Friday, August 17, 2012

The Ghost and the Darkness- The Legend of the Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo

(This obviously isn't my story, but my work on an episode from history that really fascinates me. Had to do a tremendous amount of research to bring it all down to this. Hope you all like it. Read it, you will surely find it interesting.) 

"On reaching the spot where the body had been devoured, a dreadful spectacle presented itself. The ground all round was covered with blood and morsels of flesh and bones, but the unfortunate jemadar's head had been left intact, save for the holes made by the lion's tusks on seizing him, and lay a short distance away from the other remains, the eyes staring wide open with a startled, horrified look in them.”    -   J.H. Patterson, "The Man-eaters of Tsavo", 1907

Artist John Banovich's version of the Man-Eaters of Tsavo

The beginning of the tale

The above snippet features in the famous chilling account of Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, (an Anglo-Irish soldier) who wrote about his experiences in the book whilst his stay in the African continent in the late 1890s.  The story of the Man-Eaters of Tsavo is laced with some of the most adventure inducing events that can be - terror, thrills, drama and mystery. It is a fascinating chapter from history that not everyone is aware of. But two lions over a hundred years back had managed to create ripples in the British Empire at its peak and the story, over the years, is now intriguing researchers and scientists from the world over.

The story bears its roots in the small African region of Tsavo (incidentally, the word Tsavo in the African language means ‘place of slaughter’). In the year of 1898, the British had commenced the construction of a railway bridge over the Tsavo river in Kenya. It was supposed to connect the Uganda region to Kenya through rail which the Empire was interested in to further strengthen its colonial territories. Furthermore, the project was intended to link Mombasa, Kenya to Lake Victoria in Uganda in order to create a trade route for raw materials and British goods into Uganda. Apart from some African locals, the workers involved in building it were primarily Sikhs and Hindus from Britain’s India colony. Since the designer’s plan was to build the bridge over the river, the workers had to stay put beside the waterway in small tents which was near the African bush. However, even the best designers wouldn't have foreseen what was to happen next. They had no inkling that at that time monsters roamed the African night.

The coming of the ‘Ghost’ and the ‘Darkness’

The front cover of Patterson's book

Sheer panic gripped the work camp as one by one, slowly, workers began to disappear, dragged screaming into the darkness of the night by some unknown predator only to be found the next morning torn to shreds. As was later found out, the killers stalking the unfortunate workers were, in fact, two large adult mane- less African male lions (not known to be brothers). In a desperate bid to save themselves the workers built massive fires around their campsite to scare the ‘monsters’ lurking in the night. They even built thorn fences around the entire encampment to stall the predators. But apparently, nothing could stop the ‘monsters’, who continued their killing spree. The size, cunning, and ferocity of these lions was so remarkable that the natives feared that they weren’t lions but were, in fact, demons or reincarnations of ancient kings who had been reborn to fight off the British invaders. The lions were thus nicknamed by the natives as ‘The Ghost’ and ‘The Darkness’.

From March to December of 1898 these lions terrorized, attacked and ate more than a hundred people from the region. (Patterson put the official figure as 135, but recently some scientists have claimed these figures to be ‘inflated’ and placed the actual number as 35). Whatsoever the figures might have been, there is no denying the terror that these lions created in those nine months.

The mystery behind the man-eaters

Their trait of being mane-less is not uncommon as lions from the Tsavo region are known to bear similar characteristics. However, there are several other theories and mysteries that surround these legendary man-eaters. By Patterson’s own account the lions were unnaturally large, measuring close to 10 feet. Furthermore, the man-eating behaviour of the lions was greatly discussed. Lions are known to attack humans from time to time, but generally when they are found to be alone and not when they are congregated in large numbers. This bit of behaviour of the man-eaters has puzzled researchers. It has also been said that the lions eventually became so fearless that they wouldn’t even drag their victims into the bush, but would start devouring them just a few yards away from the tents. Another theory claims that sometimes the lions killed just for the sake of killing, and not for eating. Patterson in his book also mentions having found the lair of the lions which was a cave near the Tsavo river bank where he found several human skulls kept by the lions almost as their ‘prized trophies’. Meanwhile, as the killings continued, the workers decided to flee for their lives and the project was coming to a screeching halt.

The killing of the lions

Back in Britain leaders were getting restless and the project was being touted as a massive failure and a colossal waste of money. At the House of Lords the Prime Minister at that time, Lord Salisbury, lamented on the way the project was going downhill: "The whole of the works were put a stop to for three weeks because a party of man-eating lions appeared in the locality and conceived a most unfortunate taste for our porters. At last, the laborers entirely declined to go on unless they were guarded by an iron entrenchment. Of course, it is difficult to work a railway under these conditions, and until we found an enthusiastic sportsman to get rid of these lions, our enterprise was seriously hindered"

Eventually, the Chief Engineer in charge of the railway project John Henry Patterson (who was also a skilled hunter) decided to take matters into his own hands. He deduced that the only way to stop this ‘reign of terror’ was to kill the lions. The account of his hunt was penned by him in details in his book. As Patterson claims, he realized in the process of hunting the beasts that he too was being stalked and was very nearly killed too. In true monster movie fashion, the lions refused to go down easily. Finally, though Patterson managed to track and kill the lions. The first of the man-eaters was killed in the December of 1898 where Patterson shot him in the hind legs. However, it returned at night to stalk him even as Patterson tried to hunt it himself. He had to fire several rounds at the brute to bring it down. The second man-eater, who was killed three weeks later, didn’t go down easily either. It took ten shots to kill the second lion. In Patterson’s own words:
The second man-eater

" a short while, I heard the lion begin to creep stealthily towards me. I could barely make out his form as he crouched among the whitish undergrowth; but I saw enough for my purpose, and before he could come any nearer, I took careful aim and pulled the trigger. The sound of the shot was at once followed by a most terrific roar, and then I could hear him leaping about in all directions. I was no longer able to see him, however, as his first bound had taken him into the thick bush; but to make assurance doubly sure, I kept blazing away in the direction in which I heard him plunging about. At length came a series of mighty groans, gradually subsiding into deep sighs, and finally ceasing altogether; and I felt convinced that one of the "devils" who had so long harried us would trouble us no more."  - J.H. Patterson, “The Man-eaters of Tsavo", 1907.

The aftermath of the man-eaters’ death

The wave of euphoria that followed the demise of the man-eaters culminated Patterson to heroic status. He went on to become the game warden in Kenya and the book he wrote about his time in the African bush came out in 1907 and went on to become a classic.

A few years later, in 1924, Patterson visited the Chicago Field Museum to share his experiences with the Man –Eaters of Tsavo to the audience. The enthusiastic response he received there prompted him to offer the remains of the two lion skins (which had adorned the floors of Patterson’s home for 25 years before this) to the museum for a price of $5000.

The lions in The Chicago Field Museum
It is largely thanks to the skills of taxidermist Julius Friesser that the bodies of the lions have been preserved efficiently for display for such a long time in the Chicago Field Museum. The resulting pair of lions on display are somewhat smaller than the size mentioned by Patterson in his book, but that may be due to various reasons. Patterson might have exaggerated or maybe mismeasured the length of the lions or there might have been some trimming of their skins by the museum staff. The lions are kept near their skulls which were also preserved by Patterson. Incidentally, Kenyan authorities have shown interests in building a whole museum dedicated to the two lions where they hope that ‘The Ghost’ and ‘The Darkness’ could return to their original home.

Poster of the movie
Movies on the legend

The legend of the Tsavo lions has enthralled people everywhere and it was only about time before the thrilling tale was re-told via the cinematic medium given the ingredients the story had. The first movie to be made on the episode was a 3D picture (incidentally America’s first 3D movie) titled Bwana Devil (1952) starring Robert Stack, Nigel Bruce, and Barbara Britton. The film was inspired by the Tsavo man-eaters and cannot be called an exact retelling of the incident. The other film made on the subject is The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) starring Val Kilmer as John Patterson and Michael Douglas as a fictional master hunter. This movie is, in fact, the only one yet that has stayed true to the story and attempted to tell the real tale albeit some cinematic liberties. 

The Unanswered Myths

The story of the Tsavo lions had remained unexamined for nearly a hundred years until Field Museum scientists began to dig deeper into the myths. They deduced by thorough research that the number of deaths couldn’t possibly have been 135 as Patterson states but somewhere close to 35. In 2000, researcher Tom Gnoske discovered that the railroad office in London had records of only 28 deaths of foreign workers. The rest, he has been mentioned as saying, might have been locals but it could not have been anywhere close to what Patterson claims and that he believes is ‘part of the myth’.

The other more intriguing aspect of the episode that remains unanswered till date is to why the lions turned such savage man-eaters. There are a few theories to support this. The most common one is prey depletion due to a Rinderpest epidemic among cattle and wildlife that hit Kenya in the 1890s. Some have also claimed the workers who were mainly Hindus might have been indirectly responsible for this as the Hindu practice of cremating their dead left partially burned bodies for the lions to consume. There is also a theory stating that because slave caravans often crossed the river at the location, the lions may have been quite used to human bodies being disposed of in the river. All this might have given the lions a taste of the human flesh.

The preponderate explanation, however, which is based on the examination of the lions' remains, claims that one of the lions had severely damaged tooth which kept it from eating its  normal prey and thus made it hunt for prey which was easy to catch and eat- humans; provided in plenty albeit unknowingly by the British Empire. However, most consider this theory pretty inconclusive as it fails to answer as to why did the other lion turn man-eater. 

These are questions to which we would perhaps never get any answers. 

It is precisely for these myths and the aura surrounding the Tsavo Lions that their legend remains etched in history


  1. Replies
    1. Hello Helene,

      Thanks for taking out time and reading my post. I appreciate it and I am glad you found it interesting. :)

  2. Thanks for asking me to read the book. I found it so interesting that now I want to read anything related or similar to such stories! Also, got some extra bit of information from your post.

  3. I have been fascinated with this story since I was a little boy. I remember the first time I watched The Ghost and the Darkness (1996); it was so scary but thrilling. As a 5 year old I wanted to go on safari and its been a dream of mine to see the lions at the Field Museum in Chicago. This was a really great analysis of the story/myth and its various adaptations over the years. Well done.

    1. Hi Nicholas,

      Yes, you are right. The story of the Man-eaters of Tsavo has been quite fascinating to me as well. I remember watching a small documentary on it in BBC in the early 90s. Since then I had been following the story. Thankfully, I also got to watch the film. That gave me an inspiration to write on the subject and post it in my blog. I was sure there would be many people who would be interested in reading about it. I guess I was right. Like you, even I am really keen to visit the Chicago Field Museum. In fact, I also wish to visit the exact spot where this incident happened. It would be cool to see it today.

      I am grateful that you could take out time and went through the article in my blog. Thank you very much for your comment; I greatly appreciate it.


  4. hi, it is common here in south africa for lions not 2 have mains,,,,,it is olso a sikness and usaly they get kicked out of the pride. and that can lead 2 a angry lion prowing the land 2 kill, that c
    ould have happend two these 2 lions, love the story

    1. Thank you for reading the post. I am glad you liked it. :) And thank you for that interesting bit if trivia. :)

  5. Really good read, i originally watched this at my grandpa's house and remembering my Grandfather commenting how those Lions were not ordinary lions. We and by extension I believed they were demons hence the odd behavior, though the fact that maneless males isnt uncommon in that region kinda changes my perspective on it. I still Personally believe it is still supernatural based, as they were physical beings that could be shot and killed. Who knows what drove the lions into madness, unless we had a time machine and prove the supernatural as fact than maybe we might get some facts about it.