The Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo

lionsToday I found out about the man-eaters of Tsavo.

In 1898, the British were in the process of building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Tsavo, Kenya. Over the next nine to ten months, the Indian railway workers hired by the British, as well as native Africans in the area, were terrorized by two lions. At the time, reports estimated that the two lions had killed up to 135 people in less than a year.

We all know that not all lions are as cuddly as Simba or Christian, but they don’t typically hunt men, either. A lion’s diet usually consists of wildebeasts, zebras, and other large prey. Attacks on humans aren’t unheard of, but humans are usually more of a threat to lions due to our technology and superior weapons.

According to the workers, the lions would stalk through the camp at night and drag people from their tents, run off with them, and have a nice dinner. The lions were both male, though they didn’t yet have manes (in fact, lions in the region are known for being “mane-less”).

One worker described the attacks as particularly brutal: “Hundreds of men fell victims to these savage creatures, whose very jaws were steeped in blood. Bones, flesh, skin and blood, they devoured all, and left not a trace behind them.”

In December of 1898, both lions were shot and killed by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who was overseeing the bridge-building project. The first was killed with two shots, while the second required nine bullets before it finally fell. Both of the lions were skinned and spent 25 years on Patterson’s floor as rugs. However, he eventually sold both of the skins to the Field Museum in Chicago for $5000 (about $68,000 in 2013), where they were reconstructed, stuffed, and remain on exhibit today.

The lions’ exploits and their eventual demise became legend, and Patterson became famous for ending it all. He even wrote a book about his adventures titled The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, published in 1907. It was later the basis for a handful of different movies.

All that said, the railroad company only ever acknowledged that 28 workers, all Indian nationals,  had been killed by the lions—a far cry from the 135 people that Patterson led everyone to believe. The exact number of deaths has been a matter of dispute for some time. However, recent research backs the railroad’s story.

Scientists took samples of the Tsavo Man-Eaters’ hair and bone collagen, and analysed their chemical composition. By analysing the hair, scientists are able to determine what the lions ate in the last three months of their lives. Bone collagen, on the other hand, develops slowly, allowing scientists to see what the lions typically ate throughout their lives.

The results were compared to DNA from modern Tsavo lions, human samples collected in 1929 in East Africa, and various “normal” prey, such as zebras and wildebeasts. The scientists discovered that both lions had indeed incorporated humans into their diet in their last nine months of life. However, they found that one lion had only eaten about 11 humans, while the other had eaten roughly 24. Both supplemented their diet with herbivores.

The numbers are only estimates, but according to the study, we can say with about 95% accuracy that the lions ate between 4 and 76 people during that nine month time period. With this new research and the railroad company’s figure of 28 deaths- and even factoring in that the lions may have killed some humans that the railroad company knew nothing about- Patterson’s figure seems to be grossly exaggerated.

As you might imagine, it’s thought that he probably gave an exaggerated number to make the whole ordeal seem more spectacular and make himself look good for killing both of the lions and putting an end to their reign of terror.

As to why the lions were feasting on humans at all, there are several different theories. First, the Tsavo River bridge building was taking place in the midst of climate change that had decimated populations of the lions’ preferred food. It’s possible that they had to search for a new food source and found the human workers an easy target. Second, the lion who ate the most people had some severe injuries, including a broken tooth and misaligned jaw. Injured lions have been known to go after people in the past, probably because we’re slower and easier to catch.

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Bonus Facts:

  • The first lion Patterson shot was so large heavy it required 8 men to carry it back to camp.
  • Male Tsavo lions have adapted to not grow manes because the climate around Tsavo is extremely hot and dry, with the lions not having access to much water. If they had manes, they’d sit around panting, wasting a lot of the water they do get.
  • As a side note, lions can typically go 4-5 days without water, getting a lot of moisture that they need from their kills. However, if water is available, they’ll usually drink every day.
  • Tsavo lions still have a reputation for preying on people. It’s thought that they may have gained a taste for human flesh by eating corpses dumped from Arab slave caravans that rolled through the region.
  • Like house cats, lions spend up to 20 hours of the day in a resting state, using the remaining 4 to hunt and protect their territory. They are considered the “laziest” of the cats.
  • Female lions do a majority of the hunting in exchange for the males protecting the pride. However, they often scavenge meals from hyenas, cheetahs, and leopards in lieu of killing something themselves.
  • “Simba” is the Swahili word for “Lion.”
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  • This was the theme of a 1996 Michael Douglas movie – The Ghost and the Darkness.

  • This is a load of unmitigated crap. There is no evidence of this number claimed by Patterson in his attempt to sell his book, to be found in the individual diary notes required to be meticulously kept by the construction company.Talk about exaggeration. Your BS figure relied on the information from Patterson’s book, written much later and many bottles of Whisky and Gin down the track. The man was an inept drunk and typical wannabe British Colonialist hero in his own lunchbox, with no clue as to the hunting capabilities and habits of wild Lions. Like setting up unprotected Chickens in a known fox infested area, then putting them in pens once the Foxes had sussed out an easy meal. The real figure is somewhere between 30 and 50. Still a considerable number, but over a 9 month period not excessive as far a as individual prey animals of a pair of 500lb Lions. They also ate Antelopes, Donkeys, Goats and Cattle as well as Wildebeast etc. Even, then it’s not certain all missing Indian Labourers were killed by the Lions, some just disappeared. Certainly not unknown for the Indian Coolies to just up and leave, especially when they didn’t want to be next on the menu. Modern Gas Chromatograph results on the remains of these two Lions, show between the two of them, the number of Humans eaten lies somewhere between 4 and 70. These are the extreme ends of possibility. But it is a definite certainty of at least 12. I’ve camped in the open beside Tsavo Bridge, sleeping in the back of the Land Rover. Seen and heard Tsavo Lions. Their habits are no different to any other Kenyan Lions. They just look different being not so heavily Maned as Male Lions in Other parts of the country.

    • Mr. Davie,
      You are way out of line with your comments – Firstly Patterson claims 135 of which 28 were Indian workman. This number is approximately twice that claimed by the scientific study which can be interpreted in a couple of ways. Firstly Patterson was in error – very likely – or the error of the scientific estimation was large – ALSO POSSIBLE for many reasons which I will not even bother trying to explain. However I suspect that Patterson tried to factor in Africans which would have been difficult given that many deaths would not have been officially recorded by official and tribal sources. This, however, is beside the point. Patterson was not a trained hunter, and he made many mistakes – very clear in his book – he was a product of his generation – have you seen what Sir Samuel Baker did to the wildlife of Ceylon?!! But he was not – to quote your poorly considered words – a drunken wannabe Colonialist hero. He went into to harms way to save the people who were working for him – and while you brag about sleeping in the back of your truck on the Tsavo bridge (the original was destroyed in WW2) you almost certainly would not have had the courage to face down the two lions with the equipment and knowledge that he had. His courage is also demonstrated by his service in the British Army in WW2 were he openly defended his Jewish battalion against mistreatment by superior army staff during the Gallipoli campaign. And contrary to you assertions he did little to advertise his deeds. One might suggest that instead of belittling others you bettered yourself, but that is probably a call to deaf ears.

  • I agree with Keith. Well said. Patterson was an engineer who put his life on the line several nights trying to kill those relentless lions. In his well written book Patterson writes very modestly concerning his actions, But later, after he killed both lions, the Indian laborers gave him a silver bowl engraved with a poem they wrote about his bravery. Patterson’s book is a thrilling read and provides a well-written outlook of what Kenya looked like on 1898 and 1899.

  • Not mentioned here is that there were reportedly three lions when the killing first began. The third lion was killed early on by someone else. I believe I got that fact from Mr. Patterson’s own book but cannot be certain. I researched this story when the Michael Douglas movie came out but had read about it years before that.

    Can someone confirm the story of the third lion? Not that it’s important or anything, but I can’t find anything on the net and my original source was the sort of book one holds in hand.