By Jennifer Young

In 1898, two lions stalked workers in the Tsavo region of Kenya, killing as many as 135 people. British Colonel John Patterson (a bridge builder and game hunter) finally killed the lions and wrote about his experiences in his 1907 book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures (LINK to book at the article’s end).

Patterson’s harrowing tale captured the world’s imagination, most recently inspiring the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness. Patterson kept the remains of the lions as rugs, but upon visiting Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, he offered up his trophies (for a $5,000 fee) which remain on display in the museum’s collection today.

Patterson’s failed attempt at caging the lions.

It’s said that Patterson inflated the number of people killed by the lions when writing his book. A more modest accounting numbers the fatal attacks at 100, but the Field Museum suggests the count was likely between 28 and 31. That number was recently raised to 35 after scientists studied hair and bone samples from the lions (provided by the Field Museum)*. Through their study of isotopes, they were able to determine that about 30% of the lions’ diet consisted of humans for the last three months of their lives.

*This number is now in further dispute, and is likely closer to Patterson’s estimate. A kill count of 35 assumes the two lions ate the entire body weight of a victim, which rarely happened. In several instances, the lions killed a victim but were driven off before consuming them. Additionally, the vegetarian diet of the lions’ victims would greatly affect the samples found in the predators’ hair and bone. 

Regardless of the exact count of human lives lost, it is clear that the lions terrorized workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway. The lions brazenly entered worker areas in order to seize victims, apparently unconcerned by the workers’ attempts to scare them away with fire or boma (thorn fences). The railway intervened after hundreds of workers quit and forced it to halt construction of a bridge on the Tsavo River.

A modern boma, an enclosure surrounded by thorny bush to discourage predators.

There have been many theories as to why the lions developed a taste for human flesh and so fiercely stalked the railway workers. One theory is that the lions of Tsavo, larger than lions of the savannah, had become used to a diet of human flesh after the bodies of the dead were discarded from train cars loaded with slaves passed through the region.

Many researchers believe that drought was responsible for making the lions’ more usual fare harder to procure, forcing them to feed on humans. More recently, some scientists have reported that one of the lions–with the most human kills–was suffering from a severe dental disease that would have made it impossible for the creature to hunt for its regular prey.

The entrance to the Tsavo lions’ den, discovered by Patterson.

The brutality of the attacks and Patterson’s account of his hunting tactics and eventual killing of the lions has continued to fascinate the world. After Patterson sold the remains of the Tsavo lions to the Field Museum in 1927, taxidermists went to work recreating the pair of man-eaters from their skulls, skins, and other remains. The result is a life-like duo who look fiercely out through the glass that surrounds them as if scouring the banks of the Tsavo River for signs of life.

Like other Tsavo lions, these, too, are maneless. Visitors to the museum can come face to face with the notorious man-eaters at their forever home in the Rice Gallery’s Mammals of Africa collection. And these aren’t the Field’s only man-eaters either. The museum acquired the infamous lion of Mfuwe, Zambia, that ate six humans in 1991. As with the lions of Tsavo, the Zambia man-eater likely found it easier to catch and chew humans rather than its more ordinary forms of prey. If you’re interested in the Tsavo Lions, be sure to read Patterson’s accounts as well as make a visit to view them on display at the Field Museum.

Want to Know More?

Read Colonel Patterson’s (free) complete memoir The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures at the Internet Archive. It’s also available for download there in a variety of formats.

Examine the Field Museum’s 2003 paper, published in the Journal of Mammalogy, that supports the broken-tooth theory, entitled “TOOTH BREAKAGE AND DENTAL DISEASE AS CAUSES OF CARNIVORE–HUMAN CONFLICTS.”