Among the innumerable tales of close encounters with dangerous game, few send chills up the spines of hunters quite like that of the Tsavo Man-Eaters: a pair of maneless male lions that, together, terrorized the Tsavo region of Kenya in the late 1800s. Their story, and that of their eventual demise, captures the essence of dangerous-game hunting in its truest form: a life-or-death struggle in which both man and beast could, at any encounter, violently meet their end. It was a quintessential showcase of savage instinct pitted against intellect and calculating strategy.
The ordeal began with the arrival of a man named John Henry Patterson. A lieutenant-colonel in the British Army, Patterson served as an engineer overseeing the construction of the Uganda Railway in British East Africa—modern-day Kenya. Patterson was, by all accounts, a fearless leader, clever engineer, and experienced hunter (he’d hunted tigers during his military service in India). He overcame numerous challenges while overseeing the construction of the railway and bridges: mutinies, resource shortages, and unreliable laborers, to name a few. But nothing compared to the challenge of facing this pair of voracious, man-eating lions.
Shortly after his arrival, railway laborers began getting attacked, mercilessly dragged out of their tents at night, dismembered, and eaten. The lions struck with terrifying frequency, night after night. Many of the laborers (rightly) refused to continue work, fleeing from what they believed to be not just lions, but evil spirits. According to Patterson’s account of the lions, “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.” Progress on the railway came to an abrupt halt.
Patterson immediately set about hunting the lions but found himself thwarted time and again. At one point he even engineered a lion-size “mousetrap” using laborers (and himself) as live bait in order to get a shot at the elusive beasts. He tried poison, baited ambushes, and drives, all to no avail. As the weeks dragged on, the man-eaters continued to claim new victims almost daily. But how? What made these lions so uniquely deadly?
They were fearless.
The Tsavo Man-Eaters became increasingly bold as time went on. They’d force their way through thick bomas, palisades constructed of thorny brush, to reach their victims. Eventually, they’d drag their prey mere feet from the camps before devouring them, all the while ignoring the cries and hurled stones of the victims’ compatriots. “Nothing flurried or frightened them in the least, and except as food they showed a complete contempt for human beings,” Patterson recounted. “Having once marked down a victim, they would allow nothing to deter them from securing him, whether he were protected by a thick fence, or inside a closed tent, or sitting round a brightly burning fire. Shots, shouting and firebrands they alike held in derision.”
They were unpredictable.
If the lions had attacked a camp the night before, they might strike again the next night miles away at another campsite. Or they might come back to the same site again. This made targeting them extremely challenging: One could never predict where they’d strike. “They almost appeared to have an extraordinary and uncanny faculty of finding out our plans beforehand, so that no matter in how likely or how tempting a spot we lay in wait for them, they invariably avoided that particular place and seized their victim for the night from some other camp,” wrote Patterson.
As is the case with natural selection, adaptation and survival are inextricably linked. But the Tsavo Man-Eaters seemed to do this in real time, learning new techniques and altering their approach to maximize their lethality. “Hitherto, as a rule, only one of the man-eaters had made the attack and had done the foraging, while the other waited outside in the bush; but now they began to change their tactics, entering the bomas together and each seizing a victim.”
They were elusive.
Word of the Tsavo Man-Eaters rapidly spread throughout the continent, which caused numerous interested parties—military and civilian—to join Patterson in hopes of getting a shot at these nightmarish beasts. But the results were always the same regardless of how many hunters lay in wait for their arrival: The lions would make off with another victim or two, unscathed. With traps and ambushes frequently coming up empty, Patterson went to great lengths to track the lions to their den, but they seemed to carefully choose paths that crossed rocky ground to disguise their movements.
They got lucky.
At one point, Patterson had one of the lions dead to rights, but experienced a misfire in a rifle he’d borrowed from one of his companions. “As I covered his brain with my rifle, I felt that at last I had him absolutely at my mercy, but never trust an untried weapon! I pulled the trigger, and to my horror heard the dull snap that tells of a misfire.” Although this could be attributed to Patterson making a clear mistake in using an untested rifle for hunting dangerous game, the lions displayed their undeniable good fortune on other occasions, too.
In another instance, one of the lions got caught inside Patterson’s trap. The sepoys (Indian soldiers who had arrived to help kill the lions) sitting inside it as bait—protected from the lion by iron bars—fired furiously at the trapped lion, yet still it broke free and escaped, largely unharmed. “How they failed to kill him several times over is, and always will be, a complete mystery to me, as they could have put the muzzles of their rifles absolutely touching his body,” wrote Patterson. “The Indians were more than ever confirmed in their belief that the lions were really evil spirits, proof against mortal weapons. Certainly, they did seem to bear charmed lives.”
Tough predators, but not evil spirits
Although arguably a pair of history’s most fearsome predators, the Tsavo Man-Eaters were not the evil spirits many thought they were and they eventually met their fate at Patterson’s hand. But they didn’t go quietly or with ease. The first of the two man-eaters he killed by firing both barrels of his 12-gauge smooth-bore—loaded with slugs—into the lion’s shoulder. The second, though, took a great deal more to finish. “I accordingly waited until he got quite close—about 20 yards away—and then fired my .303 at his chest. I heard the bullet strike him, but unfortunately it had no knockdown effect, for with a fierce growl he turned and made off with great long bounds. Before he disappeared from sight, however, I managed to have three more shots at him from the magazine rifle, and another growl told me that the last of these had also taken effect.”
Pursuing, Patterson came face-to-face with the wounded cat. “I at once took careful aim and fired. Instantly he sprang out and made a most determined charge down on us. I fired again and knocked him over; but in a second he was up once more and coming for me as fast as he could in his crippled condition. A third shot had no apparent effect.” Scaling a tree, Patterson grabbed a Martini-Henry carbine from his gun-bearer and fired again, downing the cat. “Rather foolishly, I at once scrambled down from the tree and walked up towards him. To my surprise and no little alarm he jumped up and attempted another charge. This time, however, a Martini bullet in the chest and another in the head finished him for good and all; he dropped in his tracks not five yards away from me, and died gamely, biting savagely at a branch which had fallen to the ground.” When they examined the animal, they found no less than six rounds in it, including a slug Patterson had fired at it 10 days before.
Great celebrations were held following this feat. The laborers promptly returned to work and word of the successful destruction of the renowned lions spread worldwide, even referred to officially in the British House of Lords. The Tsavo Man-Eaters each measured nearly 10 feet long from nose to tail, their hides battered and scarred from forcing their way through the bomas to snatch their victims, which, by some estimates, numbered 140 before the lions were finally bested.
But why did they attack people?
The question remains why the lions began habitually hunting men rather than their typical prey—zebra, water buffalo, and other plains animals. Among the more likely theories is that the lions began scavenging unburied human remains left behind by a slave trade route that cut through the area and developed a taste for human flesh. The construction of the railway created a target-rich environment the lions exploited to great effect.
Patterson’s career after the Tsavo Man-Eaters
Patterson went on to live a storied life. Following the Tsavo Man-Eaters ordeal, he was appointed superintendent of game reserves in the East Africa Protectorate, during which time he was credited with discovering a new subspecies of eland. He later fought in the Second Boer War and received decorations for his service. Then, in WWI, despite being a protestant, he commanded the the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers—known as the Jewish Legion—the predecessor of the modern Israel Defense Forces. He became a staunch Zionist and, throughout his time in the military actively worked to battle anti-semitism within the ranks. He even became the godfather of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s older brother, Yonatan, and is now interred in Israel.
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