The Man Eaters of Tsavo

During my two month stay at Finch Hattons, we were lucky enough to be paid a visit and host someone who’s heart and passion lies deeply imbedded in the history of Tsavo and its lions. The world renowned Dr. Julian Kerbis, who’s research over the last twenty years has opened up many insights in to lion behavioural dynamics. He also led the team which rediscovered the “Man Eaters’ Den” close to the site of the original Tsavo bridge which was completed in 1899 and the scene for a local legend which is deeply ingrained in the history of Kenya.

Dr. Kerbis was travelling through Kenya on an annual research trip, accompanied by his friend John Travillion, who had a life long ambition to see the spender of the Great Rift Valley. And who better to show him then someone who has a huge experience of travelling through this region over the past twenty something years!

During Dr. Kerbis’ stay, he gave a presentation to the Finch Hattons guests and staff on the history of the man eaters of Tsavo and also offered insights in to why these apex predators took to killing people rather than hunting their more traditional prey.

As a brief overview, and this may jog a few memories, during the construction of the original railway bridge which crosses the Tsavo River, between the months of March to December 1898 many railway workers we killed by a pair of man eating lions. There are both official and unofficial counts to the number of workers taken by these lions during their ten month rampage before Col. John Henry Patterson finally shot and killed them in December 1898.

It was roughly one month later that Col. Patterson came across the ‘den of the man eaters’ when he was hunting for meat to provide for his workers. In the den he found many devoured human skeletal remains and artefacts such as copper bangles which local people wore.

After the completion of the railway bridge in 1899, the Man Eaters’ Den was lost for nearly 100 years, until Dr. Kerbis, who is a member of staff at the famous Field Museum in Chicago, where the remains of the infamous man eating lions are on display, became more and more intrigued with the memoirs of Col. Patterson and stories behind the reign of terror that these two lions caused during the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo River.

Dr. Kerbis and his research team travelled to the Tsavo National Park in Kenya, following clues left in various pieces of literature, including the book written in 1907 by Col. Patterson himself, entitled The Man Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures, which helped them track down the rough area within which to begin their search for the legendary den…

For a number of days, the team followed locational clues and signs pointing to the whereabouts of the den, a chapter in Col. Patterson’s book described the den as being south west from the construction site of the bridge and following the path of a lagha (dry river bed). After days and days of searching methodically, the team became frustrated at their lack of success. So the they decided to try a different tactic. They decided to follow the lagha in the opposite direction, and after not walking more than a kilometre, they found the site of the den… success!

The main focus of this expedition was to ascertain a number of things; was this truly the den of the man eating lions, could human remains be identified from any bones laying within or near to the den and who’s were they.

Dr. Kerbis is a lion behavioural expert, he and any other naturalist who understands something about lion behaviour knows that lions will usually devour their prey reasonably close to the kill site. And, this den was located well over a kilometre away from where the lions dragged their victims from the camp whilst they slept. So, was this truly a lions’ den and were they behaving abnormally, and if so why… or were there other natural culprits to blame for the stockpiling of bones?

But before we delve too deeply in to that topic, let us focus on another. Why were these lions killing and devouring people? This was the main subject of the presentation and through his research and insights, Dr. Kerbis was able to provide numerous instances and proof of circumstances which would drive lions to killing and consuming people.

Determining factors such as; age, dental and mouth problems, injury, depletion of favoured and natural prey, social traditions and so on…

Dr. Kerbis went through the varying circumstances, enthusiastically breaking down each scenario in turn and in to understandable terminology so that everyone was left with a clear understanding as to the potential reasons as to why lions would chose to predate on humans.

He explained that the Man Eaters of Tsavo (the two that terrorised the construction workers), were not that old, around five years old and they didn’t have any dental or oral problems, apparent injuries so appeared to be in perfect health and in their prime. So that seems to negate those reasons…

During the time that the Uganda-Mombasa railroad was under construction, the vegetation of Tsavo was much different to what it is today (and also twenty years ago). There were a lot less elephants in the area, which meant that the undergrowth was much, much thicker. Perfect stalking grounds for lions who use ambush techniques during their hunts.

And, with the depletion of lions’ natural prey such as buffalo and various antelope species due to a bovine disease called Rinderpest (also known as Cattle Plague), which was spread by the introduction of cattle in to the traditional grazing grounds the wild species, decimating the populations. Which would force lion populations to look for other food; this would scenario could also coincide with another very valid reason… social traditions. This may sound grizzly but Dr. Kerbis painted a very valid picture. The route of the Uganda-Mombasa railroad followed the path of old Slave Trade and Caravan routes towards the Kenyan coastline.

As these caravans travelled the long distances, people would become tired, injured, sick or even die. The caravan would simply keep moving as it needed to get to relative safety as quickly as possible. So, those unable to keep up, were simply left behind.

Being a predator is a very difficult life and hunting sorties need to be as successful as possible. For a lion hunting in daylight, their success rate is barely 20%. But that rises to around 30% when hunting at night, as part of a group (or pride). So, imagine if your traditional, main food source has been massively depleted, you’re going to start looking for alternatives. Weak, sick and injured prey makes for a very tempting target. Also, lions are scavengers, if they feel it is safe enough for them to take advantage of an easy meal… they will.

Taking all these factors in to play, Dr. Kerbis surmised that the Man Eating Lions of Tsavo was almost certainly the result of a ‘perfect storm’ scenario. Whereby a number of factors all came in to play at the same time, to the detriment of the workers.

After the presentation, Dr. Kerbis was on hand to answer a few questions from the guests and staff…

Q: Is there a true number to how many people were killed by the lions and why is there such a large variation in numbers?

A: Good question. During the building of the railway and the Tsavo bridge, there was a mixed workforce. Contracted labourers from India as well as local people. Col. Patterson had a more concise record of the Indian workforce as their details and numbers would have been recorded in a ledger, making them much more accountable if they went missing. Where as local labourers would have been employed on a much more casual basis so a complete record was probably never kept. So an ‘official number’ of 28-31 deaths was recorded but there has also been mention of up to 134 people killed in total.

Q: How do you know that these two lions were responsible for killing the workers?

A: With the progression of scientific and forensic methods, this has made the task much easier. Using these techniques we can test samples of hair found in cracks in the teeth to determine what the lions had eaten. Also, stored within the hair and bones of the lions is a record of what they had consumed over a greater length of time. And with the advancement of these techniques we can actually determine where the workers that were killed and eaten actually came from. So we can build a picture of how many of the Indian workers were killed in comparison to the local labourers.

Q: Why was the vegetation so much thinker in Tsavo then in comparison to now?

A: During this period there were far less elephants in Tsavo then there is today. This was mainly due to hunting for the ivory trade and also big game hunting. Elephants play a huge role in determining the amount vegetation in an area and if there aren’t many elephants in an area, the vegetation has more opportunity to grow thicker - which equates to great hunting grounds for lions to stalk and ambush their prey.

Q: Lions aren’t known for having dens, they usually drag their quarry a short distance and then feed. Was this truly the den of the Man Eaters or was there another answer.

A: A very valid point. True, lions do not carry their kills far distances before feeding nor, stash their kills. And the circumstantial evidence on the bones found near the cave showed that they have been partially consumed. Lion jaws and teeth aren’t strong enough to crush harder bones, so this led us to believe that in actual fact the den probably belonged to hyena, who would have discovered remnants of the kills and taken them back to their den… which was initially thought to belong to the lions.

Q: Are the lions in Tsavo still man eaters today?

A: To a certain degree, possibly. But this is more to do with social tradition. Lions are taught how to hunt by their mothers and older siblings. However, if there are problematic lions they are removed from the equation as quickly as possible to minimise further human-wildlife conflict.

Q: How did the rediscovery of the den effect your research and local legend surrounding the man eaters?

A: The rediscovery of the den affected and confirmed elements of my research and also clarified several unanswered questions. It showed that a lot of Col. Patterson’s accounts of the time were true it also confirmed that the den probably did not belong to the lions as the remaining human bones found nearby showed evidence of being gnawed and chewed by an animal whose physiology is much more capable of causing such damage, namely the Spotted Hyena. Who is more renowned for taking its scavenging back to a den.

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