Friday, April 2, 2010
Beware the Maneaters of Tsavo
The lions in the Kenyan region of Tsavo are different. For instance, fully grown males don't have full manes of hair like other African lions.
Additionally, for a period of time in 1898, a pair of Tsavo lions acquired a taste for something that most lions tend to shun---human beings.
The tale of the man-eating Tsavo lions began in March of 1898 when Indian workers erected a railway bridge over the Tsavo River, started being attacked by two lions. The British, who controlled Kenya at the time, had brought the workers to Africa to help build the Kenya-Uganda Railway.
During the next nine months, the two big cats killed and ate at least 72 workers—with some claiming nearly double that many were attacked and consumed. Frightened by the seemingly supernatural pair of lions, workers tries to scare them off by surrounding their camp with bonfires and fences made of thorn bushes. Yet despite these efforts, the lions continued their reign of terror.
Lt. Colonel John Henry Patterson, who supervised the construction, set traps and attempted to ambush the lions—even sitting in a tree all night with his rifle—but the killing continued.
Finally, on December 9, 1898, he managed to shoot one of the big cats. In his later published account, which became the basis for the 1996 film, “The Ghost and the Darkness,” Patterson said he initially wounded the lion in the hindquarters but it escaped.
He claimed that as he continued to hunt the animal into the night, it, in turn, began stalking him. He shot it several more times but wasn’t certain it was dead until he found the body the next morning. It had taken five shots to finish the job.
Three weeks after killing the first lion, he managed to track down the other. In his account, Patterson said he shot the beast five times and, despite having a shattered leg, it continued to charge him and chased him up a tree.
After the animal limped off, he came down from the tree only to have the cat charge him again. He fired two more shots, hitting it in the chest and in the head.
The last bullet finally stopped it in its tracks.
Patterson rather melodramatically noted that the beast “died gamely, biting savagely at a branch which had fallen to the ground.”
Patterson, who claimed the lions had killed 135 people, took the remains of the two lions and made them into trophy rugs. In 1924, when he came to lecture at Chicago’s Field Museum, Patterson agreed to sell the hides and skeletons to the museum, which reconstructed them as lifelike models and put them on display.
In recent years, Field Museum biologist Bruce Patterson (no relation to John) and others have studied the lions to discover why the males lack manes and why the two rogue animals started eating humans.
The new research has revealed several things about the two Tsavo lions: they didn’t eat as many people as claimed by John Patterson (somewhere between 35 and 72) and they weren’t oversized, mutant killing machines, as they’ve sometimes been portrayed.
Additionally, it’s thought they may have acquired their taste for people after digging up the bodies of dead or dying slaves dumped by ruthless slave traders on the Tsavo caravan route or because one of them had a severe tooth abscess, which would have made relatively soft humans an easier thing to eat.
As for the lack of a mane, again researchers have several explanations. One is that Tsavo lions live in an extremely dry climate so they’ve evolved to have less hair, which keeps them cooler. Another theory is that their manes are torn off by the many thorn-bushes that proliferate in the region.
But regardless of whether they killed 135 people or 35, the legend of the man-eating cats remains a compelling one that helps to make them one of the most popular attractions in Chicago's Field Museum (1400 South Lake Shore Drive).