5 Incredible Facts About The Man-Eaters Of Tsavo
Towards the end of the 19th century, the great European empires now dominated every corner of their own continent and the only way they could continue to expand and increase their power was to seize territory overseas. The declaration of independence by the United States of America in 1776 largely cancelled out any further expansion for the British Empire beyond modern-day Canada’s borders after defeating the French there. However, there were huge swathes of land in Africa and China that had still gone unclaimed or was underdeveloped.
Africa was rich in resources, and its people were technologically inferior to the imperial powers and so could be subjugated relatively easily. The British put a spin on this imperialism by claiming to be modernising and protecting the local people from Arab slave traders both of which was true to an extent, but in reality, the British were profiting from what was essentially exploitation of the local populace. The huge areas of land the empires seized did prove a logistical hindrance however and this led to the building of railways.
In 1898, a British Army engineer named Lieutenant Colonel John Patterson was tasked with building a bridge over the river Tsavo in British East Africa (modern-day Kenya). As well as being a skilled engineer he was an avid big game hunter and looked forward to displaying his prowess during breaks in the work. However, over the next nine months, Patterson and his workers were stalked and killed with terrifying efficiency and regularity by a pair of man-eating lions.
The lions were so effective at evading defences erected to stop them or surviving traps that were laid for them that the local African population began to believe that the Lions possessed the souls of two dead African witchdoctors who were displeased with the White Man’s treatment of the land. This belief became so prevalent that Patterson was forced to hire workers from India to complete the bridge while he attempted to put an end to their reign of terror. Patterson was eventually successful in killing one of the Lions on December 9th, 1898 and then the second one three weeks later. Even then the Lions didn’t go down without a fight with the second one being shot nine times before it finally died.
So, just what made these Lions so terrifying?
5What Was Unusual About The Lions?
The Lions involved were part of the rather unique breed localised to the Tsavo region in that the males lacked the distinctive manes of other male Lions but apart from this fact there is no significant biological difference between them and other male Lion types. What was very unusual however was their behaviour.
In his book detailing the whole affair, Patterson noted that at times the two male Lions would hunt together and seemed to lack their own pride. This was significant because of the sheer number of people and livestock they killed and would imply they were supporting cubs; although at times they seemed to kill simply for the sake of killing leaving the unfortunate victim’s body to rot after their life had been extinguished. This is not too dissimilar to how domestic cats will sometimes kill for pleasure but is more unusual for Lions.
What gave them their near-mythical persona, however, was the number of times they appeared to escape certain capture by Patterson and his men. Predicting where they would attack next was difficult since the pair rarely stayed confined to one area. When they were tracked; on more than one occasion Patterson would have one of the Lions in his sights but either it moved just as he fired causing him to miss or his gun failed to discharge its bullet.
Attempts to create physical boundaries around the workers proved completely fruitless with the Lions managing to bypass them with ease and attack sleeping workers. This led the local population to christen the two Lions “Ghost” and “Darkness”.
4Why Were They Man-Eaters?
Man-eating Lions were rare even during the 19th century when they were far more prevalent than today. More often than not, a Lion would attack a Human if that Human stumbled upon its pride or threatened it in some way. However, these Lions specifically targeted Humans, and there has been a number of theories as to why….
It is wholly possible that there being such a large number of mammals (the Human workers) in a small area for an extended period of time meant that the Lions didn’t feel the need to chase down fast prey like Zebra or Antelope and instead go for the relatively slow Humans. Their job of stalking the Humans as prey was made easier by the fact that the Indian workers were in a foreign land they were totally unfamiliar with and so often put themselves in danger without realising it.
It has also been speculated that the Lions got a taste for Human flesh from Arab slave traders operating in the region. These traders would round up hundreds of the local population and march them through the wilderness to awaiting ships on the coast. Many of them would die along the way and be discarded allowing the Lions to pick at their flesh. An outbreak of disease amongst local cattle has also been listed as one of the causes for the creatures attacking Humans since their usual food stocks could have been dying out.
Studies made on one of the animal’s skulls in 2001 showed that one of the Lions had an infection in one of its canine teeth meaning hunting traditional prey would have been very painful for it. It would have been much easier for it to bite into soft Human flesh hence the preference!
3How Many Did They Kill?
The first death occurred almost immediately after Patterson arrived in Africa when one of his porters disappeared. During a search for the man or the creature that had killed him, Patterson discovered Human corpses in the countryside but no sign of the Lions. Within a few days, another man disappeared and as the first month passed the number had reached 17 dead.
By the time he had shot the two Lions in December, Patterson was claiming he had lost 135 men either directly or indirectly as a result of the Lion attacks. This figure was not supported by the owners of the railway company however who would only acknowledge 28 deaths as a result of the man-eaters. Given that Patterson claims he saw numerous Human remains left by the two Lions we may never truly know the number of people these man-eaters actually killed during their lifetime.
2The Railway Car Trap
There were a number of efforts to trap the creatures in order to kill them, but perhaps the most outlandish was a trap created out of a railway car. Around four of Patterson’s men were located inside behind wooden bars to be used as bait to lure the Lion inside. Once in, the door behind it would be locked, and the men could then shoot the trapped animal.
The plan appeared to work with one of the Lions entering the car and the door being locked behind it. However, the trapped Lion suddenly went berserk sensing the danger it was in and began pawing violently at the wooden bars separating it from the men. Its roars were so loud that one of the men reportedly went deaf from it. The terrified men tried to shoot the Lion but missed, and one of their bullets struck the lock on the door allowing the Lion to make good its escape.
This incident only further cemented the belief that they were supernatural in origin that was growing amongst the increasingly superstitious workers.
1How Much Truth Is There In Patterson’s Account?
In 1907, Patterson published his book detailing the events. Since then he has been accused of exaggerating many of the claims he made regarding the whole affair either deliberately or unintentionally.
Regarding his claims that 135 men were killed when the railway company only claimed 28, it is possible that some of the disappearances that were attributed by Patterson to Lion attacks were either workers abandoning the site for fear of an attack or wandered off in unfamiliar territory and got lost only to fall foul to some other beast or bandit.
Alternatively, the railway company themselves could have had reason to downplay the real cost in Human life the construction of the bridge was taking.
Since slavery had been abolished in the British Empire, there were increasing calls for change regarding how it treated its subjects from other lands. The many deaths attributed to a man-eating Lion or Lions could spark criticism back home and make investors uneasy. It could also frighten people who may want to use the railway once it was completed; after all who would want to be riding on a train that like any mechanical device could break down and leave the passengers stranded in a territory known to house man-eating Lions.
After shooting the Lions, Patterson kept their skins and skulls as trophies before selling them to the Chicago Museum in 1924 for $5000 (the equivalent of almost $70,000 today) where the skins were stuffed and put on display. Research into chemicals found in the bone structure of the skulls in 2001 confirmed the Lions were man-eaters….. and using regular Lion eating patterns for comparison; the researchers estimated that between them the Lions had consumed 35 Human beings in the last few months of their lives. However, even the researchers admit their investigation cannot confirm or deny the number of people who were killed but not eaten by the creatures as reported by Patterson and several witnesses.
Submitted By Tony Wilkins