Tsavo Man-Eaters

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The Tsavo man-Eaters on display in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, the United States of America

The Tsavo Man-Eaters were a pair of man-eating lions in the Tsavo region, which were responsible for the deaths of a number of construction workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway between March and December 1898. The significance of this lion pair was their unusual behavior of killing men and the manner of their attacks.


The first lion killed by Patterson, now known as FMNH 23970
The second lion, FMNH 23969

As part of the construction of a railway linking Uganda with the Indian Ocean at Kilindini Harbour, in March 1898 the British started building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya. The building site consisted of several camps spread over an 8 mile area, accommodating the several thousand mostly Indian laborers.[1]:18,26 The project was led by Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, who arrived just days before the disappearances and killings began. During the next nine months of construction, two maneless male Tsavo lions stalked the campsite, dragging workers from their tents at night, devouring them. There was an interval of several months when the attacks ceased, but word trickled in from other nearby settlements of similar lion attacks.[1]:65 When the lions returned the attacks intensified, with almost daily killings. Crews tried to scare off the lions and built campfires and bomas, or thorn fences made of whistling thorn trees around their camp for protection to keep the man-eaters out, all to no avail; the lions leaped over or crawled through the thorn fences. Patterson noted that early in their killing spree, only one lion at a time would enter the inhabited areas and seize victims, but later they became more brazen, entering together and each seizing a victim.[1]:30–34

As the attacks mounted, hundreds of workers fled from Tsavo, halting construction on the bridge. At this point, colonial officials began to intervene. According to Patterson, even the District Officer, Mr. Whitehead, narrowly escaped being killed by one of the lions after arriving at the Tsavo train depot in the evening. His assistant, Abdullah, was killed while Whitehead escaped with four claw lacerations running down his back.[1]:75–83 Eventually other officials arrived, with a reinforcement of around 20 armed Sepoys to assist in the hunt.[1]:80–81 Patterson set traps and tried several times to ambush the lions at night from a tree. After repeated unsuccessful attempts, he shot the first lion on 9 December 1898. Twenty days later, the second lion was found and killed. The first lion killed measured 9 ft 8 in (2.95 m) from nose to tip of tail. It took eight men to carry the carcass back to camp.[1]:83–93

Patterson wrote in his account that he wounded the first lion with one bullet from a high-calibre rifle. This shot struck the lion in its hind leg, but it escaped. Later, it returned at night and began stalking Patterson as he tried to hunt it. He shot it through the shoulder, penetrating its heart with a more powerful rifle and found it lying dead the next morning not far from his platform.[1]:91–93

The second lion was shot at up to nine times, five with the same rifle, three with a second, and once with a third rifle — six finding their mark. The first shot was fired from atop a scaffolding that Patterson had built near a goat killed by the lion. Two shots from a second rifle hit the lion 11 days later as it was stalking Patterson and trying to flee. When they found the lion the next day, Patterson shot it three more times with the same rifle, severely crippling it, and he shot it three times with a third rifle, twice in the chest, and once in the head, which killed it. He claimed it died gnawing on a fallen tree branch, still trying to reach him.[1]:93–103

The construction crew returned and finished the bridge in February 1899. The exact number of people killed by the lions is unclear. Patterson gave several figures, overall claiming that there were 135 victims.[2][3] At the end of the crisis, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Lord Salisbury, addressed the House of Lords on the subject of the Tsavo man-eaters:

"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."[1]:104

Museum display[edit]

After 25 years as Patterson's floor rugs, the lions' skins were sold to the Field Museum of Natural History in 1924 for a sum of $5,000. The skins arrived at the museum in very poor condition. The lions were reconstructed and are now on permanent display along with their skulls.[4][5]

Modern research[edit]

Tsavo Lion skulls on display at the Field Museum in Chicago

In 2001, a review about causes for man-eating behaviour among lions revealed that the proposed human toll of 100 or more was most likely an exaggeration and that the more likely death toll was 28–31 victims. This reduced total was based on their review of Colonel Patterson's original journal, courtesy of Alan Patterson.[6][7]

The two lion specimens in Chicago's Field Museum are known as FMNH 23970, the 'standing' mount, killed on 9 December 1898, and FMNH 23969, the 'crouching' mount, killed on 29 December 1898. Recent studies on the isotopic signature analysis of Δ13C and Nitrogen-15 in their bone collagen and hair keratin were published in 2009. Using realistic assumptions on the consumable tissue per victim, lion energetic needs, and their assimilation efficiencies, researchers compared the man-eaters' Δ13C signatures to various reference standards: Tsavo lions with normal (wildlife) diets, grazers and browsers from Tsavo East and Tsavo West, and the skeletal remains of Taita people from the early 20th century. Interpolation of their estimates across the 9 months of recorded man-eating behavior suggested that FMNH 23969 ate the equivalent of 10.5 humans and that FMNH 23970 ate 24.2 humans.[8]

The scientific analysis does not differentiate between entire human corpses consumed, compared to parts of individual prey, since the attacks often raised alarm forcing the lions to slink back into the surrounding area. Many workers over the long construction period went missing, died in accidents, or simply left out of fear; so it is likely almost all of the builders, who stayed on, knew someone missing or supposedly eaten. It appears that Colonel Patterson may have exaggerated his claims as have subsequent investigators (e.g. "135 armed men", Neiburger and Patterson, 2000) though none of these modern studies have taken into account the people who were killed but not eaten by the animals.[9] The diet of the victims would also affect their isotopic signature. A low meat diet would produce a signature more typical of herbivores in the victims, affecting the outcome of the test.[10] That fact is important to note since many of the workers at Tsavo were Hindus and may have had a vegetarian diet. This research also excludes, but does not disprove, the claims that the lions were not eating the victims they killed but merely killing just to kill. Similar claims have been made of other wildlife predators.[citation needed]

Possible causes of "man-eating" behaviour[edit]

Theories for the man-eating behaviour of lions have been reviewed by Peterhans and Gnoske, as well as Bruce D. Patterson (2004). Their discussions include the following:

  • An outbreak of rinderpest (cattle plague) in 1898 devastated the lions' usual prey, forcing them to find alternative food sources.
  • The Tsavo lions may have been accustomed to finding dead humans at the Tsavo River crossing. Slave caravans to the center of the Arab slave trade, Zanzibar, routinely crossed the river there.
  • "Ritual invitation", or abbreviated cremation of Hindu railroad workers, invited scavenging by the lions.

An alternative argument indicates that the first lion had a severely damaged tooth that would have compromised its ability to kill natural prey.[11] This theory has been generally disregarded by the general public and Colonel Patterson, who killed the lions, personally disclaimed it, saying that he damaged that tooth with his rifle while the lion charged him one night, prompting it to flee.[12]

Studies indicate the lions ate humans as a supplement to other food, not as a last resort. Eating humans was probably an alternative to hunting or scavenging caused by dental disease and/or a limited number of prey.[13][14]

In a 2017 study carried out by the team of Dr. Bruce Patterson found that one of the lions had an infection at the root of his canine tooth, which made it hard for the lion to hunt. Lions normally use their jaws to grab prey like zebras and wildebeests and suffocate them.[14]

Popular culture[edit]

In film[edit]

Patterson's book was the basis for several movies:

In games[edit]

  • The lions appear as a difficulty to be overcome in the "Cape to Cairo" scenario of the video game Railroad Tycoon II.
  • Tsavo'ka (translation: Ghost in the Darkness) is a rare tiger that can be found on the Timeless Isle in World of Warcraft.
  • In Cabela's Dangerous Hunts 2011 the lions were mentioned by the character Mbeki to the main character Cole as he was telling him about mysterious animals that have been terrorizing local villages.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Patterson, J. H. (1908). The Man-eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures. MacMillan and Co).
  2. ^ Patterson, B. D. (2004). The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa's Notorious Man-Eaters. McGraw-Hill. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-07-136333-4.
  3. ^ "Field Museum uncovers evidence behind man-eating; revises legend of its infamous man-eating lions" (Press release). The FIeld Museum. 2003.
  4. ^ "Field Museum of Natural History: Annual Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year 1921". Biodiversity Heritage Library. Field Museum of Natural History. 1922. p. 449. Retrieved 17 April 2020.
  5. ^ "Tsavo Lions". Field Museum of Natural History. 10 February 2018. Retrieved 25 April 2020.
  6. ^ Kerbis Peterhans, J. C. & Gnoske, T. P. (2001). "The science of 'man-eating' among lions Panthera leo with a reconstruction of the natural history of the 'man-eaters of Tsavo'". Journal of East African Natural History. 90 (1): 1–40. doi:10.2982/0012-8317(2001)90[1:TSOMAL]2.0.CO;2.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ Caputo, P. (2002). Ghosts of Tsavo. p. 274. ISBN 978-0-7922-6362-3.
  8. ^ Yeakel, J. D.; Patterson, B. D.; Fox-Dobbs, K.; Okumura, M. M.; Cerling, T. E.; Moore, J. W.; Koch, P. L.; Dominy, N. J. (2009). "Cooperation and individuality among man-eating lions". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 106 (45): 19040–3. doi:10.1073/pnas.0905309106. PMC 2776458. PMID 19884504.
  9. ^ Janssen, K. (2009). "Scientists restate Tsavo lions' taste for human flesh". Chicago Tribune.
  10. ^ Krueger, Harold W.; Sullivan, Charles H. (1984). "Models for Carbon Isotope Fractionation Between Diet and Bone". Stable Isotopes in Nutrition. ACS Symposium Series. 258. p. 205. doi:10.1021/bk-1984-0258.ch014. ISBN 978-0-8412-0855-1.
  11. ^ "Field Museum". Retrieved 24 July 2018.
  12. ^ "The Tsavo Man-Eaters". lionlamb.us.
  13. ^ "Why Man-Eating Lions Prey on People—New Evidence". 19 April 2017. Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  14. ^ a b DeSantis, Larisa R. G.; Patterson, Bruce D. (19 April 2017). "Dietary behaviour of man-eating lions as revealed by dental microwear textures". Scientific Reports. 7 (1): 904. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-00948-5. ISSN 2045-2322. PMC 5430416. PMID 28424462.

Further reading[edit]

  • Caputo, P. (2002). Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa (First ed.). National Geographic. ISBN 978-0792241003.
  • Dubach, J.; Patterson, B. D.; Briggs, M. B.; Venzke, K.; Flamand, J.; Stander, P.; Scheepers, L.; Kays, R. W. (2005). "Molecular genetic variation across the southern and eastern geographic ranges of the African lion, Panthera leo". Conservation Genetics. 6: 15–24. doi:10.1007/s10592-004-7729-6.
  • Gnoske, T. P.; Celesia, G. G.; Kerbis Peterhans, J. C. (2006). "Dissociation between mane development and sexual maturity in lions (Panthera leo): Solution to the Tsavo riddle?". Journal of Zoology. 270 (4): 551–560. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2006.00200.x.
  • Patterson, B. D.; Kasiki, S. M.; Selempo, E.; Kays, R. W. (2004). "Livestock predation by lions (Panthera leo) and other carnivores on ranches neighbouring Tsavo National Parks, Kenya". Biological Conservation. 119 (4): 507–516. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2004.01.013.


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