The man-eaters of Tsavo are undoubtedly the most famous lions in history.  These two lions, nicknamed the Ghost and the Darkness, plagued the construction of the railroad bridge being built across the Tsavo River. Over a period of nine months these lions killed dozens of workers and seemed unstoppable. The workers tried using large fires and bomas, walls built out of thorn bushes, to keep the lions away to no avail. This led many to believe they were not real lions but demons, causing hundreds of workers to flee and halting the construction.

The two lions were finally killed in December of 1898 by Lt. Col John Henry Patterson, the engineer in charge of the bridge construction. The first lion was originally wounded by Patterson and it later began stalking him at night before he finally dispatched it. The second male was shot five times by Patterson and still managed to charge him. He finished the lion in its charge with three additional shots, two to the chest and the last in the head.

The total number of men killed by these lions and the reason for this abnormal behavior are still debated. Patterson himself released several different numbers as to the total kill.  He originally stated around 35 men were killed by the lions but later changed the number to 135 as he claimed there were likely many local villagers killed as well as the workers. Since then several studies have tried to determine the true number. One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA used isotope signatures found in the skins of the lions compared to signatures from skeletal remains  of several common prey species and the local Taita people from the 20th century to calculate how many humans the lions may have consumed.  According to their results the first lion ate roughly 10.5 people and the second ate 24.2 people, suggesting that the original number of 35 was more accurate. However a previous study stated that a total of 100 or more was possible based off of Patterson’s claim that the lions often killed without eating the bodies of their victims, a behavior occasionally observed in other predator species as well.

As for why the lions turned to this behavior we also have some dissention. One theory is that the first male was forced into the behavior as it had an injured tooth. This would have limited its ability to catch normal prey and could have led to him and his companion resulting to humans as easier prey.

The second theory is a lack of natural prey in the area. Along with this out break of man eating 1898 also saw a severe case of rinderpest hit Africa. This disease had wiped out much of the lions usual prey species which would force them to find alternatives.

Either theory is plausible. The area had long been used by slavers as they took slaves from the interior to the coast. These slave routes were often lined with dead slaves and lions in the area would have learned from this how easy it is to feed on humans.

The lions in question can still be found at the Field Museum in Chicago. Unlike their portrayal in the movie “The Ghost and the Darkness” these two males are maneless. While we do not know for sure why these two particular lions turned to man eating, scientists have observed that the lions of the Tsavo area even now seem to be more blood thirsty than those found elsewhere.

~ “ There is nothing so beautiful, or as enjoyable to my ears as the roar of a lion upon a still night when everything is calm and no sound disturbs the solitude, except the awe-inspiring notes like the rumble of distant thunder, as they die away in the deepest bass.” – Sir Samuel Baker on lions, 19th century. ~

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