The man-eating lions of Tsavo: study explains why they mauled humans

In 1898 the British authorities administering Kenya faced an unexpected danger: two lions they repeatedly attacked the camps of workers working on the construction of a railway bridge and they mauled dozens of people. Only after many attempts, the director of the works, John H. Patterson, managed to kill the two predators. The story is known above all thanks to the rather fictionalized account given by Patterson himself. The scholars, while confirming that the story is true, they wondered about some questionsin particular on the number of victims and the reasons why lions, which generally prefer other prey, attacked humans.

The railway on the Tsavo River and the beginning of the nightmare

In 1898 the Imperial British East Africa Company, a British body that administered the territories of East Africa, started work on the construction of a railway between the port of Mombasa (Kenya) and the territory of Uganda. In March, when the railway line reached the Tsavo River, work began on the construction of a bridge. They were working on the construction site thousands of workers, mostly Indians, who stayed in tent camps spread over an area of ​​about thirteen kilometers. Shortly after arriving in the camps, a real nightmare began for the workers.

The railway near Mombasa, 1899

Ghost and Darkness: two man-eating lions

In March 1898 two lions attacked the camp for the first time and mauled a worker. The attacks followed one another for several months, always following the same pattern: a lion entered night in a tent, killed the victim while he slept and then dragged the body outside to devour it together with his companion. Colonel John H. Patterson, who directed the construction site, had it installed fences And traps to stop the attacks, but all countermeasures proved futile. The workers baptized the two lions Ghost and Darkness and many of them fled. The British colonial administration was forced to intervene and sent around twenty sepoys (soldiers of Indian origin) to hunt down the two predators. Patterson himself led the hunters. After many attempts, the hunt was successful. The colonel, according to what he himself says, killed the first lion on December 9th, shooting from a tree where he was perched, and the second about twenty days later. According to Patterson, the two lions had mauled as many as 135 workers.

Patterson with the first lion killed

The popularity of anthropophagous lions

The story of the lions became famous in 1908 thanks to the publication of a book written by Patterson, The Man-eaters of Tsavo. Furthermore, in 1924, the colonel sold the lions’ skin to the Chicago Museum of Natural History, who embalmed and exhibited the two animals to the public. Even today Ghost and Darkness are one of the museum’s attractions.

The Tsavo lions exhibited at the Chigao museum (credit Superx308)

Over the years the story has aroused much curiosity and has been the subject of several times literary and cinematic narrativesincluding the 1996 film Spirits in the darkness.

Lions and human flesh

The peculiarity of the story lies in the fact that lions usually do not eat men. Their diet varies based on the geographical area in which they live, but, in general, it is based on large mammals: wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, to which smaller animals are often added, such as gazelles, hares, etc.

A lion and a cub eat the carcass of a buffalo (credit Luca Galluzzi)

There human flesh it is not their favorite food, except in particular circumstances: shortage of other prey, physical conditions that prevent the hunting of larger animals, etc. Furthermore, anthropophagy is a “acquired behavior”: If a lion eats men, it passes on the habit of doing so to its cubs. So, why did Ghost and Darkness attack men?

Modern research

Over the years, several scholars have examined Paterson’s account and, while confirming that the story of the anthropophagous lions is true, have questioned many details. A 2001 research reduced the number of victims, estimating that they were between 28 and 31and proved that the story did not run out in 1898: in the area the lions had already attacked men in previous years and continued to do so, due to acquired behavior, even in subsequent years.

The acquired behavior, however, is not sufficient to explain why Ghost and Darkness attacked humans so frequently. To give an explanation to the phenomenon, researchers have advanced various hypotheses, for example that an epidemic had decimated the livestock, forcing the lions to look for different prey, or that the two predators had become accustomed to the taste of human flesh by eating the abandoned corpses of slaves. The most realistic explanation was proposed by a study in 2017: the two lions they needed… the dentist.

The skulls of the two lions at the Fiel Museum (credit Superx308)

The hypothesis had already been put forward previously, but 2017 research provided scientific proof of it. Two scholars found that one of the lions had canine infections and jaw fractureswhich prevented him from hunt usual prey and to feed on their flesh, harder than human flesh. The second lion had less severe dental problems and, according to the researchers, bonded with his partner due to social norms.

In essence, if the most recent studies are valid, the acquired behavior has favored attacks on human beings and the difficulty of hunting other prey has made them so numerous.