The man eaters of Tsavo is a legend that continues to capture the imagination. The building of a railway line through deepest Africa would never be easy. The line from Nairobi to Mombasa passed through the great plains of Tsavo and a bridge would have to be built across the Tsavo River. Out of the wilderness a threat emerged which would take 9 months to quell.
Two huge male Lions apparently began to attack and drag off many of the bridge workers while they slept at night in their tents. This continued from March through to December despite preventative measures being put in place and the setting of traps. Many workers actually fled at this time and the building process was halted.
Lt. Col John Patterson, the leader of the building project eventually shot and killed both Lions after months of failed attempts. The reconstructed remains of these mane-less Lions are on permanent display in the Chicago Field Museum. Patterson published a book about it in 1907 called 'The Man-Eaters of Tsavo'.
Three movies were made about this story with the most recent being 'The Ghost and the Darkness' which starred Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas. It is not known for sure how many people died in the Lion attacks, conflicting numbers given by Patterson have not helped matters but it could be more than 100 or less than 40 depending on which report you follow.
The fact is, man eating Lions are not uncommon and may develop as a result of environmental circumstances. Scientific information gathered over more than a hundred years plus studies of museum specimens, historic records, articles and accounts from those in the field, were examined in the 1990's to separate fact from fiction surrounding the Tsavo Lions.
What was clear from the findings is that Lions can resort to this behaviour when faced with difficult man-made conditions and may also go after easier prey if they are injured or ill. One of the Lions had an abscessed tooth. Lions will take their opportunities to survive if their normal prey patterns are disturbed. In Tsavo, Buffalo and Cattle were the main prey of the Lions.
It is suggested that loss of normal prey through introduced disease (such as the Rinderpest, which wiped out Buffalo, Cattle and plenty of other wildlife in 1898 in Tsavo) and culling, plus factors associated with habitat loss can drive Lions to look for alternative prey or resort to scavenging. In Tsavo, opportunities could have come in the form of the death of humans in the area.
A regular supply of poorly buried corpses as a result of food shortages and disease - even the trail of bodies left behind in the wake of slave caravans and traders trekking along the perilous northern circuit may have been a factor. In any case, the Lions it seems developed a taste for humans which contributed to the rise of the 'man eater legend'.
Further studies of the Tsavo Lions and other cases in Africa have revealed that it is likely this man eating behaviour is a learned culture, and once established in a pride it is passed down through all the generations.