Man-Eaters Lions of Tsavo

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They are perhaps the world’s most notorious wild lions. Their ancestors were vilified more than 100 years ago as the man-eaters of Tsavo, a vast swath of Kenya savanna around the Tsavo River.

The Tsavo Man-Eaters were a pair of man-eating male lions in the Tsavo region,their names were “The Ghost” and “The Darkness,” and 119 years ago, these two massive, maneless, man-eating lions hunted railway workers in the Tsavo region of Kenya. During a nine-month period in 1898, the lions were responsible for the death of  at least 35 people and as many as 135, according to different accounts.They were notable for their unusual behavior of killing men and the manner of their attacks

Their prides, with up to 10 females and just 1 male, are smaller than Serengeti lion prides, which have up to 20 females and 2 or more males. In Tsavo, male lions do not share power with other males.

Tsavo males look different as well. The most vigorous Serengeti males sport large dark manes, while in Tsavo they have short, thin manes or none at all. “It’s all about water,”  as Tsavo is hotter and drier than the Serengeti, and a male with a heavy mane “would squander his daily water allowance simply panting under a bush, with none to spare for patrolling his territory, hunting or finding mates.”

But it’s the lions’ reputation for preying on people that attracts attention. “For centuries Arab slave caravans passed through Tsavo on the way to Mombasa,” . “The death rate was high; it was a bad area for sleeping sickness from the tsetse fly; and the bodies of slaves who died or were dying were left where they dropped. So the lions may have gotten their taste for human flesh by eating the corpses.” (said Samuel Kasiki, deputy director of Biodiversity Research and Monitoring with the Kenya Wildlife Service.)

In 1898, two lions terrorized crews constructing a railroad bridge over the Tsavo River, killing—according to some estimates—135 people. “Hundreds of men fell victims to these savage creatures, whose very jaws were steeped in blood,” . “Bones, flesh, skin and blood, they devoured all, and left not a trace behind them.”wrote a worker on the railway, a project of the British colonial government

Still, today’s Tsavo lions are not innately more bloodthirsty than other lions, ; they attack people for the same reason their forebears did a century ago: “our encroachment into what was once the territory of lions.” Injured lions are especially dangerous. One of the original man-eaters had severe dental disease that would have made him a poor hunter,. Such lions may learn to attack people rather than game, he says, “because we are slower, weaker and more defenseless.”(Patterson’s research)

The first lion was shot and killed in 1898 — more than two weeks before the second lion was gunned down — the attacks on people ceased,

The man-eating Tsavo lions are currently on display at The Field Museum in Chicago.

Nearly 120 years after the man-eaters’ lives abruptly ended, fascination with their gruesome habits persists. But had it not been for their preserved remains — which John Patterson sold to FMNH as trophy rugs in 1924 —today’s explanations for their habits would be no more than speculation.