The Bald Maneaters of Tsavo

A harrowing primer for a visit to Tsavo is Hollywood's 1996 nail-biter The Ghost and the Darkness (starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer). The period thriller is loosely based on the book The Maneaters of Tsavo, a firsthand, true-life account by Lt. Colonel John Patterson, who killed an infamous pair of lions who ate almost 140 railway workers during the construction of a railway bridge here in 1898. The Nairobi-Mombasa railway, which divides Tsavo East and West, became known as the Lunatic Line, so grueling and dangerous was the construction process, which reached its mad apotheosis when the British reached the Tsavo River and over a 9-month period lost epic numbers of Indian workers to two large male lions. Despite all efforts, using campfires and thorn fences, nothing seemed to stop the lions' seemingly relentless hunt for human flesh. Building came to a halt when hundreds of terrified workers fled the scene.

Patterson, the project's chief engineer, became responsible for getting rid of the lions, which he shot and killed within 3 weeks of one another. We will never know for sure why the Tsavo lions became man-eaters, but two factors may have contributed to their unusual diet. In the 1890s, a rinderpest outbreak killed millions of zebras, gazelles, and other African wildlife, forcing predators to look elsewhere for food. Attacks by lions on humans increased across the continent. In Tsavo, it may have been poor burial practices that also contributed to the tragedy. Railroad workers who died of injury or disease were often poorly buried, if at all. Scavenging lions finding such easy meat may reasonably have developed a taste for human flesh and started going after living specimens.

After completing the railroad, Patterson became chief game warden in Kenya and later served with the British Army in World War I. He published four books and lectured widely on his adventure. After speaking at The Field Museum in Chicago in 1924, Patterson sold the museum the lion skins and skulls for the princely sum of $5,000. The two lions were stuffed and are now one of the museum's most popular displays.

Anyone seeing the stuffed lions is likely to note that although both of them are male, neither has much of a mane -- and you'll note the same thing among lions living in Tsavo today. Lion manes vary considerably from place to place in terms of color and thickness; Tsavo lions, however, are typically maneless, a novel trait that is believed to be a defining familial characteristic among the lions of this region. These animals represent the world's only well-documented population of maneless lions -- some have suggested that the Tsavo lions are a distinct species, but this is unsubstantiated. Scientists believe that lions evolved manes for a range of reasons; they attract females, may deter and intimidate nomadic, trespassing males, give a visual sign of a territorial male's control, and protect the vital head and neck regions during fights. Manes serve similar functions as antlers in deer. Recent research indicates that Tsavo's maneless lions have evolved over many generations, perhaps because of the difficulty posed to a mane in the hot, dry Tsavo landscape -- having a mane here would be like continually wearing winter clothes in summer. A mane would also make it more difficult to negotiate the thorns and bramble of Tsavo's thick undergrowth. Another theory links manelessness to elevated testosterone levels. Testosterone causes balding among genetically predisposed humans and is thought to have a similar effect on lions. Testosterone is also known to raise levels of aggression among male lions and is found in higher levels among territorial males than in nonterritorial males. Tsavo lions are extremely territorial and enjoy a unique social system -- in fact, they are the only lions known to live in large groups of females dominated by a single male. Typical lion prides elsewhere are ruled by a coalition of two to four males.

If you saw the movie, though, you'd be forgiven for wondering if the producers set the action in the wrong place entirely. Since manes are so inextricably associated with male lions, filmmakers used maned animals to represent the two man-eaters on screen. Fortunately, though, such heightened testosterone levels have yet to trigger a repeat of the violent killing spree witnessed here 110 years ago.

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