rugs, they ended up much smaller than they were after the restoration). They are still on display there today.

2. Why were Lions manless?

Male lions without a mane are not that unusual. There are several hypotheses why. First, the wider and fluffier the mane, the more insulation is required, which is not ideal in extremely hot climates. Second, all of that extra hair can be a hindrance to hunting in thorny vegetation.

3. What motivated Lions to target humans?

The answer seems to be poor dental health. X-rays of the lions’ remains showed that they were both suffering from dental problems. One had severe dental disease, a broken canine, three lost incisors and a severe root abscess. These issues were undoubtedly painful, and as a result, researchers believe lions may have started preying on humans for the simple reason that they were easier to grab and chew on. The second lion suffered less severe injuries, but also appears to have killed and ate less human prey.

It is interesting to note that the location in question is in an area that the local tribe had referred to as a “massacre site” which was actually a reference to many tribal conflicts that have occurred in the area over the years. . Given the legacy of the lions, however, the name seems apt. 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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