The man-eating lions of Tsavo

The British Government began building a railway at vast expense in the face of significant local hostility. Yet despite huge practical obstacles and opposition in parliament the plan soldiered on. Sound familiar?

Yet this was 1896. Building what later became known as the “Lunatic Express”, the British colonial Government in Kenya stuck unrelentingly to their plan. A railway from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to Uganda, was required, and a railway there would be. Even one that included a siding next to the High Commissioner’s mansion so he could head out on hunting parties in privacy. (Thank you Wikipedia, please let that be true). Attacks by local tribesmen, malaria, and huge geographical obstacles wouldn’t get in the way.

Lion on safari in Africa

Lions, not man-eaters. As far as we know.

In 1898 the railway workers hit an obstacle. They needed to build a bridge over the Tsavo River. While building bridges by day was hard work, by night the worker’s camp was troubled by something far more terrifying. Two maneless lions, later known as the Ghost and the Darkness, were killing and eating the Indian railway workers. They built campfires to scare off the lions. They built thick thorny bomas in the style of the local Maasai to shelter their tents. The leader of the project, Lt. Col John Patterson hid out in a tree with his trusty Martini-Enfield rifle. But to no avail.

Hundreds of workers ran away in terror, but still the lions kept coming.  Eventually Patterson shot one huge lion, 9ft 8 from nose to tail. He escaped wounded and returned to camp to stalk Patterson, before eventually dying. It took 8 men to carry his body back to camp. 20 days later the second lion was shot. He was shot 9 times over 11 days before he was eventually killed. They were found to have eaten 10.5 and 24.2 humans respectively. (What happened to the other 0.3 of a person, we can’t possibly comment).

To this day there’s no answer as to what made the Tsavo lions man-eaters. It could’ve been that one was suffering from appalling toothache, than an outbreak of rinderpest meant they had no cattle to prey on, or that they’d grown used to the taste of human flesh by preying on slave caravans heading overland to the coast. The lions ended their days as rugs on Patterson’s floor, and can now be seen in the Chicago Field Museum.

** Please accept our apologies for any inaccuracies. Like all good campfire stories, we’ve told it to the best of our abilities, but we’re prepared to be corrected!