If you travel to Chicago this summer, in addition to strolling through the downtown streets enjoying its beautiful architecture, you cannot miss the Field Museum of Natural History : if you are a lover of natural sciences, it is impossible for you to miss it; and if it is from horror movies… The relic was filmed there. Tucked away in the Rice Gallery, which contains an impressive collection of stuffed African mammals, you’ll be able to see the museum’s real highlight: a diorama of two maneless lions. You’ll be looking at the skin (and under it the skull) of the two felines that terrorized workers building the Kenya-Uganda railway in the late 19th century. If you’re a movie buff, you’ll know that the story – with some Hollywood flourishes – was recreated in the film The Demons of the Night , starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer.
The story was the following.
Tsavo is an area in southeastern Kenya, about 180 km northwest of Mombasa, now a nature reserve. At the end of the 19th century, Tsavo was not that idyllic place of wild nature, but rather a problem for the British East Africa Company, responsible for maintaining the interests of the British Empire in that part of the black continent, which needed to build a railway (named Uganda Railway ) that connected Mombasa with Lake Victoria. What they did not expect is that its construction would give them so much trouble that it ended up being nicknamed the Lunatic Railway . To begin with, the locals refused to work on it, since it was clear that they were not going to help the European invaders to implement a transport system that would give them control of the land. So the British had to bring workers from their colonies in the Indian subcontinent to this lost place in Africa, via Mumbai and Karachi.
The problems of the Uganda Railway
In 1903 almost 32,000 Asians were employed, many of whom remained in Kenya when their contracts expired. The land where they worked was, to put it mildly, criminal, and with deplorable sanitary conditions: ulcers, diarrhoea, dysentery, scurvy… they were our daily bread . The animals did not have a better time: between 1897 and 1998, 228 of the 350 mules, 579 of the 639 draft oxen, 774 of the 800 donkeys and all 63 camels died. The cost overrun skyrocketed in such a way that in 1898 it already exceeded four times what was expected, an excess of 420 million euros today. But that was nothing that awaited them when they reached Tsavo, where they had to build a bridge over the river of the same name. In charge of its construction they put a military engineer, Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, who arrived in Mombasa from India in March 1898.
Shortly after Patterson arrived, the first workers disappeared. Their corpses had been almost completely eaten by scavengers, so it was impossible to identify the cause of death, which was attributed to a fight over the pay they had just received. But days later Ungan Singh, Patterson’s assistant, was brutally killed. There was no doubt that they were dealing with a man-eater : several witnesses saw a lion stick its head into Singh’s tent, grab him by the throat and drag him out of the camp. At dawn Patterson found the remains: almost his entire body had been eaten, except for his head, the flesh seemed to have been torn by large canines and his face, frozen with a look of terror.
The next night Patterson decided to stand guard at the site of the latest bait attack, but screams from across the camp alerted him that something was wrong. He didn’t arrive on time. He soon realized that he was facing not one, but two man-eaters, in a surprising coordinated action: they watched the camp and waited for the best moment, just late at night and while the men slept, to enter, rip the fabric of the chosen stores and attack their victims. The palisades, fences, hawthorn fences or the bonfires that burned at night were useless to prevent their stalking. Their cunning ability to evade Patterson and avoid traps began to spread among the men that they were dealing with something supernatural. When the lions roared at dusk, it was announced from store to store saying: “Khabar dar, bhaieon, shaitan ata” (Beware, brothers, the devil is coming).
Fear spread among the workers and many fled , paralyzing the works. Patterson spent the nights in the treetops trying to hunt them. On December 9, it shot down the first, almost 3 meters long, and on the 27th the second fell. According to Patterson himself, the lions would have killed 135 people, although recent estimates based on isotopic markers in the lions’ skulls seem to reduce their number to 35.
The enigma of the Tsavo lions
The Tsavo lions were mysterious in appearance: neither had a mane . It was even thought that they were of a different species from that of African lions – which they do have – but genetic analyzes have shown that they were totally African. Why didn’t they have hair? The researchers point out that in an environment as hot as Tsavo and with so little water, they lost it in order to survive. In fact, maneless lions have now been observed in Tsavo.
What drove two male lions to hunt together and alone, outside of a pride? Why did they systematically stalk and kill human beings? Biologists have proposed different hypotheses to give an answer: one is the rinderpest of 1898, which by leaving the lions without their usual prey, they began to take a liking to the dead men who threw themselves into the Tsavo river, because they passed through there the slave caravans to Zanzibar; others have suggested that they were drawn to the hasty ritual cremations of deceased Hindu laborers. Finally in 2000, examination of the skulls showed that the dominant member—probably responsible for killing the largest number of humans— was missing several teeth and had a severe dental abscess . Hence, researchers speculate that it must have been too painful for it to stalk and hunt typical prey and found humans easier to hunt…and eat.
In his book about his African adventure, Patterson wrote that, not far from the camp, he found a cave with human bones at the entrance and inside, as well as copper bracelets like those worn by the natives of the area, the Taita. Was it the lair of the man-eaters? Biologists doubt that Patterson really saw this because lions neither live in caves nor carry their prey anywhere, which hyenas do. When a series of excavations were carried out in this place in 1998, no human remains were found. Did Patterson lie? It could be, but then those who believe it should explain why he did it.
What happened in the Tsavo river reveals a completely mysterious animal behavior : for ten months two solitary lions terrorized hundreds of workers, who were hunted at night inside their tents. Neither traps, nor fires, nor thorns could stop them: only two .303 caliber cartridges fired from a Lee-Enfield rifle.