A Tale of the Tallest Order, the Mystery Behind the Tsavo Man-Eaters

Instead of focusing on a contemporary big cat conservation issue, or something biologically/ecologically related, today I want to draw your attention to perhaps one of the most famous cases of man eating big cats. Occurring well over 100 years ago, the Tsavo lion story has remained a controversy ever since it played out in 1898. With the proportion of big cats coming into direct contact/or conflict with humans increasing every decade, learning important lessons from history could well reap dividends for us future generations of humans who will have to live alongside big cats.

The story of the Tsavo man-eating Lions has always fascinated me, in a non-sadistic way I would like to clarify! I first became aware of the story behind the Tsavo Man Eaters back in my younger years when I read “Lion Adventure” by Willard Price. If there’s anyone of a younger age reading this article, I can’t recommend this series of books enough. Alongside being fantastic stories to read, they also contain a wealth of information about a huge range of animals, from Whales to Elephants and Leopards to Tigers. I’ll include a link so you can find the books on Amazon for you to browse at your leisure. Lion Adventure even makes reference to Colonel Patterson, someone who will become very important later on in this post. 

Anyway, I digress. Back to lions! Tsavo lions are a distinct variety of Masai lion (Panthera leo nubica), which can be found living around the Tsavo River in Kenya. Whilst you would be right to associate male lions with having manes, they generally do, Tsavo lions are one of the few populations in which males lack a mane, as you can see in the image on the right. Tsavo lions also exhibit a few other notable differences which helps set them apart them from conventional lions.

Tsavo Man Eaters big cat conservation
The Tsavo River bridge in Kenya. Home to one of the most widely publicised cases of big cat predation on humans in history. Image thanks to http://www.4.bhp.blogspot.com

In most lion prides, the female members of the pride primarily participate in hunting, whereas in Tsavo lion prides, males have been observed taking on an equal role in the pride hunts. Pride dynamics is another area where Tsavo lions also contain subtle differences with that of regular lion prides. Whereas lion prides may often have between two and eight males, all of which will usually be related, Tsavo prides have be commonly found to contain just the one male lion. The same study by the scientists Borzo and Greg in 2002, also found that Tsavo lion prides on average tend to be larger than conventional prides, containing around eight or nine females per group/one male. A number of reasons have been hypothesized to try and explain some of the differences between the Tsavo lions and conventional African lions, the two most feasible (in my opinion) I shall outline below.

  • Tsavo lions evolved a smaller mane than other Lions to aid with heat loss. A large mane traps will trap heat, causing the lion to overheat. The Tsavo region of Kenya experiences extremely high temperatures and such the manes of Tsavo lions “devolved” to aid the lions in expelling heat from their body.
  • Another suggested hypothesis is that Tsavo lions have increased levels of testosterone. In male humans, elevated testosterone levels have been linked with the inhibition of hair growth, and balding of the scalp – condition which may possibly be reflecting itself in the head region of Tsavo lions. In addition, higher testosterone levels would provide an explanation of the perceived increased aggression of Tsavo lions. Previous studies have concluded that levels of testosterone are higher in territorial male lions than non territorial ones, leading to an explanation of the heightened state of aggression Tsavo lions have been known to demonstrate, which has historically included man eating.

So why are the Tsavo lions so famous? And why this case one of the most famously studied cases of man eating big cats? The answer, as I shall explain in the coming paragraphs lies partly at the door of one of the main protagonists in the Tsavo lions tale, Colonel John Henry Patterson.

Born in Ireland in 1867, Patterson was a soldier, hunter and author who is perhaps most widely known now for his book The Man Eaters of Tsavo (1907). After joining the British Army in 1884, Patterson rose through the ranks to eventually become commander of the Jewish Legion during the First World War, however in the meantime, his exploits in Africa would ensure he remained very much in the scientific eye a century later.

In 1898, Patterson was commissioned by the Uganda Railway to oversee the building of a bridge over the Tsavo River, located in what today is Kenya. From March through to December that same year, two male Tsavo lions stalked, terrorised and preyed upon the construction workers under Patterson’s command and despite the worker’s best efforts to repel them, the two lions overcame every obstacle placed in their path. After the attacks failed to cease, workers fled the Tsavo river and work on the bridge was halted, leaving Col. Patterson to either deal with the problem man eaters himself, or return to England without accomplishing his target.

After numerous failed attempts to halt capture or kill the two rouge male lions, Patterson finally shot the first lion of December 9th 1898, some nine months after the killings began, with the second lion found just 20 days later. Patterson was regarded as a hero both by the local communities and indeed many people around the world, with the Colonel even being congratulated in the British parliament by the Prime Minister, Lord Sailsbury. It is here however, that Patterson’s heroics in Africa begin to be obscured by a cloud of misinformation and numerous conflicting reports. According to Patterson, 135 people were killed during the Tsavo lion’s nine month reign of terror, a figure which has been severely bought into question with the advances of modern science.

With none other than an established soldier and hunter’s word to go by, it perhaps isn’t surprising that Patterson’s claim of 135 victims was whole heartedly believed. It wasn’t until 2001 that the first scientific evidence came to light, suggesting that in fact the numbers of people killed by the Tsavo lions was almost 100 less than originally claimed by Patterson and subsequent investigators. A study published by the scientists Peterhans and Gnoske in 2001 estimated the number of people killed in the nine month period from March-December 1898 to be between 28 and 31, 104 less than originally claimed.

Tsavo Man eating lions big cat conservtation
This is all that remains of the Tsavo man eaters, however just once piece of hair was enough to deduce the diet of two of the world’s most famous lions.

Again, eight years later in 2009, a study investigating the composition of the diet of the two Tsavo lions was published in a US scientific journal which supported Peterhan’s and Gnoske’s conclusion that in fact the number of workers killed was much less, this time being just 24.  Such have been the advances in science, that researchers were able to use Carbon-13 Nitrogen-15 isotopes over 100 year old hair to reconstruct the diet of the Tsavo lions, in a similar way to the reconstruction of diets of ancient animals such as the Woolly Mammoth and Woolly Rhino.

Whilst diets of animals can be accurately reconstructed, and therefore we can confidently say that the Tsavo lions did not eat 135 people, the number of people killed by the lions will forever remain a mystery. Unfortunately there is no way of telling how many workers were killed by the two male lions over that fateful nine month period back in 1898 however supporters of Patterson have argued that lions often killed for the sake of killing, without eating their human victims.

I’ll leave you to decide whose side of the story you chose to believe, the highly regarded British army commander, who gained worldwide recognition for killing two of the worlds most notorious lions, or the recent scientific studies which suggest that in fact Patterson’s claims may have been greatly exaggerated. Personally although I highly doubt Patterson’s figure of 135 victims, I believe there was the possibility that more people were killed than eaten, however I would believe this “extra” number be closer to 10 or 20, rather than 100. I’d love to hear your opinions on the Tsavo lion story, so please do feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments below!

I do hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post. Although the majority of my posts will be geared towards a conservation/biological theme, I would like to occasionally delve into some of the history of the human/big cat conflict and I think background knowledge greatly helps understand present day issues, not just with big cats but in all human/environmental conflicts worldwide. 



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