Tsavo Man-Eaters: The Serial Killer Lions of African Legend

Timothy RawlesTrue HorrorLeave a Comment

We all know that humans can be serial killers, but there was a documented case in Tsavo East Africa in the late 1800s which tells of two man-eating lions leaving a deadly path of human carnage in their wake.

Some say although the lions made meals of most of their victims, they might have hunted for sport too because humans don’t fit into their normal dietary needs which calls for higher amounts of protein and larger bones.

The story was the basis of a movie starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer called The Ghost and the Darkness, which itself took artistic liberty with the written, terrifying eyewitness accounts by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson in his book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.

Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer in “The Ghost and the Darkness.”

Patterson, an engineer, was commissioned in 1898 to oversee the construction of a bridge that would span over the Tsavo River for the British railroad. But his mission was delayed several times by two male lions that had developed an odd taste for his staff.

Several thousand workers were employed by Patterson to build the bridge. They lived in an expansive makeshift town consisting of tents and structures which offered very little protection against the harsh savanna ecosystem.

The rogue lions were a part of this biotic community. Unlike their well-known Serengeti counterparts, Tsavo males can be identified by their maneless heads, a detail missing from the movie.

It wasn’t long before Patterson settled into his new surroundings when these bold felines began to attack his men. They would prowl around the encampment, taking turns pulling men from their tents ripping them apart from limb to limb. This went on for a while until the cats stopped showing up, only to return with a vengeance a few months later.

Upon their return, they increased their murderous rampage. The cats successfully traversed any traps, scare tactics or barbed fencing the men could come up with. What’s more, the cats were working in tandem now.

Scared for their lives construction workers abandoned the project bringing production to a stand still. Completely overwhelmed and sorely behind schedule, British officials were determined to get rid of these maneating pests.

Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas in “The Ghost and the Darkness.”

Enter about 20 Indian armed soldiers who did nothing but agitate the cats even further, it was Patterson they wanted and in their pursuit of him, managed to avoid the hired guns.

Which begs the question: Can animals hold a personal vendetta?

These two did according to Patterson. They had become angered at his constant meddling and gunfire. In defiance, he managed to shoot one cat in the leg. It ran off but despite its wound, returned with a thirst for Patterson’s blood.

It was man versus beast until Patterson got the upper hand, took aim and struck the lion in the heart with a bullet, killing it. The beast was over 9-feet-long and required the help of several men to carry it away.

The second lion met with the deadly end of Patterson’s rifle but like its brother also managed to survive, fleeing into the savanna wounded and angry. Eleven days later Patterson found it and shot it 6 more times, once fatally in the head.

Patterson said the cat, even while dying, pawed at a tree branch trying to reach him before taking its last breath.

In all, the cats managed to kill about 135 people, although scientists argue that the number is hyperbolic and lies somewhere in the dozens.

The two cats actually had help from a third, but it was killed before Patterson’s arrival and therefore undocumented.

The giant pelts of Patterson’s spoils would become his household throw rugs for many years before they were sold to the Field Museum in Chicago for $5,000. Curators eventually stuffed them to make a lifelike diorama.

As for why the big cats would hunt human flesh, one Tsavo cat researcher, Bruce Patterson (unrelated to John), said in an interview, they might have done so “because we are slower, weaker and more defenseless.”

You can read James Henry Patterson’s full account in his book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.

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