Irishman’s account of man-eating lions, ‘the Ghost’ and ‘the Darkness’, in Africa

“I have a very vivid recollection of one particular night when the brutes seized a man from the railway station and brought him close to my camp to devour. I could plainly hear them crunching the bones, and the sound of their dreadful purring filled the air and rang in my ears for days afterwards.”

Irishman’s account of man-eating lions, ‘the Ghost’ and ‘the Darkness’, in Africa

This chilling account by Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, an Irishman, tells the tale of how two African lions terrorised a railway project in Tsavo, part of British East Africa (now Kenya), more than a century ago, killing and eating dozens of workers.

Patterson, who eventually shot the Tsavo man-eaters in December 1898, estimated they had killed and eaten 135 people.

Known as the Lunatic Express, the British empire’s railway from Uganda to the Indian Ocean took 30 years to build and claimed 2,500 lives, among them the mostly Indian labourers who were eaten by the lions. They called the maneless males The Ghost and The Darkness, believing them to be evil spirits.

The man-eating behaviour was considered highly unusual for lions. Why they took to hunting humans has been a matter of scientific debate for decades but the matter has now apparently been solved, while at the same time putting part of Patterson’s account in doubt.

According to scientist Bruce Patterson (no descendant of the British officer from Longford), the lions were unlikely to have been able to crunch any kind of bones — human or otherwise — because they had rotten teeth. He also estimated that the number of humans they ate was not 135 but 35.

Patterson, curator of mammals at the Field Museum in Chicago, which holds the lions’ stuffed remains, says their diminished capacity to chew tough hides of their usual prey of zebra and wildebeest may have led to them hunting humans.

The skull of one of the Tsavo man-eaters shows evidence of dental disease. Picture: Bruce Patterson and JP Brown, The Field Museum
The skull of one of the Tsavo man-eaters shows evidence of dental disease. Picture: Bruce Patterson and JP Brown, The Field Museum

In an analysis published in Scientific Report, he cites evidence of dental disease in the man-eating lions. “One lion (the first Tsavo man-eater), with a broken canine, developed a periapical abscess and lost three lower right incisors. The pronounced toothwear and extensive cranial remodelling suggests that the lion had broken his canine several years earlier,” writes Patterson.

“The second Tsavo man-eater had minor injuries including a fractured upper left carnassial and subsequent pulp exposure, although these types of injuries are fairly common and were unaccompanied by disease.”

His conclusion that the lions became man-eaters because of bad teeth is not universally shared, however.

Larisa DeSantis, a palaeontologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, believes the lions were simply being opportunistic, targeting humans because they were in plentiful supply, easy to catch, and had soft flesh.

She thinks the bone-crunching sound that Patterson noted was, in fact, the work of hyenas.

Patterson, who led the construction of the railway bridge over the Tsavo river, was determined to hunt down and kill the lions as many workers had begun to flee the area, putting the railway project — and his own career — in jeopardy.

An experienced tiger hunter from his military service in India, it still took him several months and four rifles to bag his prey. After many attempts and near misses, he killed the first lion on the night of December 9, 1898, and the second one on the morning of December 29, narrowly escaping death when the wounded animal charged.

His book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907), inspired three Hollywood films: Bwana Devil (1952), Killers of Kilimanjaro (1959), and, more recently, The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) in which he was portrayed by Val Kilmer.

Lt Col John Henry Patterson
Lt Col John Henry Patterson

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