Tsavo Man Eaters
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Basic Information

The Tsavo Man Eaters were a pair of male lions which waged a prolonged campaign of harassment against the railroad laborers working on the Kenya-Uganda railway for the majority of 1898. Based on figures provided by the director of the construction effort, the two lions killed approximately 135 people over a nine-month period and caused so much disruption that their depredations were raised in debate in the House of Lords.

Attacks began in March 1898 as the construction crews moved into position to bridge the Tsavo river, ahead of the main line-laying operation, and several thousand (mostly Indian) labourers set up camp in the area with only nominal security - no trouble being expected in what was a sparsely settled area of wilderness. The two cats appeared seemingly out of nowhere and showed an unusual willingness to enter into the camps, dragging men out of tents and away into the night. Even the fortification of the camps with tall and thick zariba and the nightly burning of large watch-fires scarcely seemed to slow them down, and even on nights when they did not attack, they seemed to lay siege to the workers, roaring to one another through the night.

The campaign against them was led by the head of the bridge construction crew Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson - himself an experienced big game hunter - who found them disturbingly wary, cunning and apparently resistant to the sort of tricks and ruses that had led many lions and tigers to their deaths at his hands. Stymied in his initial efforts he fortified the camps - as above - and summoned reinforcements from the main column, including more sepoys and additional European hunters. Still, the lions continued to avoid a series of traps and ambushes and even launched an attack on the local District Officer who had come up to see for himself what was causing all the trouble. There were periods in which the lion attacks ceased - although accounts suggest that the lions spent some of that time attacking native settlements in the area - but overall it would be nine months from the first attack that the lions were finally defeated.

On the 9th of December, Patterson finally managed to catch one of the lions attempting to infiltrate the camp and, firing from his hidden sniper nest, hit it in the back leg. The lion, surprised and wounded fled into the night. The next night it returned and appeared to be deliberately stalking him as he stalked it in return - eventually, the deadly duel ended with him firing on it with a more powerful rifle. Dawn found the beast dead only yards from his position and facing towards it.

The second lion, possibly put out of countenance by his brother's death, was taken twenty days later - Patterson baited it out of cover with a goat and fired on it. Once again, the lion fled wounded and once again it returned. This time, the lion escaped again, albeit at the cost of another two wounds … but this time it left a trail that could be followed, and, by daylight, Patterson and his men tracked it down to the cover of some deep brush. Clearly the lion was in no position to flee further but had not yet any inclination to lie down and die. Turning to bay, the beast broke cover and charged, allegedly with at least one broken leg and Patterson emptied his rifle at it, hitting three times and finally immobilising the beast. By his account, it was still alive and furious even then, biting at a fallen tree in frustration at its inability to reach him - he seized another, loaded, rifle from a nearby sepoy and fired another three shots that finally put paid to the last of the Tsavo lions.

Patterson, in the fashion of the time, made trophies of the beasts, having their skins taken and cured, which then spend twenty-five years as rugs before being sold to Field Museum in Chicago where they were reunited with their separately preserved skulls and, after a fashion at least, reconstructed. Despite the somewhat desperate nature of the reconstruction they still, apparently, make a fairly impressive display, which may only be to be expected from beasts which (in one case at least) were 9'8" nose to tail and took eight men to carry.

Subsequent analysis has sought to reduce the body count from these attacks, claiming that they could not have taken more than a hundred or so victims between them, and although it is possible that some of the 135 men lost could have disappeared through other means (as by no means all of the bodies were found), the research on which the counter-claim is based has some significant flaws: notably that it assumes that the lions ate a significant amount of each corpse (which examination of those bodies that were found showed not to be the case, with the lions only removing "select morsels" from the body1) and used an isotopic analysis that assumed that the victims would have had a significant amount of meat in their diet. Again, the overwhelming majority of those killed were observant Sikhs and Hindus who kept a strict vegetarian diet and so, isotopically at least, would not have been separable from the assumed "background".

Motivations for the lions are much speculated at - the laziest assumption, based on the observation of many big cats that turn anthropophagous, was that they were somehow incapacitated and left unable to hunt their normal prey, and forced to seek easier, two-legged game. This is largely ruled out, at least partially because Patterson recorded no significant damage to the pair that he had not done himself and the likelihood of undetected, internal issues such as joint problems, would be contradicted by the extraordinary stealth, power and agility that they displayed on the hunt … and the fact that, until they received their final wounds, these were two healthy young males (apart from being maneless), not elderly, half-starved or diseased in appearance. The final redoubt of such claims is the possibility of dental problems, but again the cats showed no evidence of dental issues, and those familiar with big cats note that if every one of them with a tooth infection turned man-eater, most of their species would be extinct by now.
Other suggestion include some population crash in their natural prey, or that incomplete cremations of workers who had died from other causes lured them in, gave them a taste for human and made them bolder. Perhaps the most interesting suggestion, however, notes that this crossing of the Tsavo had, until it was occupied by government workers, been in use by the unsuppressed remnant of the internal African slave trade. This meant that the area was regularly crossed by small, armed caravans that occasionally dispensed servings of human meat - whether in the form of escaped slaves, or those who died for one reason or another (sickness, attempted escape or inability to keep up). Thus, the brothers may have learned stealth, cunning and a taste for Man - and when their usual food source was replaced by a bumper crop of poorly secured humans…


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAKxcNQpiSg - a chap on Youtube telling the story. These kitties definitely do not get a cheeseburger.

1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • For those who like a taste of the supernatural, the lions may have additional motives: possession for example, by a genius-loci or other hostile wilderness spirits or sent by a local shaman.
  • The Field Museum is also home to the tyrannosaur skeleton "Sue". Probably best if Mr Dresden leaves the lions alone though.
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