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Retracing steps to find the lost den of the Man Eaters of Tsavo

The morning after Dr. Julian Kerbis’ presentation on the Man Eaters of Tsavo, the guiding team here at Finch Hattons were invited to a very special treat.

You can read about Dr. Kerbis' presentation here>>

We accompanied Dr. Kerbis and his companion, John Travillion on a journey across the western area of Tsavo National Park towards the Tsavo River and the infamous bridge to retrace steps taken over twenty years ago to rediscover the long lost den of the Man Eaters of Tsavo…

The group of intrepid travellers set off early in the morning as the sun was beginning to rise over the Chyulu Hill in the east. The site of the original bridge which crosses the Tsavo river is around a 100km, over three hour drive from Finch Hattons.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, burning off remnants of any cloud, the group talked amongst themselves, pointing out wildlife, track and signs along the way as the vegetation and topography varied along winding and scenic route. And as we gradually got got closer to the south eastern boundary where the western region of the Tsavo meets the east, the group seemed to become a little reverent and thoughtful about this area of the park which holds such historical importance for not only the Tsavo region but also Kenya as a whole.

As a very brief recap, the construction site of the bridge which crosses the Tsavo River was where, between the months of March and December 1898 when two man-eating male lions killed and devoured a large number of the workers. Col. John Henry Patterson who was in charge of the engineering and bridge construction site, shot and killed the two lions in December 1898. Later that month during a hunting sortie to provide meat for his workers, he came across a cave, the apparent den of the Man-Eaters of Tsavo.

Over twenty years ago, Dr. Kerbis co-led an expedition to relocate the lost den to look for evidence to prove that this was indeed a den site for the two lions. Dr. Kerbis, a world renowned predator behavioural researcher in his own right, wanted to ascertain if the legends were true. Typically, lions do not take their kills to a den, they will drag it away in to thickets and cover nearby and consume their prize. So one of the main aims of this journey was to look for evidence to support or explain this potentially extraordinary and unique behaviour.

As we arrived at the Tsavo Gate, we were greeted by one of the local Kenya Wildlife Service Rangers who was to escort us through the wilderness to the den site. As we walked towards the lagha (riverine gully) which would eventually lead us to the den site, Dr. Kerbis recalled the events of his initial expedition, telling us the story of how they followed clues and signs left behind in historical literature which pointed the way. In Col. Patterson’ book; The Man Eaters of Tsavo and other African Adventures, there is a chapter which tells the story of how he discovered the den site and how he followed lagha in a north westerly direction. For days, Dr. Kerbis and his team followed the clues and expanded the search radius area to cover what would have been walkable within the timeframe described in Col. Patterson’s memoirs. But they enjoyed non success. They then decided to try a different tactic and followed the lagha in a different direction, this time following it south west… and just over one kilometre later, they discovered the site, which looked almost exactly the same as a photo taken by Col. Patterson and his team over 100 years previous, so they knew with unshakeable certainty that they had found the right place!

As our group descended in to the lagha we began following the sandy, winding path of a now dry riverbed, which would become a refreshing source of water for the local wildlife during the rainy season. But now, in the midst of the dry winter season, it was obvious that this was a well traversed path, as we found fresh tracks of various antelope species, baboons, elephants and also large carnivores such as spotted hyena, leopards and of course, lions.

Towering fig and palm trees which lined the sandy embankments offering shaded respite from the hot midday sun as we walked along the lagha. Dr. Kerbis became more animated and excited the closer we got to the den site, regaling stories of the journey along the winding pathways and how they almost missed the den site as they contemplated taking one riverine junction over another.

During our walk through the lagha I asked Dr. Kerbis what his thoughts and feelings were as we made our was towards the den site.

“It was such a familiar setting, like my own backyard. And also a perfect illustrative of Col. Patterson’s description in his book, under the chapter entitle - Finding the man-eaters den”

Coming across the den site almost takes you by surprise, as you round a bend, if you don’t look in the right direction, you could easily miss it… but once you see the prominent rocks with an almost eerie opening topped by a large fig tree it all becomes apparent that this was once a sight which harbours such a grizzly past.

As the group gathered around the site, Dr. Kerbis recounted the events of that day over twenty years ago, intwining stories and facts from Col. Patterson’s discovery with his own expedition. Even a brilliant anecdote about how when they rediscovered the site, there was partial remnants of an impala which was likely the victim of a hungry leopard, dangling in the fig tree above the den site.

He told us that over the coming days, how they excavated the sandy soil around the site, looking for bones and skeletal remains and how they found minimal pieces of evidence. Some of which were not within the cave itself but scattered throughout the surrounding areas as they had been washed away by rain and river waters.

Although there were no remains left at the site, as they had previously been taken away for further study and forensic identification, Dr. Kerbis surmised that after finding the cave, studying the evidence, that this den site was actually more likely to be that of scavengers, and again, more than likely belonged to spotted hyena who are infamous for stealing away food and causing the damage seen on the bones that had been recovered. Spotted hyena have one of the strongest jaws, pound for pound of any mammal and are capable of chewing through bones to get to the rich treasure of marrow hidden inside. The group spent about an hour at the den site, soaking in the history and exploring the cave and the surrounding area.

And Dr. Kerbis explained how rediscovering the site affected his research.

“It changed the research program. The original intent was to find human bones, determine their sex, age, race and confirm the man-eater story. With no bones remaining in the den we conducted a massive archeological excavation and still nothing. So we transformed (Serendipity) in to a dozen newly evolving research projects: Why are the lions in Tsavo maneless? What were the circumstances for man-eating in Tsavo in 1898 that led to this incident? What is the social structure and is it similar or different to other African lions? Were the lions brothers? Can bullet holes confirm these are the correct lions and were the skulls matched correctly with the skins? Can we determine the diet of these lions during this incident? Did they become man-eaters because the primary killer had a broken canine? Etc….”

Even if the cave wasn’t actually a den belonging to the Man Eaters of Tsavo, it really is a place steeped in history and should be preserved as a monument for all those who lived, worked and died in the wilderness and helped to lay the foundations to make Kenya a strong and successful country.

Dr. Julian Kerbis and all of us at Finch Hattons feel very strongly that the site should be properly preserved and together, help educate people on the history of Tsavo. Dr. Kerbis went on to say: “It is such strong part of Kenya’s legacy, it is very important to maintain it in its unspoilt state. In the USA, we have fairy tales, but in Kenya this is a true story and we have verified numerous details in Col. Patterson’s accounts - including the broken canine of the primary lion, the human hairs in the teeth, bullet wounds reflecting Patterson’s descriptions and so on…”

After our walk back towards our vehicle, the group settled down to lunch and I asked Dr. Kerbis if he thought there is currently enough work being done to raise the awareness of the plight of lions, to conserve them and increase their numbers.

“One of our worries is that we are bringing to life this terrifying story and it may work against lions rather than for them. But, as we speak, team is surveying much of Kenya for lion with hopes of coming up with accurate numbers on their status. Also developments, like treating wounded lions and other aspects which are crucial for their survival”.

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