The story of the Tsavo man-eating lions begin in March 1898, when a team of Indian railway workers led by British Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson arrived in Kenya to build bridge over the Tsavo River, as part of building Kenya -Uganda Railway project. Locals as it was known, were aware of dangers surrounding Tsavo, as name itself suggest in local language, ‘Tsavo’ means ‘place of slaughter.’ It was a place where wars between Arabs, Maasai took place and people were killed. So the place was a bad omen to locals.
Disappearing of men
Lt. Col. Patterson and his company just noticed something unusual when they just arrived when one of his men went missing. After thorough search they discovered one of man’s mutilated body in the thicket. He immediately concluded that the lions might have killed his employee. He set out the next day to find the beast. During the course of establishing the search of the beasts, he was stumbled to find out other corpses of all men who had disappeared from previous expeditions.
This was just the beginning, almost immediately, a second of Patterson’s men disappeared. By April the number grew to 17. The killings continued for months as the circumvented every fence, barrier and traps erected to keep them out of the camps. The killings didn’t end until December, when Patterson finally stalked and killed the two lions in intervals of ten days. The first lion was killed on December 9th, it took Patterson ten days to kill next. Patterson claimed the lions had killed a total of 135 people from his crew.
The threat was over when the two beasts were killed and the work resumed soon after without fear. Like the male lions in the area, they lacked the normal mane of normal male lion. In 1907, he wrote a bestselling book about the attacks, “The Man-eater of Tsavo. ” A quarter century later the skins and bones were sold to the Field Museum, where they were stuffed, mounted and put on display until today.
months before they were shot. But the tests revealed something else: one of the lions had eaten 11 people. The other had eaten 24. That put the total at just 35 deaths, far lower than the 135 claimed by Lt. Col. Patterson.
“This has been a historical puzzle for years, and the discrepancy is now finally being addressed,” Nathaniel J. Dominy, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California Santa Cruz, said in 2009. “We can imagine that the railroad company might have had reasons to want to minimize the number of victims, and Patterson might have had reasons to inflate the number. So who do you trust? We’re removing all those factors and getting down to data.”
That doesn’t mean the deaths weren’t significant, or that what Lt. Col. Patterson called a “reign of terror” wasn’t just that. The tests on the Tsavo lion bodies confirmed that one of the lions in particular preyed on humans, revealing that half of its diet during the nine months before its death consisted of human flesh. The rest came from eating local herbivores.
The researchers did, however, support the narrative that the two lions worked together as some sort of killing unit. They theorize that the two males came in together to scatter their prey, something most lions normally only do when hunting large animals such as zebras. One then concentrated on human prey while the other mostly fed on herbivores. This alone makes the Tsavo lions unique: “The idea that the two lions were going in as a team yet exhibiting these dietary preferences has never been seen before or since,” Dominy said.
A look at dental wear and tear
More recently in 2017, zoologist Patterson and paleoecologist Larisa DeSantis looked deeper into the lions’ diets by studying the clues found on the animals teeth, called dental microwear texture analysis (DMTA). They looked not only at the Tsavo lions, but also a lion from Mfuwe that killed and ate six people in 1991. Their new research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Because earlier witnesses said that they could hear the lions crunching on bones, the researchers said that if that were true, those dietary habits would certainly have left an impact on the lions’ teeth. But they found no corroboration dental evidence to support those gory claims.
“We thought we were going to provide concrete evidence that these lions were scavenging and thoroughly consuming carcasses before they died,” DeSantis told Smithsonian magazine. Instead, “the man-eating lions have microscopic wear patterns similar to captive lions that are typically provided with softer food.”
In this case, the softer food was human flesh. The lions may have skipped the bones because of their own preferences, the researchers speculate, or because they had jaw injuries that would have made the fleshy parts much more attractive.
The researchers concluded, “DMTA data here suggests that man-eating lions didn’t completely consume carcasses of humans or ungulates. Instead, humans likely supplemented an already diverse diet.”
A reminder of ‘morbid fascination’
So why did the lions start killing people in the first place? The earlier study revealed that the lion that ate the most people had dental diseases, a poorly aligned jaw and damage to its skull. It may have turned to humans out of desperation. Meanwhile the time of the Tsavo killings followed a period of decline in other prey, mostly of elephants. That’s when humans entered the picture and became an easy replacement dinner.
Although we now know more of the truth about the Tsavo lions, they still stand as powerful symbols of their day. “The signal feat of the Tsavo lions is that they stopped the British Empire, at the height of its imperial power, literally in its tracks at Tsavo,” Bruce Patterson told the Chicago Tribune in 2009. “It was not until Col. Patterson dispatched them that work on the railway could resume.” He also said the lions remain a reminder of the “morbid fascination in considering the business end of an animal that can kill and eat you in seconds.”