February 7, 2023

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African Lion – The Legend of the Tsavo Man Eaters

There has been much speculation about the man-eaters of Tsavo with a fair amount of sensationalizing and dramatizing especially in the movie based on the story. “The Ghost and the Darkness” was an entertaining film but definitely a spiced up version.

“Tsavo” translates to “Place of Slaughter” which is aptly named if true. Between Lt. Col John Patterson, who was building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River (Kenya) during 1898, who hunted a wide variety of wildlife extensively, and the 2 Tsavo lions that allegedly killed and ate over 130 Indian workers the name certainly fits the bill.

During a period of 9 months the Tsavo lions hunted those working on the bridge despite erecting bomas (fences built from thorn tree branches) and burning fires at night in an attempt to keep the lions away from the camp. The attacks came mainly at night when the lions would enter a tent and drag out the unfortunate victim and then proceed to devour him nearby.

Work ground to a halt on the bridge when the workers all fled in fear. Lt. Col John Patterson, after many attempts, shot the first lion on Dec 9, 1898 and 3 weeks later the second. The maneless lions measured 3m long from nose to the tip of the tail. After the lions were shot and killed the crew returned to the bridge and completed the project.

Why did these lions become man-eaters? Different theories abound, so let’s have a look at some of them.

Theory 1: The lack of manes on the Tsavo lions proved there was something wrong with them: No, actually Kenya is known for its’ maneless lions, which may be genetic. One of the theories for the lack of manes in these lions is the incredible heat during the summer season. A thick mane in this heat could seriously hinder their hunting activity. The primary reason lion have a mane is to protect its neck during fighting for territory with other male lions.

Theory 2: The Tsavo lions killed for pleasure: No, unlike the movie where scores of people were killed in one scene, the lion would take a victim and leave to eat. A wild animals prime instinct is for survival. Lions may kill enemies such as hyena, or having fought off the resident male he may kill the existing cubs in the pride.

Theory 3: Scarcity of food caused the lions to see humans as prey: Possible. During the 1890s rinderpest (disease) killed millions of buffalo, zebra, gazelle and other wildlife in Sub Saharan Africa, so food was still limited and the workers provided an easy source of food.

Theory 4: An injury of some sort caused the lion to attack humans: Possible. It is said that one of the lion had a broken molar and an abscess had developed underneath it. That means it would have been painful for the lion to eat the tough skin and meat of wildlife such as buffalo. The second lion of course, would have been hunting together with the lion who had the abscess.

Theory 5: Unburied bodies or shallow graves attracted the lion this area: Possible. Railroad workers who die may have been buried in a shallow grave, or not at all. This would have attracted the lions to scavenge for an easy meal, and then perhaps target live humans. Slave and ivory caravans heading for Zanzibar also frequently crossed the Tsavo River in this area, possibly also dumping the bodies of their dead without burying them.

Lion are opportunistic creatures, as are the majority of predators, and when a combination of factors come into play, the above scenario is easy to imagine. To this day, where man and predators live in close proximity there are incidents of lion calling humans. In Tanzania, most of the man-eating lions have been healthy animals living in close proximity to man and domestic animals such as goats and ducks which are easy prey for lion. Then add into the mix a local farmer guarding his crops from marauding animals at night while lion are hunting, and incidents are going to inevitable.

The other theory is that hunting humans can be a “taught behavior” and the problem will persist until the entire pride is eliminated. What is interesting is that man eaters will never return to the same place two days in a row. Lions in Tanzania have been known to break through the mud walls of huts or force their way through the roof to get to a victim, and then drag them away.

In closing, I think it is safe to say that where humans and lions overlap in daily life, there are bound to incidents of this sort.