We’ve never seen the Tsavo lions.
Despite what the signage says, the thin pelts displayed in Chicago’s Field Museum are not the Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo…in the same way the sagging hulk of rust and steel at the bottom of the Atlantic isn’t the Titanic.
The staff of the Field Museum did their best to restore the infamous pair for the 1925 unveiling by Stanley Field in 1925. Both seem alert and poised, ready to chase down prey. But their time as floor rugs shows. Their matted and dull fur resembles a dead putting green. The glass eyes glint like, well, glass. And the two creatures are horribly drained of their heavy muscles: jaws that deliver a bite greater than 650 PSI; hind legs that rocket the beast to 50 mph; and forepaws that can shatter a hyena’s backbone in a single swat.
To humans, these beasts were walking nightmares. The men who hunted them—and the men they hunted—bestowed supernatural powers upon the maneless Tsavo lions. They came at night and they came in the day. They ignored, avoided, or escaped almost every trap devised. They were spirits.
There are no videos or images of the lions alive, only after Colonel Patterson killed them (after almost a year’s hunt).
This is the best we can offer: the brief recounting of the Tsavo lions’ attack soon after Colonel Patterson’s arrival. Hopefully, this story can partially fill in the voids Chicago’s taxidermists could not.
The Taking of Ungan Singh
1898. Near the Tsavo River, Kenya.
A half-dozen Kenyan workers tromped into the canvas tent at the end of the day, stretching out their tired bodies between their wool blankets. They muttered quietly to one another as they settled in, exchanging anecdotes and gossip from the day. The workers said nothing about the British colonel or his subordinates, since a Sikh jemadar guarded the tent’s entrance.
He was a broad-shouldered, tall man named Ungan Singh. Like most jemedars, Singh’s position was an odd cocktail of sergeant, foreman, corporate spy, and chaperone. The workmen couldn’t say they liked Singh, but they respected him. His sharp eyes constantly scanned the edge of the firelight, looking for the glowing globes of lion eyes. He treated the workers respectfully, even kindly. With the lions prowling from camp to camp, crawling or weaving their way through the thick thorns of the boma, Singh voluntarily acted as a buffer between the half-dozen workers and the man-eating lions.
Sleep came quickly that pleasant December night. Their hard labor eclipsed any worries of lions and vengeful spirits, which many locals believed inhabited the two lions. These spirits were unhappy with the British colonization and the invasion of the railroad through the Kenyan landscape. They were even more unhappy with the natives that let them in.
It was around midnight that three of the workers, not knowing why, snapped their eyes open in the swaddling darkness. They lifted their head from the rolled sacks serving as pillows, looking at one another. Something was off. They stayed still, but their bodies began sweating beneath the wool blankets, a cold sweat that pooled under their arms and at their lower backs.
It was the stillness. Everything around them was in absolute, smothering stillness.
Just outside the tent, they heard a crinkle of steps, then a quiet snort and huff, snort and huff. Then more crinkling steps. Something large wove its way through the grass around their tent.
Their eyes fell to the tent flap, which yawned wide open to the night. Ungan Singh slept near the open flap, his large chest rising and falling evenly. His carefully-wrapped dastar had slumped forward, partially covering his eyes.
Crinkle. Crinkle. Snort. Huff.
A disparate shadow crawled along the canvas, morphing with the flickering of a nearby campfire. Its shoulders rocked like oiled pistons as it stepped around the tent. Even in silhouette it swelled and bulged with deadly muscle and stretched nearly as long as two grown men foot-to-forehead.
Then the shadow vanished from the canvas tent. The men waited, eyes darting from the tent wall to the open flap to one another. No one spoke, and they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Terror had taken their tongues. It was gone to feed somewhere else, on someone else, gone to—
The lion’s head floated into the tent through the open flaps. As large round as a grown man’s chest, its broad face turned this way and that, and its jaw hung open as it tasted the air. Dark streaks—mud, blood, or both—stained its dusk yellow fur. Even in the dark, the men could see spittle glint off its long, sharp canine. The salty oil of the lion’s musk invaded the tent.
Singh slept on only inches away.
The alert men didn’t move and didn’t breath. Fear paralyzed them like electric ice. Rational thought was replaced by instinct older than the Pyramids of Giza or even the Maros cave paintings. Here was a predator that had hunted their ancestors’ ancestors’ ancestors. A hundred thousand years of predator and prey.
Afterwards, the men would describe the lion and its reputation as something much more than an animal. It had no fear of them. It didn’t even show any nervous concern, which is unusual for a lion entering a human’s territory. Humans are tall, long-limbed, loud and sometimes possessed confusing weaponry. Lions had learned to distance themselves. This one didn’t give a damn.
This one had popped its head into the tent like a shopper browsing a fruit cart to select a sweet snack. The flat yellow of its eyes looked almost bored.
The maneless head tilted down, its open mouth just above Singh’s head. The alert men wanted to scream and warn the Sikh who had been nothing but good to them. But they were helpless in their terror.
The lion sucked in one quick breath through its open mouth. It’s raspy red tongue lolled out and danced along the dashtar fabric. It found this jemedar to its liking. The lion’s mouth opened wider and settled gently on Singh’s right shoulder. The skin of its muzzle folded back. Its whiskers bunched together over a half-circle of yellowed fangs.
It bit down.
The fangs sank into Singh’s shoulder and dark blood gushed around its tightened muzzle. The Sikh’s eyes shot open, bright white globes of confusion and pain. His arms swung out, then up, and beat uselessly against the lion’s face and eyes. His strong hands tried felt for a throat to throttle, but it was like trying to strangle a tree trunk.
“Let go!” Ungan Singh barked as the lion dragged him out through the tent flaps. The Sikh kicked and beat and gouged and clawed with all his strength, but the lion dragged him out easily.
By now the tent occupants were all awake, just in time to see Singh’s feet disappear through the open flaps, the heels leaving two shallow trenches that led outside into the night.
The lion did not take Singh far. It held Singh just outside the tent, jerking him like a knot of rope this way and that as the Sikh struggled. He did not die quickly or painlessly. The workers heard his gasps of agony and effort. With that was the muffled breathing of the lion as it sucked in lungfuls of air through its nose. Hard to breath with a mouthful of dinner.
The gasps turned to moans turned to whimpers, and the workers heard the lion drag Singh away into the shelter of the wild, to feed beyond the edge of the firelight. Far enough to hide, but close enough for the men to hear the rip of wet flesh and the crunch of fresh bones.
The workers sat awake and shivering until morning and when they reported the incident, the British bridge-builder Patterson asked why they had done nothing to help the good Sikh man. They shrugged.
What could they have done against such a beast except die?
Patterson and a squad of jemedars tracked the lion the next day. It wasn’t hard. Tacky gouts of blood and bits of bone, flesh, and skin marked the way like a charnel perversion of Hansel and Gretel.
They found Singh’s body within hours, although the body was no longer a body. Only a pile of gore remained. When Patterson squatted down to look at the pattern of prints around it, he saw that it was here the two Tsavo lions had tussled over their meal, rending Singh’s body apart. He shook the image from his head.
Then Patterson saw Singh’s head staring at them from the perimeter of the scene.
The jemedars turned away. Even the experienced hunter had to momentarily look away and collect himself. While Singh’s body had been mutilated into a pulp, the head remained untouched but for two shallow puncture wounds near the temple. One of the lions had mouthed the human’s head, found it distasteful, and had tossed it to the side.
Plain as day was Singh’s expression of pain and horror. His eyes bulged. His mouth hung open in a permanent scream. It would be years before they repeated what they now knew: when the lions had begun to feed, Singh had still been alive.
They had known Singh, respected him, and to come to such an end…
They buried his scattered remains as best they could. They swaddled Singh’s head in lengths of canvas, placing it in a sack to carry back to camp so the Sikh could be positively identified and, perhaps, be given a proper funeral by his friends.
Decades later, Patterson would describe the Sikh’s death and the discovery of the body in his memoirs. The incident had haunted him. With all the horrors the British soldier, hunter, and engineer saw in his adventurous life, Singh’s death had scarred him.
“It was,” he wrote, “the most gruesome sight I had ever seen.”
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