“On this day in 1898, John Henry Patterson killed a three metre-long lion, who together with a second lion, had reportedly killed and devoured 135 construction workers near the Tsavo River in Kenya. Patterson’s account of the lions was published in the 1907 book The Man-eaters of Tsavo, and later adapted into a number of films including Hollywood’s 1996 title, The Ghost and the Darkness.
In 1898, the British Empire, who maintained colonial control over the region, was constructing a railroad bridge over the Tsavo, which was to be part of their ambitious Uganda Railway connecting Lake Victoria with Mombasa. From the spring until winter that year, an enormous number of railway workers and locals were killed and eaten by the pair of lions, leading to hysteria and abandonment by some of the remaining thousands of workers. Eventually, work was halted until Patterson managed to hunt and kill the two lions, the first on 9 December, and the second later that month.
Humans are easy targets for the king of beasts, and we continue to fall prey year after year. Accounts of man-eating lions show that they are predominantly male, often old or wounded, and many times deprived of their natural prey by human actions. Incredible reports in Zambia and Tanzania over the past century attribute hundreds of deaths to specific lions, but none are as famous as the man-eating lions of Tsavo.
The lions’ death toll of 135 or so workers may have been inflated, and researchers at The Field Museum in Chicago have recently suggested that the actual number was less than 30. The Field Museum has conducted research in Tsavo including the excavation of the famous lions’ den.
Shortly after their death, the lions, as was often the fate of great game at the time, were turned into trophy rugs. However, in 1924 they were sold to The Field Museum for US$5,000–which was a considerable sum at the time. The museum’s taxidermist stuffed them and transformed them into life-like mounts, which are still on display today.”
Credit: © Mark Eveleigh / Alamy
Caption: Allegedly 135 workers were killed by the man-eating Tsavo lions while building the railway bridge over Tsavo River, seen in the background of this photo.