The Bloody Story Of The Man-Eating Lions Of Tsavo

In the heart of the savanna in 1898, two big cats became infamous for following and killing humans. As this pair of lions wreaked havoc on hordes of unsuspecting railway workers, their thirst for blood became internationally known. Choosing humans toiling away at railway construction in Kenya as their prime food source, the Tsavo lions slunk in and out of campsites during the night, feasting on the unsuspecting employees. The workers set up barricades of fire and thorns, but they couldn't prevent the cats from taking whatever they wanted.

The man-eaters of Tsavo earned their reputation as they trailed the railway lines, leaving a bloody wake of their victims behind them. Although an unusual practice for wild cats, their meals consisted of humans for 10 months straight. Their spree ended when they were finally taken down by an all-out hunt for the beasts.

  • The Lions Came As A Pair

    The lions of Tsavo were a pair of males, skilled at avoiding campfires and slinking through fences during the night to scour the railroad camps and snag their next meal. It's uncommon for two male lions to hunt together, as they're usually seen with about 10 lionesses who hunt for them.

    In fact, lions aren't a species that tend to share space or meals with other lions, so the troublesome duo was an odd pair to see in the wild.

  • They Preyed On Railway Workers
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    They Preyed On Railway Workers

    In 1898, the British colonial government was constructing the Kenya-Uganda Railway. As workers began to build the bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya, they unwittingly became the targets of the two lions.

  • The Lions Were Over 9 Feet Long

    The lions that terrorized the railway workers were exceptionally massive beasts. They measured a massive 9' 8" inches in length and came up to nearly 3' 9" inches in height. When slain, it took eight men to carry a single lion back to the campsite.

    The large size of these lions allowed for them to be fully equipped for hunting large animals like buffalo, but they soon turned their eyes to humans - prey that could be followed and devoured with little effort. 

  • They Were Both Maneless, Even Though They Were Male Lions
    Photo: Demouline / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    They Were Both Maneless, Even Though They Were Male Lions

    A key difference between lions that roam the savanna and Tsavo lions is that Tsavo male lions don't have manes.

    The reason for their lack of face fur is up for debate. Genetically, they could be related to an old lineage of lions whose manes provide a disadvantage to their hunts. Other explanations suggest escalated levels of testosterone, which shrink hair follicles. There's also the hot, dry climate to blame, which is unsuitable for a bushy mane. 

  • The Spree Lasted For 10 Months
    Photo: Banovich Art / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    The Spree Lasted For 10 Months

    After the lions emerged in May 1898, railway workers died for 10 months. Even though barricades were erected utilizing fire and thorn fences, the lions slipped through them in the night to pull the workers from their camps.

    The repeated lion attacks caused hordes of workers to abandon the camp. Regardless, construction continued. British officers successfully hunted down the big cats in December, putting an end to the massacre. 

  • Victims Numbered Anywhere From 35-135
    Photo: Field Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Victims Numbered Anywhere From 35-135

    When the attacks were initially reported by British Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, the numbers he accounted for were grossly exaggerated. He reported at least 135 railway workers were killed by the lions.

    While this number might have included mutilated workers, the numbers today don't add up to quite as many fatalities. Upon further examination of the composition of the lions' bodies, researchers have whittled that number down to somewhere around 35.