Growing up in a Chicago suburb, I was lucky enough to have access to a whole host of great museums. Chicago’s Field Museum is still one of my favorites. It has a great collection of art history from cultures around the world, natural history exhibits ranging from local wildlife to the biggest T-Rex skeleton in the world (which has its own Twitter account, by the way)—but to my young eyes, the T-Rex was not the scariest thing in the museum.
It was the infamous pair of lions in the basement: the Tsavo man-eaters.
Take a look at those guys up there. Aww. Maybe I’m just a crazy cat lover, but I think they look pretty cute. Let me tell you, though—in person, these guys are big and they are intimidating, even post-taxidermy. Stand within arm’s reach and it’s not hard to imagine them going for a big chomp out of you.
So what did they do to wind up in a museum?
The story goes like this:
Back in 1898, a railroad construction project in Kenya came to a standstill. A pair of lions were hunting, killing, and eating the workers responsible for the project. No one wanted to take that kind of risk for a paycheck. Eventually the man in charge shot both lions to death so that work could resume, but he claimed that the lions had eaten 135 people by then.
That’s a hell of a lot of people for two lions.
Come on, humanity, I know we’re squishy, but that’s a pretty bad track record. If those claims are accurate, it would take just 1.5% of a lion to kill you. A lion’s toenail could kill you.
Now that you’re all properly instilled with primal fear, take a step back. Those claims are almost certainly not accurate, but there are still a couple of unusual things about this pair of big cats.
Aside from their (wildly inflated) record of eating human flesh, I mean.
First off, anyone who’s seen The Lion King could tell you that’s not Mufasa up there, it’s Serabi. Unless Timon and Pumba opened up a barber shop, that’s Nala, not Simba.
In other words, they don’t have manes. They’ve gotta be lady lions.
These fellas are native to Tsavo, a part of Kenya that is much hotter than the Serengeti (home to the thick-maned lions we’re used to seeing). Water is scarce, so male lions can’t afford to spend all their energy sweltering under a stylish up-do.
Tsavo lions are also unlike their Serengeti cousins in that male lions refuse to share power. Typical lion prides have a handful of males and a bunch of female huntresses, but in Tsavo there is only one male lion per pride and he hunts with the lionesses.
So, uh, two lion bros meeting up for a night out on the savanna—maybe grab a bite of human or two, you know, the usual?
Yeah, that’s not usual. At all.
Where are their prides? Why is there evidence that they actually cooperated to hunt down human prey? And why am I suddenly tempted to write man-eating lion slash fiction?
Uhhh. I mean….
Let’s stick to the facts.
There were many reports of lions attacking and eating humans in Tsavo. But the reported 135 kill count? Could that be accurate?
A century later, science may have our answer. Chemical analysis of the two lions in question suggests that they only ate around 34 humans. Now, there’s some room for debate—the victims’ diets could skew the results, and it’s possible that these lions killed a lot more people than they managed to eat—but let’s put this in perspective.
Thirty people is still a lot for two lions.
So why were these lions hunting humans at all? Is that even so unusual?
We don’t think of most lions as man-eaters. We’re scared of them, sure—I mean, you wouldn’t want to piss off a lion. But when it comes to food, we’re not usually worth the effort. Lions scavenge as much food as possible, and the kills they make themselves tend to be wild hogs, wildebeest, and other similar animals.
It starts with the scavenging.
Historically, the region of Kenya along the Tsavo River was a common route for the slave trade. Sickness carried by the tsetse fly was also common. People who died along the way made an easy food source for lions, which could have given Tsavo lions a taste for humans.
But there’s a more acute reason that lions were out for humans at the end of the nineteenth century:
Okay, okay, these aren’t anti-colonialist revolutionary lions or anything. Let me elaborate.
During the 1890s, an outbreak of rinderpest virus wiped out up to 90% of the cattle population in southern Africa. The virus likely arrived with Indian cattle that Europeans brought to Africa.
Cattle is one of the lions’ major food sources.
You’d think that would be enough, but I’m not done.
Around that time, the lions’ habitat was undergoing changes. Forests were spreading into territory that used to be plains—lion territory. Part of what kept the forest from encroaching on the plains was elephant activity. The elephant population had been reduced.
You know who kills elephants?
Not lions. Ivory traders.
So you might think there’s a little poetic justice in the fact that man-eating lions stopped an imperial railroad project when the lions had been driven to eating humans by those same imperialists.
Until you remember that it wasn’t British imperialists doing all the hard work and getting eaten by lions. The railroad workers were mainly from India.
So this scenario pretty much just sucked all around.
What’s really the takeaway here? These lions were monstrous, certainly—even falling far short of the sensational 135 kill count, lions that feast on human flesh are horrifying.
But they ate humans because they were desperate—forced to hunt us because we took all their other options away. Beyond lions, the real monster here is colonialism. It’s a reckless disregard for the locals—both human culture and animal ecology.
If you mess with nature, it’ll bite back.
Prompt: Come up with a monster that’s forced to terrorize because of circumstances outside of its control, but is no less terrifying for it.