This page is about one of the greatest incidents of man-eating animals of all time. Although there are stories about tigers in India that have eaten more people, no story is more well-known, or is as chilling and intriguing as the story of the Tsavo Maneaters. Indeed, these lions have the notoriety of being mentioned in British Parliament! It is considered the most famous adventure story in all of Africa. Oxford historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, in his book: Millennium, A History of the Last Thousand Years devotes two whole pages to this story out of the seven hundred pages in his book!
Back in 1898, the British decided to build a railroad in East Africa. This railroad would stretch from Mombasa on the coast of modern-day Kenya to Lake Victoria, and later into Uganda. This railroad, called the Uganda Railroad was also referred to as 'The Lunatic Line'. It was said by it's opponents to go 'from nowhere to utterly nowhere'.
Nevertheless, this railroad had some legitimate purposes to exist. In those days, the only route into the interior of the African continent was on foot. There was much in the way of agricultural goods and other wares that could not easily reach market due to the lack of transportation. Missionaries had considerable trouble reaching the rich 'fields' in central Africa. Finally, there was was the nagging slave trade problem. It was hoped that good transportation would encourage people living in the interior of the continent that there were better ways of making a living than capturing slaves.
The construction of this railroad remains one of the great engineering feats of the late 1800's. It's 580 miles of track had to cross the great rift valley, several rivers, and some of the most inhospitable territory you could imagine. Construction started in 1896, and reached what is today Nairobi in 1899. It finally reached Kismu on Lake Victoria in 1901. It took 27 more years for the railroad to actually be extended to Kampala, Uganda.
Much of the labor to build the railroad was supplied by indentured Indian laborers. These workers are often referred to in the accounts of those days as 'Coolies'. (India was part of the British empire in those days, along with much of East Africa.) These Indian workers at first didn't do very well. It is said by some that the vast majority of them (>90 percent) ultimately succumbed to disease and accidents. Many of those that survived stayed on, forming the not-insignificant Indian presence found in East Africa today.
Indeed, this railroad still runs today, although it has lost much of it's splendor. Many tour groups build a ride on the 'Lunatic Line' into their tour packages.
But, this incredible story deals with only a tiny part of this monumental project: The construction of a bridge across the Tsavo river, about 132 miles Northwest of Mombasa. We will get to the story a bit later.
In September, 1991, while on a hunting safari to Zambia, Africa, Wayne Hosek was asked by the locals if he could help hunt down a maneating lion that had been terrorizing the town of Mfuwe. Wayne agreed to take on the task. With some serious effort put forth, the lion was finally shot about two weeks later. It turned out to be a spectacular specimen-- the largest man-eating lion ever recorded. Like the Tsavo maneaters, it, too was a maneless male. Wayne, well aware of the story of the Tsavo maneaters, and their less-than-perfect mounting job, saw to it that this lion's skin was properly collected and dried. Later, Wayne had this lion mounted (taxidermy work done by the noted taxidermist Bob Snow). He then donated it to the Field Museum. It went on display in 1999.
All in all, the Maneater of Mfuwe was responsible for eating at least six people.
The Maneater of Mfuwe is not on display with the Tsavo maneaters. Instead, it is in the museum's lower level, near the children's exhibits. Going down the staircase from near the Egypt exhibit, you will find the Maneater of Mfuwe under the staircase. This kind of odd location displays the lion in the best possible way. It is possible to closely examine the lion from all angles. The first impression one gets from looking at this lion is that it is HUGE! One also notices that this mount is properly proportioned, giving you an idea of what a large male lion looks like without the mane. All notoriety aside, this is a fine specimen to study. In any case, this lion is worth a good, long look. (While in the lower level area, also check out the fine statues there by Carl Ackley.)
The Field Museum does have a small webpage about the Maneater of Mfuwe. There, you will find a detailed account of the taking of this lion, as well as an interesting photo showing Mfuwe "coming" out of his shipping crate. Wayne Hosek has also just created a site about the Maneater of Mfuwe. It can be found at: www.maneaterofmfuwe.com. He has some interesting items there for sale, including a hardcopy version of his story, and a replica of one of Mfuwe's canines.
An article about lions of the Tsavo area appears in the April 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine. The article discusses some of the unique challenges to survival that Tsavo lions face. The controversial issue as to why some Tsavo lions lack manes is explored by Peyton West of the Lion Research Institute. Using her life-sized stuffed toy lions with interchangeable manes, she comes up with some interesting science. You can read some additional material about the article at www.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0204/ You can read some of Peyton West's papers at www.lionresearch.org
Here is a description of how this page is organized. This page contains the master index, as well as a brief account of the true story.
The 'Field Museum of Natural History' page describes the place where the Tsavo Maneaters currently 'live', and how they got there. There is also a great deal of information about what the Field Museum is doing these days in terms of Tsavo Maneaters-related research. Recent discoveries have resulted in a major research inititave that will eventually result in the construction of two Tsavo Maneater interpretive centers. These will be located in Tsavo National Park in Kenya!
The 'Ghost and the Darkness' page is devoted to the 1996 movie that caused a resurgence in interest of the Tsavo Maneater story.
The 'Bwana Devil' page describes a 1952 movie about the Tsavo Maneaters that is also the first feature-length 3D movie ever produced.
The 'Tsavo Maneaters Pictures Page' is a page of pictures I have taken of the infamous lions in my visits to the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. There, I also share some of my own thoughts concerning the Tsavo Maneaters.
The 'Tsavo Maneater Resources' page is a listing of books, movies, documentaries, internet resources, etc. concerning the Tsavo Maneaters. There is also information there on how to obtain most of these resources for yourself.
You can still buy the paper book, 'The Maneaters of Tsavo' by Colonel J.H. Patterson. It is readily available at most bookstores. More information on this book (And two editions are typically available) can be found on the Tsavo Maneater Resources page of this site.
The purpose of this section is to give a brief account of what happened at the Tsavo River bridge construction site in 1898. What follows is a condensed version of the story.
The year was 1898. Railhead (The point where track is (The point where track is being laid on a railroad construction project.) of the Uganda Railway had reached, and passed the Tsavo river in late February of that year. A temporary bridge had been built over the Tsavo River so that construction could proceed as quickly as possible. It was now the job of Colonel John Henry Patterson to oversee construction of a permanent bridge over this river. The bridge would be approximately 100 yards long.
Patterson, still a young man in his early 30's, had recently come from India, having oversaw some civil engineering projects there. There are some who doubt whether or not Patterson was really the architect of the bridge, citing lack of any records of training in that discipline. Internal evidence in his account, however, indicates that if he wasn't the architect, he was very close to being the architect.
In any case, he arrived in Mombasa on March 1st, 1898, knowing he was to be somehow involved with the construction of the Uganda Railway. A week later, he was ordered to proceed to Tsavo, and oversee the construction of the railway there. One of the more important tasks there would be to construct a permanent bridge over the Tsavo River.
Work on the bridge began in short order. One of the more daunting tasks needing to be accomplished to build the bridge was to find suitable stone for the foundation piers. This was found about 3 miles away, and required the construction of a tram line to this site. The tram line itself required two temporary bridges to be erected over the Tsavo River. The foundations of the piers were a lot of trouble to construct, with the coffer dams built around them failing more than once. It was also necessary to go much deeper into the riverbed than originally anticipated to find solid rock. Nevertheless, the work proceeded fairly smoothly.
It was not many days after Colonel Patterson arrived that reports started coming in about workers disappearing. Although it was told him that lions were responsible, Patterson at first didn't believe it. When he finally investigated, it was quickly (and gruesomely!) discovered that not one but two lions were responsible for killing the workers. Early attempts to shoot the lions were unsuccessful. The lions seemed to be able to predict what Patterson would do next. And, with camps scattered up and down the railway for 30 miles, the lions could strike in a different camp each night.
The workers soon constructed thorn bomas (A boma is a thorn fence erected around a dwelling or corral designed to keep predators such as lions out.) around their camps, and kept fires burning at night to try to scare off the lions. But it didn't work. The lions literally ignored the thorns, and would drag themselves and their meals right through them. This caused no small concern among the workers.
Still, there were a couple of lucky escapes. One night, a lion attacked a man riding a donkey. The donkey was knocked over and the man knocked off. The lion moved in for the kill, and somehow got his claws hooked on a rope tied to some oil cans that had been around the donkey's neck. The lion couldn't immediately figure out how to unhook the rope, and the oil cans were making a terrible racket. The noise frightened the lion so much that it ran off back into the bush, dragging the oil cans with it. The rider escaped to the safety of a tree and stayed there the rest of the night.
Another time, one of the lions broke into a tent, and was intent on carrying off the occupant who was sleeping on a mattress. Instead, somehow, the lion got hold of the mattress and pulled it out from under the man. Soon realizing it's mistake, the lion dropped the mattress and ran off. Another time, one of the lions jumped onto a tent containing 14 Indian 'Coolies'. The lion broke through the tent, clawing up one man's shoulder in the process. Somehow in the ensuing confusion, the lion grabbed a sack of rice and made off with that instead. The lion 'threw it down in disgust' a short distance away and beat a hasty retreat.
At first, the effect of the lions grisly habits on the workers wasn't too great, because the camps were spread out over a large area. But, a large area. But, as the railhead pushed Northwestward, only a few hundred workers were left at Tsavo to build the bridge. The lions now directed their efforts on this one camp, and this is when the morale at Tsavo really began to drop!
One night, one of the lions attacked the hospital tent. At first, he was scared away when the doctor's assistant knocked over a cabinet of supplies in fright. But, the lion tried again. Breaking through the tent, he seized one of the patients, and injured 2 of the other patients. It was decided after that to move the hospital tent. The very next night, a lion attacked the new hospital tent! Many of it's occupants got to witness the lion seize, kill and drag through the thorn boma the hospital's water-carrier. The next day, (as was usually the case for these lions) all that was left of the water-carrier was his head, a few of the larger bones, and part of his hand.
The hospital-tent was moved again, and an even thicker boma was erected around it. A supply wagon was parked at the previous hospital tent location, and some cattle were tied up inside the boma as bait. Colonel Patterson and the Doctor stayed up all night, hoping to get a shot at the lions. Their vigilance was rewarded, as one lions jumped into the boma. Patterson and the doctor figured that the lion had silently dispatched one of the cattle and was trying to find a place to get out of the boma. Unbeknownst to them, the front entrance to the boma was not properly secured, and the lion exited by this route. It then proceeded to stalk Patterson and the Doctor. Luckily for them, they figured this out in time. The lion attacked, and Patterson got off a shot. This scared off the lion. Colonel Patterson writes much later in the Field Museum account of that incident that he believes that he shot one of the canine teeth out of the mouth of that lion. If this was indeed the case, this lion was the one now known as maneater #1. The date was April 23rd.
The Colonel had other problems from time to time with the workmen. Just as today, there are those who would go out of their way to get out of a bad job, slack off, get in trouble, etc. One particular workman had instigated a fight amongst other workers. To escape punishment, he feigned seriously ill, and begged strong drink as medicine. The other workers told Patterson he was faking it, and a physical examination turned up nothing. Still, the 'sick' worker begged 'medicine'. Finally, Colonel Patterson gave him 'medicine'! He ordered the man's head covered with a blanket. He then started a fire in some wood shavings underneath his stretcher. the man, realizing he was about to be burned, ran out of Patterson's tent, yelling 'unbelieving devil'! A few of the other workers got a chance to whack him with sticks as he ran out. His amused coworkers were very pleased with this 'punishment', and this particular worker never caused trouble again.
Another time, Patterson came up quietly to the rock quarry after a long night hunting the maneaters. No work was going on. Everyone was lounging, playing cards, etc. After observing this for some time, Patterson fired his rifle into the air. Suddenly, the quarry was alive with work! The workers were all fined for this, and the foreman was demoted. However, two workers decided that Colonel Patterson had accidently shot them in the course of this incident. They came to his boma, bleeding profusely from 'shot holes' they had made in themselves. Of course, their case was blown out of the water when they realized the Colonel had fired a rifle shot and not a shotgun shot.
Not happy that they had to do an honest days' work for their wages, some workmen decided the best thing to do was eliminate Patterson. They held a secret council to prepare a plan to accomplish this, but Patterson learned of it within a few hours. He had trouble believing the workers would resort to murder!
Upon visiting the works the next morning, September 6th, all at first seemed normal. However, some workmen were seen moving about in a suspicious way. It wasn't long before an insurrection broke out, and the Colonel was attacked. He managed to quickly escape to the top of a nearby rock, and immediately proceeded to address the workers. He told them that their plot was known about, and no one would be able to get away with it. He was then able to win back the workers' cooperation, and the work went on.
But, the trouble wasn't completely over. Another plot on Colonel Patterson's life was formed, and again quickly discovered. This time, Colonel Patterson had the Railway Police dispatched to his location. Within a few days, they had arrested the ringleaders of the plots. They were tried and convicted in Mombasa. This was the end of the troubles with the workers. Now, it was again the lions' turn!
After the incident at the old hospital site, the lions left the area for a few months, and later accounts report people were disappearing at other camps some miles away. During this time, a considerable amount of effort was spent building an elaborate trap using a boxcar, to be ready should the lions return. The boxcar was divided into two compartments by strong bars. A trip wire was arranged to drop a gate made of railroad rails over the entrance to one of the compartments. (For lack of a suitable drill, Colonel Patterson 'drilled' holes in the rail sections with his .303 rifle!) There was a small, secure entrance into the other compartment. Thorns were piled all around the boxcar. For the first few nights, Colonel Patterson sat inside the secure compartment, acting as human bait. Should a lion sense his presence inside the boxcar, it would enter and trip on the trip wire. The gate would fall and trap the lion in the first compartment. The Colonel could dispatch the lion at his leisure from behind the strong bars. After a few days, he got some other people to take turns manning this trap.
The lions had been gone for so long that the workers started to let down their guard a little. This didn't last long. One night, some of the Coolies had decided to sleep outside their tent, but inside the boma. This would not be their lucky night. One of the lions jumped into the boma. Although stones and firebrands were hurled at the lion, it selected a victim, and dragged it out of the boma through the thorns! Outside the boma, the other lion joined the first one, and they enjoyed their meal not 30 yards away. Even though shots were fired at the lions, none of them made their mark, and the lions went right on eating.
Soon, a sort of routine would settle in. The lions would be heard roaring in the vicinity of one of the camps (They were again spread out up and down the rail line.). Suddenly, they would stop roaring. Word would go from camp to camp, 'Beware brothers, the devil is coming!'. There would be agonizing shrieks from somewhere in the camp, and one less person at roll call the next morning.
Every night, Colonel Patterson and others would stay up, hoping to get a shot at one of the lions. They never did.
The lions were getting bolder and bolder. Some nights, they would each take a victim, so they wouldn't have to share. They could go undetected right through the thorn fences. One night, a bunch of Coolies escaped the lions to the safety of a tree. They so heavily loaded the tree that it collapsed, throwing them to the ground very close to the lions. But, the lions didn't care. They had already caught a victim and were too busy feasting on him.
One night, the lions caught a victim and carried it close to Colonel Patterson's camp to devour. He vividly remembers the sound of bones being crunched and contented 'purring'. It took days to get these sounds out of his head. (Lions actually can't purr like smaller felines. They have a rough 'pseudo purr' they don't often use.)
Finally, on December 1st, the workers approached Colonel Patterson and told him they would no longer be 'food for lions or devils'. As soon as this ultimatum was delivered, the workers went out and threw themselves down on the tracks in front of the next train. They then climbed on every available seat, and left Tsavo. The entire railway project ground to a halt. Only a small number of workers were brave enough to stay behind. These workers took up residence in trees, atop water in trees, atop water tanks, or in underground pits covered with logs.
On December 3rd, the Superintendent of Police arrived with twenty men to help hunt down the lions. It was on that night that one of the lions finally entered the rail-car trap. There were three armed men in the secure part of the trap. After the gate had fallen, the lion began to thrash at the bars, scaring the men silly. Finally, they got their courage up and began firing. Even though they could have touched the body of the lion with the muzzles of their rifles, nobody succeeded in getting a shot into it. Instead, one of the shots broke the chain holding the gate shut. The lion escaped with very minor injuries. The superintendent of Police, his men, Patterson and others tried to track the lions. Although one person got a brief glimpse, they again escaped! They tried again for two more days to track the lions. No success. The Superintendent and his men could not afford to stay any longer. Patterson was again left alone with the lions.
On the morning of December 9, an African man came running to Colonel Patterson, shouting 'Simba! Simba!' (lion in Swahili). Patterson learned that a lion had tried to capture a man from his camp a short distance away, and had failed. So, the lion killed a donkey and was busy eating it. The Superintendent of police had left Patterson a had left Patterson a heavy rifle, so he grabbed it, and ran off with the man. After a patient stalk, Patterson and this man were nearly on to the lion. But the man stepped on a rotten stick, which broke with a snap. The lion was scared off into a thicket.
Patterson then rounded up his remaining Coolies, and instructed them to bring along things to make noise with. They surrounded the thicket. Patterson then stood at an animal trail coming out of the thicket. On his signal, the Coolies advanced, making all sorts of racket. It was then that Colonel Patterson actually saw one of the maneaters for the first time- a huge maneless male. He lifted his weapon to fire. Click! The twin-barreled rifle misfired! Intimidated by the noise, the lion jumped past Patterson and started to run off. He finally remembered he had another shot in his rifle and fired. He managed to hit the lion in the back, but it got away.
Dismayed, Colonel Patterson went back and looked at the donkey. The lion had just began it's meal on the hindquarters. (Lions like to start eating on the hindquarters because there is a lot of meat there without a lot of bones.) A nice donkey like this would be too good of a meal to abandon. The lion might return to finish his meal.
Then, Patterson had an inspiration. Taking 4 poles, and a plank of wood, he constructed a platform in close to the donkey carcass. This platform, called a machan, would serve as an artifical 'tree' from which to hunt the lion. (There were no nearby trees to sit in.) He lashed the donkey carcass to a nearby tree stump with wire, so it couldn't be dragged off. Normally, Patterson would stand vigil with his gun-bearer (Colonel Patterson was an experienced big game hunter.), but tonight, he was sick. So, he began that night's vigil alone.
It wasn't long before Patterson heard a twig snap and a sigh of hunger. The lion had indeed returned! But, as he watched, he determined the lion had detected him. Now, the lion was stalking Colonel Patterson! For two hours, the lion circled the rickety platform. All the lion would have to do is knock out a pole, or jump at the platform to dislodge Patterson. Instant easy meal! The whole situation made Patterson's flesh crawl.
Suddenly, something hit Patterson on the head! It turned out to be an owl that had confused him for a tree branch. He quickly recovered his wits. Below, the lion growled, and moved in for the kill! Very carefully, Patterson raised his rifle and fired. There was an angry growl, and the lion jumped around all over. He jumped into the bushes. Patterson fired away into bushes. The growls continued, but were growing weaker. They finally ceased altogether. One of the maneaters were finally dead!
Word quickly spread to the camps, and a wild celebration ensued. The next morning, the body of the lion was recovered. He was a maneless . He was a maneless male, 9 feet, 8 inches long from tip of nose to tip of tail. The lion had taken two shots-- one in the shoulder penetrating the heart (Probably the first shot), and another in one of the hind legs. It took 8 men to carry it to camp, and soon it was in the skinning shed.
There was peace for a few days. Then, a railroad Inspector in the Tsavo camp was paid a visit one night by a lion outside his house. Thinking it was just a drunken Coolie, he ignored it and didn't open the door. Robbed of a human for dinner, the lion made a quick meal of two of the Inspector's goats.
The next night, Colonel Patterson camped out in a shanty close to the Inspector's home. He tied three full-grown goats to a 250 pound piece of railroad rail. He then entered the shanty, and watched and waited. Just before dawn, the lion came. He killed one of the goats, and began to carry it off-- along with the railroad rail and the other two still-live goats. Patterson fired, but only managed to kill one of the goats!
When morning came, it was not hard to follow the trail of the goats and the railroad rail. The lion was quickly found, still feasting on goat-meat. Upon being discovered, the lion charged Patterson and the men that were with him. Luckily, the lion was more concerned with getting away than with attacking, so he ran right by Patterson and another man, escaping into the bushes. From there, the lion slunk away, and could not be tracked.
Colonel Patterson had a strong platform erected near the goat carcasses. That night, he and his gun-bearer took turns watching from the platform. The lion did indeed return, and Patterson was able to get two shots into the lion's shoulder. Unfortunately, the lion got away. Some more shots were fired into the bushes, but nothing more happened.
The next morning, the blood trail was easily spotted and followed. However, it soon grew faint and disappeared altogether. 10 days passed without any further incident. Everybody hoped the lion had gone into the bush and quietly died. Nevertheless, no one lowered their guard.
This turned out to be a good thing, for on the evening of December 27th, the lion was discovered trying to get at a man sleeping in a tree close to Colonel Patterson's boma. Because the night was so dark, nothing could be done but fire some warning shots. The next day, an inspection revealed the lion had explored all of the tents in the camp (Which were empty because most of the workers had fled), and had stalked the man in the tree at length.
The next night, Colonel Patterson and his gun-bearer took up a position in the same tree. (Patterson was almost bitten by a poisonous snake in the process!) He took turns standing watch with his gun-bearer. At 2 AM, Patterson. At 2 AM, Patterson handed the watch over to his gun bearer, and dozed off. An hour later, he suddenly woke up, sensing something was wrong. At first, nothing was seen, but eventually, the man-eater came into to view, patiently stalking them! With great fascination, the two men watched the lion stalk them, taking advantage of every bit of the sparse cover in their vicinity. Just as patiently, Patterson readied his rifle. When the lion was 20 yards away, he fired. It was a hit, but it failed to knock down the lion. The now-angry lion ran off, growling fiercely. Three more shots were fired, one of which also hit him.
The next morning, Colonel Patterson, his gun-bearer and a native tracker set off after the lion. The bloody trail was easy to follow. About a quarter mile away, they found him. He was hiding in the grass, glaring at the men with bared teeth.
Patterson aimed carefully, and took a shot. The lion then charged him with all the muster it had left. Another shot knocked him over, but he got up and continued his charge. A third shot had no effect. He reached for another rifle, only to discover his gun-bearer had abandoned him to the safety of a tree. Patterson had no choice but to follow suit. If one of the shots hadn't broken a hind leg, Patterson would have never made it. Once in the tree, the Colonel grabbed a carbine from his gun-bearer and shot the lion once more. The lion collapsed.
Rather foolishly, Patterson quickly climbed down. To his complete surprise, the lion charged again! A shot in the chest and another in the head (Look at the skull on the pictures page) finally did the brute in. Even so, the lion bit savagely at a branch until the last bit of life drained out of him.
Colonel Patterson had all he could do to prevent the dead lion from being torn apart by the workers. He had it carried to his nearby boma for examination. This lion (also a maneless male) had taken at least six shots. There was also a slug buried not far into the flesh of the back. This was the slug from the shot fired 10 days before. In any case, this lion measured 9 feet, 6 inches from tip of nose to tip of tail. Soon, this lion took it's turn in the skinning shed.
Just like a fairy tale, this story has a happy ending. The workers returned,The bridge was finished, and the railhead reached what would soon be Nairobi. On January 30th, 1899, the workers presented a silver bowl to Colonel Patterson in return for the bravery he had shown in relentlessly hunting down the maneaters.
The day after the bridge was complete, and all of the temporary rigging removed, a torrential downpour washed away both of the trolley bridges that had been constructed to move the stone from the quarry to the bridge!
Colonel Patterson left East Africa in late 1899. He did return in 1906, and spent several years there as a game warden. re as a game warden. It was during this time that he wrote 'The Man-Eaters of Tsavo'. The book was published, and became immensely popular. In 1924, he sold the skins and skulls of the man-eaters to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. The skins were converted from rugs to mounts, and were first put on display in 1928. They have been on display ever since. Read the 'Field Museum of Natural History' page for more details on what happened after the Tsavo Maneater incident was over!