BOOKS: The Lions of Tsavo
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2005:
The Lions of Tsavo:
Exploring the Legacy of Africa’s Notorious Man-eaters
by Bruce D. Patterson
McGraw-Hill Co. (Two Penn Plaza, New York,
NY 10121), 2004. 231 pages, hardcover. $24.95.
Eight years after shooting two maneless male lions who had
killed as many as 135 railway workers in a two-year binge, Colonel
John H. Patterson in 1907 published The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, the
first authoritative book about the aleady famous episode.
Financially stressed, Patterson in 1925 sold the pelts of
the two lions to the Field Museum in Chicago. Stuffed and mounted as
a prominent exhibit, the pelts sustained interest in the serial
attacks sufficient that Paramount Pictures produced the film The
Ghost & The Darkness in 1996. The film took a few liberties in
condensing incidents and characters, but remained close to the
Drawing heavily upon research by Bruce D. Patterson of the
Field Museum, Philip Caputo published The Ghosts of Tsavo in 2002,
exploring and eventually rejecting the possibility that the two
maneless lions were representatives of a different subspecies from
the familiar African lion.
What can Bruce D. Patter-son himself add to more than 100
years of discussion?
Quite a lot, as it happens. Patterson and Dr. Samuel Kaseki
of the Kenya Wildlife Service have retraced every known step of the
stories of The Ghost and The Darkness, who hunted humans together
more avidly yet elusively than any other lions on record.
Discovering a compass error in Colonel John Patterson’s
description of the site, Bruce D. Patterson and Kaseki found and
explored the long-lost cave that the lions had supposedly filled with
human remains. Flooding long since emptied it, and it may have been
a tribal burial location, not a lion dining hall–but even if it was
a tribal burial chamber, the lions might have feasted there.
Looking into local history, Patterson established that the
attacks of The Ghost and The Darkness were not without precedent,
nor without subsequent parallel. Meat-hunting to feed the railway
builders and epidemics of plague, rinderpest, and dysentery had
simultaneously thinned the Tsavo wildlife while making human remains
abundant. Many of the recent dead were Hindu laborers whose
coworkers’ attempts at traditional cremation were often incomplete.
In effect, the Tsavo lions were taught to eat people, and The Ghost
and The Darkness, who were relatively elderly, with bad teeth, had
more incentive than most to make a habit of it.
The most important part of The Lions of Tsavo is Patterson’s
exploration of how their story influenced the subsequent attitudes of
Kenyans toward wildlife, especially in the future Tsavo National
Park (created in 1949), and what will become of the present-day
Tsavo lions as human activity increasingly surrounds the park.
Patterson mentions and praises the education work of Daphne
Sheldrick and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, named after her
late husband, who was the founding warden at Tsavo. Patterson has
high praise as well for the anti-snaring work done by Youth for
Conservation. Patterson leans toward the common view of U.S.
hunter/conservationists that hunting lions at Tsavo may be necessary
to keep them from overpopulating the limited habitat, but unlike
Caputo, who is an enthusiastic hunter, Patterson seems to accept
the idea rather than like it, and seems to accept it chiefly from
not seeing any viable alternatives.
Patterson wrote, however, just before recent advances in
contraception which suggest the possibility of restricting
reproduction, as habitat conditions require, without permanently
interfering in pride structure and without turning lions into a cash
crop, as they have become in much of southern Africa.
The Lions of Tsavo is likely to stand as the most definitive
of all the accounts of The Ghost and The Darkness, and is a valuable
source of background about the struggle now underway over keeping the
1977 Kenyan national ban on sport hunting.