The year is 1898 and British Army Lt Colonel John Henry Patterson is brought to East Africa from India to help aid in the construction of a railway bridge in the region of Tsavo, Africa. It’s official name was the Uganda Railroad, but ended up being dubbed “The Lunatic Line” with the events that transpired. It wasn’t until the railway reached the Tsavo area that any real trouble began. Within a few days of Patterson’s arrival in Tsavo, people began disappearing and soon there were two lions blamed for the deaths, of which mutilated bodies were found. Workers attempted to erect fences of thorn bushes around their camps, but the beasts continued to get through, even clawing through workers’ tents. The lions also broke into the hospital one night and drug one of the patients out to his death.



As portrayed in the movie of the same name, Patterson did in fact spend nights up in trees in attempt to kill the lions, and constructed the boxcar with himself inside as bait…both were unsuccessful. The lions became so bold they would eat their kills within 30 yards of camp. On December 9, one of the lions killed a donkey and, as it ate, Patterson instructed a group of workers to approach it making as much noise as possible, to drive it into the open. When the lion emerged, Patterson managed to wound it with the rifle. Expecting that the lion would return that night to his kill, Patterson built a wooden platform and waited. The lion indeed returned, but ignored the dead donkey and approached Patterson instead. Patterson killed it with two rifle shots.

One lion remained, and a few nights later it attacked two goats. Patterson set out three more goats as bait, tying them to a short section of railroad tie, and waited. The lion returned, killed one of the goats, then dragged the entire railroad tie, still attached to the goat, away. Patterson’s shots missed. The next morning, Patterson and a group of workers followed the trail and found the lion, which ran off. Patterson built another wooden platform, and when the lion returned that night, wounded it with two shots.

For the next ten days, nothing happened, and Patterson concluded that the lion had died of its wounds. Then, the lion returned and made an unsuccessful attack on a worker sleeping in a tree. That night, Patterson lay in ambush in the same tree, and when the lion returned, wounded it twice more. In the morning, they followed the blood trail and found the lion, which charged at them. Patterson killed it with two more shots. It was December 29, 1898.

Examination of the two dead lions showed that they were both males and were, like most of the lions in the Tsavo region, maneless. Most likely, they were brothers–young male lions without a pride of their own often form small packs or partnerships.

In 1996, Patterson’s 1907 book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, was adapted into a Hollywood screenplay titled “The Ghost and the Darkness”, which starred Val Kilmer as Patterson and Michael Douglas as the fictional big-game hunter character Charles Remington.

For years, there was much debate over just how many people the two lions actually killed over the nine-month period, with estimates running from the railroad company’s figure of 28 to Patterson’s figure of 135. In 2009, a team of biologists was able to do a chemical analysis on hair and skin samples from the Field Museum specimens, and used isotope ratios to determine the chemical makeup of the proteins in the lion’s diet during their last months of life. They concluded that one of the Tsavo lions had eaten around 11 humans, and that the other had eaten around 24. That meant that one of the lions ate mostly herbivores with only about one-third of its diet coming from humans, while the other made up almost two-thirds of its diet with humans.

So why did the lions become man-eaters? In 1898, the Tsavo region had been hit by drought, and a European-introduced virus called rinderpest had killed many of the cats’ natural prey, including buffalo and wildebeests. Other researchers have shown that such upheaval can cause individual animals to start transitioning to new foods, even different ones from their neighbors. “Lions are ‚Ķ able to switch from one prey to another,” Dominy says. “Uncomfortably, that turned out to be us.”

As far as the Tsavo¬†region goes, it is in an area of Kenya located at the crossing of the Uganda Railway over the Tsavo River, close to where it meets the Athi River. ‘Tsavo’, means ‘slaughter’ in the language of the Akamba people.

Patterson kept the skulls from both lions, and used their skins as rugs. In 1924, he sold the remains of the man-eaters to the Field Museum in Chicago, where they were mounted and put on display in 1928. They are still there today.

Pictured are NOT the actual lions…to see them click HERE

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