The month was March and the year was 1898. The British, led by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, had just begun building the railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya when 2 maneless lions began stalking the campsite where Indian workers were living. The lions would drag them into the darkness of night and to their deaths.
This was the first time an attack of such scale on humans by wild cats had been recorded in Kenya. No manner of deterrent strategy could keep away the lions and for 9 months, they became a living nightmare and a substance of legend – but they also almost threatened the completion of the very crucial railway line project.
More than a century later, these 2 lions continue to be at the centre of an equally old controversy – were the man-eaters of Tsavo, as they became known, responsible for the deaths of 135 people as the good old colonel had led the world to believe?
Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, do not think so. For years they have been exploring this question and they now believe they have a definitive answer.
In the November 2nd issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they revealed that the lions may have killed far less humans than Patterson had earlier claimed.
Using a complex analysis of the lions’ bone collagen and hair keratin and comparing this to the isotopic signatures of their prey, including samples obtained from the remains of victims of the famous Tsavo attacks which were discovered by Dr. Louis Leakey in 1929, the researchers have established that the lions may have eaten only 35 humans during the 9-month ordeal.
There is still a possibility though that more may have been killed. This research was only able to ascertain the number eaten and not the number killed.
Whether it was 135 or 35, is not as important as the fact that significant human life was lost to a creature that was never thought capable of such an act. Some have said the lions belonged to a rare breed of lions, we will never know for sure – I guess that is why they are wild.
Today the man-eaters of Tsavo live on at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago where taxidermists, using the 2 hides John Patterson sold to the museum in 1924, have restored, stuffed and mounted them for public viewing.
The mane-less cats continue to amaze visitors as much as Patterson’s 1907 book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, has thrilled readers all over the world even going on to become an international best-seller.