Trouble on the Tracks (Lion’s of Tsavo)

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A Savage History of Kenya’s Man-Eating Lions

It took eight men to carry each carcass back to camp.We’re all familiar with Kenya’s big cats; the sleek and speedy cheetah, elegant leopard and magnificent maned lion. Taking a safari into the bush to catch a glimpse of these beautiful beasts is commonplace nowadays, and we are liable to forget how dangerous the big cats can be. The story of the man-eating lions of Tsavo is a tragic, yet fascinating reminder of the sometimes savage nature of Kenya’s wildlife.

In 1896, both Kenya and Uganda were part of the British Empire, a power which ruled over huge swathes of the globe at the time. Uganda in particular was an important focus for the British because of the Nile River, and the construction of a game-changing railroad was planned, linking the coastal town of Mombasa to Uganda in the East, and passing through the Great Rift Valley.

The proposed railway line was to be an important colonial statement, cementing the British Empire’s power in the region, and opening up the continent. However, news of the African project was not well-received back in England; a politician commented the railway was ‘going from nowhere to utterly nowhere’, and sceptics nicknamed the railroad ‘The Lunatic Line’. Yet the doubters were ignored, and construction plans went ahead.

Fast forward to 1898, and construction of a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Coast Province was not going well. The Indian workmen began dropping like flies; and it wasn’t just disease that was killing them, or the heat or hard work – it was a pair of man-eating lions, snatching them from tents in the dead of night. Progress on the railway was painfully slow, as workers fled from Tsavo after their fires and thorn fences failed to deter the beasts. The lions of Tsavo were not the typical breed you’d expect; like all male lions in the area, they were without the traditional mane, giving them a sleek and athletic appearance. The animals were indeed strong, not to mention highly opportunistic and aggressive towards humans. For nine months, the lions stalked the campsite, with the project overseer Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson repeatedly failing to trap or kill the pair.

Eventually, in December 1898, Patterson managed to shoot one of the lions, after he first baited it and then was stalked by it. The second lion met a similar fate 20 days later. Both creatures took several bullets before collapsing, meeting the men with full fury and over nine feet of pure muscle – it took eight men to carry each carcass back to camp.

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