Trouble on the Tracks (Lion’s of Tsavo)

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.

The Tsavo lions became Patterson’s floor rugs, and work was quickly resumed on the railway, finishing the bridge that February. In total, the pair of lions may have killed 135 people – but this is Patterson’s estimation, and he had reason to exaggerate his triumph! In 2009, new research emerged suggesting the number was more likely to be 35, after samples of the original lions were analysed for dietary evidence.

However, this research did not take into account the lions killing and not eating their prey (like a domestic cat might play with a mouse), or the fact that the eaten humans may have been practically vegetarians due to shortage of food – this would register them as herbivores in the research. So the actual number of unfortunate railway workers may have been higher than 35.

Despite the fact they were shot over 100 years ago, the Tsavo lions haven’t disappeared – in fact they have instead found revival in popular culture. Patterson himself wrote a book of his experiences, which was later adapted into several films – the most-well-known of which is ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’ (1996), starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. The lions themselves were bought by the Chicago Field Museum in 1924, where they have been on display ever since (see above).

The death of the famous Tsavo pair wasn’t even the end of the railway’s trouble with lions. Further up the line, at Kima station, another beast was wreaking havoc among the workers. The sight of a lion grappling with the iron sheeting of the station roof caused the sending of perhaps one of the strangest telegrams in history: ‘Lion fighting with station. Send urgent succour.’

In June 1900, railway superintendent Charles Henry Ryall was travelling through Kima station in his inspection saloon. On hearing that the troublesome lion had been spotted only hours ago, experienced hunter Ryall and his two companions decided to stay the night in the saloon car, hoping to get a shot at the animal. Unfortunately, Ryall fell asleep on the first watch, and the lion entered the car and savagely dragged him out of the window and into the bush. Strangely, the lion seemed intent on only harming Ryall, even standing on another man to grasp the slumbering superintendent.

Charles Ryall’s body was recovered from the wilderness and taken to Nairobi for burial. His mother offered £100 (over £10,000 in today’s money!) for the killer lion’s pelt, but it took three months and several exasperated hunters before the animal was finally trapped and shot – reportedly by Patterson, killer of the original Tsavo lions.

Visitors to Nairobi Railway Museum can actually take a peek inside the very same saloon car that Charles Ryall was dragged from at Kima station. The carriage was preserved as a reminder of the hardships that the railway staff had endured, and it stood for years on a platform at Nairobi station before being moved to the museum. A plaque (above) details the terrible event that unfolded on that June night.

Despite the deaths of over 2,000 workers (from disease and overworking, as well as lions), the railway was completed in 1901; a vast stretch of track from Mombasa to Nairobi, with another line continuing on to Kisumu. The railway is still used today, with an overnight sleeper train running several times a week – an exciting journey taking in some spectacular wildlife such as giraffe and impala. Taking the train through Kenya is a fabulous way to see the country and a nostalgic foray into the glory days of the railway, with 1950s carriages still in use. Just watch out for man-eating lions.

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