The Savage Tsavo Man-Eaters and the Man Who Stopped Them

They were believed to have eaten up to 135 people.

Animals
3 min
Colton Kruse
Colton Kruse
The Savage Tsavo Man-Eaters and the Man Who Stopped Them
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Animals

The Tsavo Man-Eaters

Just east of the famous Kilimanjaro peak, in the unforgiving Tsavo desert, a pair of lions ate a reported 135 people!

Tsavo lions have long been notoriously known as man-eaters . Smaller than fellow the Serengeti lions that lived over the mountain, Tsavo lions also have smaller or no manes because of their harsh environment.

Tsavo lion groups are smaller than most lion prides. They typically have only one male lion. This male lion has the right to breed. In contrast, most lion prides have many female lions and two male lions.

tsavo-region-lion.jpg
tsavo-region-lion.jpg

Tsavo region lion.

As the slave trading roads developed through Tsavo, Kenya, many traders pushed their captives hard across the barren wasteland. When a slave died, they were simply left behind, becoming an ample meal for scavenging predators. Many believed this gave the Tsavo lions an early taste for human flesh, one that would be honed for the incoming British in the late 19th century .

The Ghost and the Darkness

Soon after Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson arrived to lead the construction of a railroad bridge in 1898, lion attacks ravaged his worker’s camp. Striking in the night, a pair of lions with a seemingly insatiable appetite stalked the builders. Screams could be heard in the dead of night as these ferocious predators pulled men from their tents into the wilderness.

So How Many People Did the Tsavo Lions Kill, Exactly?

Some accounts state that 135 people were eaten by the two lions that year, but company reports place the official figure closer to around 30 . The actual number of people killed by the big cats remains a mystery because the figure didn’t include nearby villagers.

Patterson the Lion Slayer

Lieutenant Patterson, an experienced tiger hunter in India, took charge of stopping the lions’ massacre. He erected thorn barriers, lit bonfires at night, and enacted curfews, but the attacks only seemed to get worse. The workers grew increasingly superstitious and mutinous.

It took Patterson months to kill the pair of African lions, and upon their deaths, they discovered both were maneless males, rogues without a pride. These lions were very big, about nine feet long. They were bigger than other lions at that time because they had more food to eat.

patterson-tsavo.jpg
patterson-tsavo.jpg

Patterson and one of the man-eaters of Tsavo.

Patterson was immediately proclaimed a hero for his lion hunting, restoring faith in his workers and acclaim around the world. The lions’ remains were stuffed and eventually made their way to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, where they are displayed alongside their skulls.

tsavo-lions-CC-JeffreyJung.jpg
tsavo-lions-CC-JeffreyJung.jpg

The stuffed Tsavo man-eaters./CC Jeffrey Jung

Why Did the Tsavo Man-Eating Lions Kill Humans?

At the time, much romance and superstition were used to explain the Tsavo man-eating lions’ behavior. Patterson said the animals’ reasoning was marked by a never-ending hunger and a taste for human blood. He guessed that the careless burial practices in the region led to lions scavenging human remains.

Scientists studied the preserved lion remains and found that damaged jaws might have influenced their behavior. One lion had an abscessed tooth , meaning it may not have been able to big prey and had to steal food from the camps.

About The Author

Colton Kruse

Colton Kruse

Starting as an intern in the Ripley’s digital archives, Colton’s intimately familiar with the travel…

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