The Tsavo region of Kenya is a savannah that sits near the conjunction of its namesake river and the Athi River. While the name Tsavo means “place of slaughter” after an ancient battle between the Maasai and Akamba tribes, the region is better known for a slaughter of a different kind: an 1898 rampage by a pair of man-eating lions.
The area is home to a unique group of lions, known as Tsavo lions, who have short or nonexistent manes and smooth pelts. Bruce Patterson, a zoologist, tells the Smithsonian Magazine that because the region is hotter and drier than other areas of Africa, the lions do not have the large manes of their cousins throughout the continent.
In the late 19th century, Lenny Flank writes that the British began construction of a 580-mile railway from Mombasa to Uganda, in what was, at that time, their colonial territory. Laborers from India, or coolies, were shipped to the site to complete the work with British Army Colonel John Henry Patterson brought in to supervise the project.
In 1898, they reached the Tsavo River. In order to complete this bridge, temporary bridges were built and crews were scattered. In short time, men began to go missing. Patterson received stories of a lion attacking camps, but dismissed him—until the evidence was undeniable, with limbs and heads often being found outside of camp.
The Smithsonian Magazine quotes a worker at the site:
“Hundreds of men fell victim 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.”
The crews had begun building thorny fences of Acacia around their camps with fires burning through the night, but to no avail. The lions tore through tents and dragged out men. There is a tale of a lion snagging a mattress from under a man, pulling it out of the tent and running off when it realized its mistake.
The crews began referring to the two lions as “The Ghost” and “The Darkness.”
Col. Patterson eventually took action. He used a railway car with cattle inside as bait, while he sat with a rifle ready to shoot. A lion entered the railway car at night, killed a cow, but struggled to get the carcass through the Acacia fence. Instead, it went after Patterson himself, who was able to wound the lion with a shot to the mouth. Both escaped alive, and neither were deterred.
Patterson built a mechanical trap inside the railway car, hoping to again lure the cat in and ensnare them. It took several weeks before a cat entered, instead continuing to target the camp and eating a few men in the interim.
One night in December 1898, a lion finally was trapped by the railcar mechanism, but despite several close-proximity shots, was able to escape. Policemen went out in search of it, but the lion returned a few nights later, where Patterson had placed a donkey as bait. The lion took no interest in the donkey, targeting the Colonel instead. Two rifle shots later, the animal was dead.
His friend would prove to be a tougher kill.
After a goat was killed one night, Col. Patterson placed as bait three more goats tied to a railroad tie. The lion was able to kill the goat and pull it, along with the railroad tie, away from the site. Patterson fired twice, but missed.
The railroad tie and goat blood served to create a trail that the men then followed. They found the lion, but it ran off. Patterson then waited for its return, which it made the next night. He fired twice, hitting it twice.
When the group stalked the animal the next day, they were unsuccessful. When it did not return for almost two weeks, Col. Patterson believed it had died. But he did not assume. He was on the lookout each night and sought confirmation of its status.
He received confirmation on Dec. 28, 1898, when the lion returned to attempt an attack on a crew member sleeping in a tree. Luckily for the man, Col. Patterson was near the tree, waiting with rifle in hand. He again wounded the lion with two shots, but it still ran away.
This time, however, Patterson and his crew were able to track the animal. The lion did not run this time, but attempted to attack. Patterson shot it two more times, finally killing it.
Patterson sold the two man-eating lions to the Chicago Field Museum for $5000 apiece and write an account of his tale, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, at the urging of wildlife and adventure-enthusiast President Theodore Roosevelt.
The number of attacks during this time has ranged from 28 to 135. The previously-mentioned zoologist Bruce Patterson (no relation to the Colonel) and his team used chemical analysis on hair and skin samples from the two lions to determine that they had eaten approximately 35 men, or about half their diet in the nine months preceding their deaths.
An International Business Times article reported that the Tsavo lions are still attacking and killing humans, the latest rampage occurring during more railway work in the very same region as the 1898 attacks.
With so much death, many are attempting to explain the behavior.
One popular notion traces the behavior back many years. For hundreds of years, the Arab slave caravans passed through the region. Death numbers were very high as a result of the tsetse fly and other diseases. The bodies of these slaves were not buried, but rather dumped throughout the savannah, and it is possible that these lions acquired a taste for humans. This would explain the general man-eating tendencies of lions in this region.
Looking specifically at the 1898 killings, Bruce Patterson and others posit the theory that the natural prey of the lions in the area–buffalo, antelopes, and the like–had been wiped out in 1898 by rinderpest disease.
It is also thought that the ritualistic cremation practiced by the Hindu railway workers lured the lions to the area or that damage to their teeth and skulls could have forced them to target humans (though some of this damage could also be the result of Col. Patterson’s numerous rifle shots).
But what is known is that these famous man-eating lions gave new—and terrifying—meaning to Tsavo, “the place of slaughter” and for a few months in 1898, served to derail British colonial pursuits. We in America fought off the British with classical education and well-armed militias. The people of Kenya had man-eating lions.
- Patterson, J. H. The Man-eaters of Tsavo, and Other East African Adventures. N.p., 1919. Manybooks.net. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.
- Flank, Lenny. “Tsavo Man-Eaters: The True Story of the Ghost and the Darkness.” Daily Kos. N.p., April 9 2014. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.
- Raffaele, Paul. “Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” Smithsonian. N.p., Jan. 2010. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.
- Kossof, Julian. “Kenya: Man-eating lions of Tsavo return to strike terror into railway workers.” International Business Times. N.p., May 30, 2015. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.