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The Man-Eating Lions Of Tsavo

November 3, 2009

Scientists now believe that the two infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo, which allegedly claimed 135 victims during railroad construction in Kenya in 1898, may have only killed around 35 people. 

Lt. Col. John H. Patterson, a British officer who killed the lions in December, 1898, claimed the lions killed 135 people in nightly attacks and halted work on the 1898 railway expansion.

The Ugandan Railway Company argued that only 28 people were killed, but the detailed description of Patterson’s nine month lion hunt made his account more believable.

After an analysis of bone and hair samples from the lions, which Patterson sold to Chicago’s Field Museum in 1924 after using their hides as rugs, researchers discovered that the railway company’s account was more accurate.

“This has been a historical puzzle for years, and the discrepancy is now finally being addressed,” said Nathaniel Dominy, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Isotopes were analyzed to determine the number of people actually factored in to the diets of the lions so that researchers could tell approximately how many humans the lions would have to eat in order to survive. Based on the data, the researchers found that one lion probably consumed 11 people, and the other lion likely ate 24 more people in their last nine months.

According to Dominy,  the analysis suggests an “outside chance” that, at most, a total of 75 people were killed. He also noted that there may have been others killed, yet not eaten. Dominy believes that Patterson’s claim that 135 people had been killed by the lions was more than likely blown out of proportion to help elevate his reputation.

The study goes on to say that during the last months, which Patterson described as a “reign of terror”, about half of one lion’s diet was made up of humans, with the rest consisting of mid-sized herbivores such as impala and gazelles. The other lion’s diet was more dependent on grazing animals

One of the lions had even sustained significant dental and a jaw injuries that made hunting difficult.

The lions were probably attracted to the railroad camp for food after drought and disease wiped out their usual prey, says Dominy.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image Caption: The Tsavo Man-Eaters on display in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. Courtesy Jeffrey Jung (Wikipedia)

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