People remain fascinated with man-eating cats, likely because the closest we come is when a furry monster chews on our ears to wake us up for food. Ok, ok. It's because there are few creatures able to prey on man and, as the top of the food chain, we naturally have a primal fascination with them. The famous case of the man-eating Tsavo lions — reputed to have eaten over a hundred railway workers — was traditionally explained by the belief that "injured" lions attack humans because of an inability to hunt other prey. That view turns out to be wrong; they hunt us because humans are tasty:
First, the Tsavo lions were not 'aberrant'. Lions and other big cats have repeatedly turned to man-eating in the face of certain conditions, many of which are manmade. Furthermore, man-eating by lions continues today.
"For most of their history, extinct and living humans, have represented little more than a vulnerable, slow moving, bipedal source of protein for big cats," says Julian Kerbis Peterhans, associate professor of Natural Science at Roosevelt University, Field Museum adjunct curator and co-author of a study on man-eating by lions recently published in the Journal of East African Natural History
Legend has it that in 1898, two Tsavo lions killed at least 135 workers constructing a bridge in Kenya, temporarily stopping the construction of a railroad linking Lake Victoria with the port of Mombasa. Lt. Col. John Patterson eventually killed the lions, which are now on exhibit at The Field Museum, Chicago.
In a few well-documented, localized incidents, man-eating appears to be a learned behavior. Once lions establish a pattern and begin to prey regularly on humans, they can pass it on to their offspring, along with sophisticated strategies and techniques, such as never returning to the same place two days in a row.
"Lions are a social species, capable of transmitting a behavioural tradition from one generation to the next," Kerbis says. "The fact that they can be born and raised to hunt and eat humans means that an outbreak of man-eating usually does not stop until all the responsible lions and their offspring are eliminated."
Further supporting this view is the fact that man-eating incidents in Tsavo did not begin with the arrival of railway crews, nor did they end with the destruction of the notorious lion coalition. The authors document killings by lions in Tsavo for several years prior to the arrival of Col. Patterson. Killings continued regularly through WWI when soldiers were picked off on patrol. All of this points to a man-eating culture among Tsavo lions, a phenomenon rarely documented.Field Museum uncovers evidence behind man-eating; revises legend of its infamous man-eating lions
But back to 1898. The problem of midnight snacking on the railway workers because so severe that a big-game hunter was called in to take care of the situation. The real issue wasn't dead workers, but the delay in the schedule, or shed-ule as the British pronounce it. (The outsourced Indian workers were highly affordable, and there was a large supply of new ones to replace those designated as appetizers by lions.) Colonel Patterson was the man selected for the job; he later wrote a book about his experience:
UNFORTUNATELY this happy state of affairs did not continue for long, and our work was soon interrupted in a rude and startling manner. Two most voracious and insatiable man-eating lions appeared upon the scene, and for over nine months waged an intermittent warfare against the railway and all those connected with it in the vicinity of Tsavo. This culminated in a perfect reign of terror in December, 1898, when they actually succeeded in bringing the railway works to a complete standstill for about three weeks. At first they were not always successful in their efforts to carry off a victim, but as time went on they stopped at nothing and indeed braved any danger in order to obtain their favourite food. Their methods then became so uncanny, and their man-stalking so well-timed and so certain of success, that the workmen firmly believed that they were not real animals at all, but devils in lions' shape. Many a time the coolies solemnly assured me that it was absolutely useless to attempt to shoot them. They were quite convinced that the angry spirits of two departed native chiefs had taken this form in order to protest against a railway being made through their country, and by stopping its progress to avenge the insult thus shown to them.
I had only been a few days at Tsavo when I first heard that these brutes had been seen in the neighbourhood. Shortly afterwards one or two coolies mysteriously disappeared, and I was told that they had been carried off by night from their tents and devoured by lions. At the time I did not credit this story, and was more inclined to believe that the unfortunate men had been the victims of foul play at the hands of some of their comrades. They were, as it happened, very good workmen, and had each saved a fair number of rupees, so I thought it quite likely that some scoundrels from the gangs had murdered them for the sake of their money. This suspicion, however, was very soon dispelled. About three weeks after my arrival, I was roused one morning about daybreak and told that one of my jemadars, a fine powerful Sikh named Ungan Singh, had been seized in his tent during the night, and dragged off and eaten.
Naturally I lost no time in making an examination of the place, and was soon convinced that the man had indeed been carried off by a lion, as its "pug" marks were plainly visible in the sand, while the furrows made by the heels of the victim showed the direction in which he had been dragged away. Moreover, the jemadar shared his tent with half a dozen other workmen, and one of his bedfellows had actually witnessed the occurrence. He graphically described how, at about midnight, the lion suddenly put its head in at the open tent door and seized Ungan Singh -- who happened to be nearest the opening -- by the throat. The unfortunate fellow cried out "Choro" ("Let go"), and threw his arms up round the lion's neck. The next moment he was gone, and his panic-stricken companions lay helpless, forced to listen to the terrible struggle which took place outside. Poor Ungan Singh must have died hard; but what chance had he? As a coolie gravely remarked, "Was he not fighting with a lion?"The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures by Lieut.-Col. J. H. Patterson, D.S.O., Chapter 2 Without Images
As expected, the lion proved no match for a high-powered rifle in the hands of an expert marksman. The story was filled with such drama — cowed dark-skinned natives, fearless white hunter, vicious lions — that Hollywood couldn't resist. The result was the first 3D movie — Bwana Devil (1952) starring Robert Stack.
The movie was, well, not very good. It certainly has not stood the test of time. Here's one of the kinder comments about it:
Bwana Devil is reputedly the first major studio, full length feature filmed entirely in the 3D process. Supposedly producer Oboler went to Africa to shoot a different movie, but after hearing the tale of two man-eating lions, terrorizing railway builders, decided on this one. It's a good story too, almost Hemmingway-like; fear, redemption, the great white hunter and all. It's the telling of the story that seems to drag, almost as though filming in the new process was too weighty for the crew. The action scenes are stiff, almost too staged. But these technical problems appear small in light of the film's dramatic conclusion.Bwana Devil (1952) starring Robert Stack
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) is a remake of Bwana Devil starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer as lion hunters. I've seen both movies and I think the 1996 remake is the better movie, even if it isn't strictly true to the story.
The lions ended up at The Field Museum where there is an online exhibit. Notice how the lions lack manes but Hollywood added them.
Sources and Further Reading
- The Tsavo Man-Eaters
- Tsavo Maneater Resources or The Ghost and the Darkness, the true story!
- The Man-Eaters of Tsavo
- The Man-Eaters of Tsavo
- The Man-Eaters of Tsavo by Russell Smith
- The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)