The Man-eaters of Tsavo

Predation by a pair of male lions on construction workers building the Kenya-Uganda Railway has become probably the most widely known case of man eating by big cats. Over 120 years later, the two lions that became known as the ‘Tsavo Man-eaters’ remain amongst the most infamous wild lions ever documented. Between the pair they were responsible for dozens of deaths amongst the men working on the railway, with the British colonel that ultimately killed both lions stating that they had killed 135 people.

Constructed by the British Empire at the height of the period of rampant colonialisation by European powers on the continent that became known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’, the railway was intended to connect Kenya and the newly created Ugandan Protectorate to the Indian Ocean. In march 1898 work began on a railway bridge across the Tsavo River in Western Kenya. Overseeing the project was British Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, who was commissioned by the Ugandan Railway committee to supervise the major bridge-building project. He assumed command over a sprawling camp spread across an area of around eight miles, as well as thousands of primarily Indian labourers. just days after his arrival, a pair of male lions began routinely preying on the workers, a killing spree that would continue for the next nine months.

The two lions would stalk the camps at night, dragging sleeping workers from their tents before killing and eating them. In response, workers built extensive bomas around the camps, thick fences made from whistling thorn trees, a type of defensive structure common in Central Africa. The fences made little difference, with the lions simply jumping over them or crawling their way through. Attempts by workers to scare off the lions were similarly ineffective, and the killings continued. Hundreds of workers abandoned the project in fear, and construction work ground to a halt. Delays to construction of the bridge meant British Empire officials felt they were losing ground to German and French competitors in Africa, and they increasingly pressured Patterson to deal with the problem. Patterson set traps and posted up at night in various vantage points with a high-powered hunting rifle, but was unsuccessful in killing the lions. the District Officer for the area, named Whitehead, travelled to the camp to assist Patterson with the hunt, but was attacked and nearly killed shortly after arriving. His gun bearer was killed and consumed, while Whitehead escaped with a deep slash to his back. 

20 sepoys from the British Indian Army arrived at the camp to assist in the hunt, but ultimately proved to be more of a hindrance. Patterson devised an effective cage trap with which he successfully trapped one of the lions. However, the Indian soldiers assisting him panicked and not only failed to shoot the lion, but accidentally shot out one of the bars of the cage, allowing it to escape. Days later, Patterson came face to face with a lion at close range, but his rifle misfired and the animal again escaped. Dissent amongst the workers continued to grow, with many of the superstitious labourers believing that the lions were in fact evil spirits sent to punish those working on the railway.

Patterson photographed with the first of the two lions to be successfully killed. Photo: Chicago Field Museum
The second lion after it had been killed. Photo: Chicago Field Museum

Patterson successfully shot and killed one of the lions on the night of December 9th after it began to stalk him. On the morning of December 29th he wounded the second lion before following the blood trail and cornering the animal. Despite shooting the lion multiple times, it charged him and he survived only because one shot shattered the lion’s hind leg, giving him time to climb a nearby tree. The lion subsequently collapsed, although returned to its feet and lunged at Patterson after he descended from the tree. An additional shot from a high calibre hunting rifle finally killed it. Both lions were found to be abnormally large, maneless males, each measuring over 9ft in length and requiring eight men to carry back to camp. Construction resumed on the bridge, and the project was completed in February 1899.

The number of people killed by the Tsavo maneaters is unclear. Patterson himself stated they were responsible for 135 deaths. The Ugandan Railway Company recorded the deaths of 28 Indian nationals, although an unknown number of native African victims were not included in official figures. Modern analysis of bones and hair samples from the lions estimates that one consumed 11 people and the other 24. However, this does not account for victims that were killed but not consumed. Both lions were eventually mounted and put on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

A number of theories have been put forward as to what made the two lions into man-eaters. One of the lions was found to have a broken canine which could have contributed to their inability to catch traditional prey and forcing a switch to hunting humans. However, Patterson rejected this theory, stating that he had broken the tooth with a rifle shot. An outbreak of rinderpest in the area in 1898 killed large numbers of cattle, which may have caused a shortage of food for the lions. The Tsavo river crossing was also a rout frequently used by Arab slave caravans travelling to Zanzibar, and the lions may have developed a taste for human meat after scavenging the corpses of slaves that died during the journey. Incomplete cremations amongst the primarily Hindu construction workers may have also presented them with opportunities to feed on human bodies.

The bridge remains in place today, and the location is now known as Man Eaters Junction in reference to the Tsavo lions. The spot claimed many more lives in March 1999 after an overnight Kenya Railways train traveling between Mombasa and Nairobi derailed close to Man Eaters Junction. 32 passengers were killed in the crash, which was ultimately found to be the fault of the driver, who was traveling at more than twice the track’s speed limit. Use of the line finally came to an end in 2017.

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