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The Colonel and the Man-Eating Lions

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The story of the Tsavo lions

The story of the Tsavo lions

The Man-Eaters of Tsavo

There are places that wise mariners do not sail towards with names such as Shipwreck Cove or Tragedy Reef. Likewise, hikers are advised to keep clear of places called Dead Man’s Gulch or Starvation Canyon. Their names evoke disastrous outcomes for those brazen enough to venture near.

There’s a place in East Africa whose name hints at a gruesome past; it’s called Man-Eaters Junction.

Scramble for Africa

To solidify their colonial possessions in East Africa, the British decided to build a railway from the shores of Lake Victoria to the port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean.

Construction began on the coast in 1896 and by early 1898, it had reached the Tsavo River, when the railway company brought in Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson to supervise the building of a bridge.

In addition to being a distinguished military man, Col. Patterson was also an accomplished big game hunter before that occupation fell into disrepute. His latter skill would come in handy.

Why Did the Man Eaters of Tsavo Attack People?

Early in the project, Patterson started losing labourers to a couple of male Tsavo lions. (Tsavo lions differ from regular Savannah-variety lions in that the males don’t have manes).

The lions had developed a taste for the flank of homo sapiens and would snatch one of the Indian or African workers out of his tent at night. One railway employee wrote that “Hundreds of men fell victims to these savage creatures, whose very jaws were steeped in blood. Bones, flesh, skin, and blood, they devoured all, and left not a trace behind them.”

That turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration as recent analysis suggests the death toll was probably between 35 and 75. Still, the good colonel thought at least three dozen was a loss of life not to be tolerated and he set off to deal with the felines.

However, it’s likely that foremost in the colonel’s mind was the fact that his terrified labour force fled the site and bridge construction was halted.

The Hunt Begins

The first lion-killing scheme involved baiting a trap.

In his book, Bill Bryson’s African Diary, the author describes how a junior railway employee was given the job of dispatching the man-eaters. “C.H. Ryall sat up all night in an open railway carriage with a rifle trained on a pile of bait, but unfortunately nodded off. The lions ignored the bait and took poor Ryall instead.”

Having given Ryall his last rites, Col. Patterson set off on foot to get the vicious beasts.

The End of the Terror

After months of tracking, Patterson finally killed the lions.

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In early December 1898, he bagged the first one and shot and wounded the other a few weeks later. He set off with his gun bearer to finish off the animal.

Instead of finding a nearly dead creature, he came across a hungry lion salivating at the thought of taking a steak or two out of the Great White Hunter, with perhaps a bit of fresh liver as an appetizer.

The lion charged. The colonel fired, but the lion kept coming. The colonel turned to his gun bearer for another rifle but the man wasn’t there; he was up a tree some distance away. Quickly, the colonel legged it to the tree and shinned up to a branch out of the lion’s reach. From the safety of his perch, Col. Patterson was able to plug the critter.

History does not record the fate of the gun bearer, but it’s safe to assume he spent the rest of his career on something akin to latrine duty.

Col. Patterson and the first kill posed ignominiously for the camera.

Col. Patterson and the first kill posed ignominiously for the camera.

Having dealt with the marauding lions, Col. Patterson continued to hunt wildlife across Kenya. On one of his safaris, he stumbled across an interesting find. Happily for us, he left behind an account of his treks in The Man-eaters of Tsavo. He came across what he called “a fearsome-looking cave . . .” But, let’s have him take up the narrative.

“Round the entrance and inside the cavern I was thunderstruck to find a number of human bones, with here and there a copper bangle such as the natives wear. Beyond all doubt, the man-eaters’ den! . . . I had stumbled upon the lair of these once-dreaded ‘demons’ . . . ”

The second felled lion.

The second felled lion.

The Name Lives On

The railway was completed in 1901 and ran 577 miles from Mombasa to Kisumu on Lake Victoria. Although at the time it didn’t reach Uganda, it was still called the Uganda Railway. Parts of the original line are still in use, particularly the 300-mile section from Nairobi to Mombasa.

Kenya Railways runs a nightly service between the two cities. The train carries the ominous nickname “The Lunatic Express.” For the intrepid travellers who make the 14-hour journey, it’s an adventure.

Bill Bryson writes that the line “has something of a tradition of killing its passengers.” The problem seems to be that the trip is mostly on a downhill grade from Nairobi at 5,500 feet above sea level and the poorly maintained locomotives occasionally suffer from brake failure.

Such seems to have been the case in March 1999, although the authorities blamed the driver. Travelling at almost double the allowable speed, the train derailed near Man-Eaters Junction. Thirty-two passengers died in the crash.

Sadly, for those with an incurable sense of bravado, the Lunatic Express passed into history in June 2017. The Chinese government invested vast sums of money to build a new and safer rail link across Kenya. The trip from Nairobi to Mombasa is now a comfortable four hours with air conditioning and buffet service.

Bonus Factoids

  • The British imported 32,000 people from India to do the grunt work of building the Uganda Railway. Almost 2,500 of these labourers died. Some were taken by lions but mostly malaria and dysentery were the killers.
  • Tsavo is a local Kamba word that means “slaughter.”
  • Despite warnings to keep car windows closed, an American tourist couple drove through a South African lion park with their windows open. A lioness reached through the window and grabbed a 22-year-old female passenger, killing her in the June 2015 attack. She became one of the nearly 100 people killed by lions in Africa every year.
Theodore Roosevelt (left on the buffer beam) poses with the pith-helmeted colonial administrators on the Uganda Railway.

Theodore Roosevelt (left on the buffer beam) poses with the pith-helmeted colonial administrators on the Uganda Railway.


  • “Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2010
  • “Hunter who Killed the ‘Maneaters of Tsavo’ Exaggerated their Attacks, Scientists Say.” Andy Bloxham, The Telegraph, November 2, 2009.
  • “Bill Bryson’s African Diary.” Bill Bryson, Random House, 2002.
  • “The Man-eaters of Tsavo.” John Henry Patterson, 1907.
  • “KENYA: Driver Error Caused Man Eaters Junction Train Crash.” David Fry, Danger Ahead, May 8, 1999.
  • “The Lunatic Express: How Kenya’s Colonial Railway Compares to New China-Built Line.” Thomas Bird, South China Morning Post, August 4, 2017.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 11, 2018:

Reza1331. The story you have related has the ring of an urban myth to it. I strongly suspect it never happened as described.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 04, 2017:

There is a movie, "The Ghost and the Darkness", about this story. I loved the movie. It is such an interesting story, thanks for bringing it to mind. That "Lunatic Express" story is wild. That it was still around until this year is crazy. :)

Glen Rix from UK on November 03, 2017:

A fascinating article. Loved it. And thanks for drawing my attention to another Bill Bryson treasure.

Ralph Schwartz from Idaho Falls, Idaho on November 03, 2017:

Very interesting piece of the past you've brought back to life - I was engaged throughout. Thanks for sharing!

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