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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

man eaters of Tsavo ...trouble at lunatic express line !!

Sitting inside a glass diorama at Chicago's Field Museum sit the stuffed bodies of two rather odd-looking lions. Although both males, they lack manes. Their faces seem too thin, their pelts look overly smooth for a large cat. One of them lies in repose, while the other stands ever-so-slightly at alert.  I have recently posted about the Mombasa Rail line project connecting Mombasa with Nairobi – the century old British line, being funded now by China.  Any reference to the railway would be incomplete without reference to ‘Tsavo Man-Eaters,  the most notorious lions in history who terrorised the British-led team of railway-bridge builders at Kenya's  Tsavo river in 1898. Over a nine-month reign of terror, the two maneless male lions would sneak into the labourers' camp in the dead of night and snatch men from their tents, devouring them on site.

There is fear of lions facing extinction – fewer than 250 adults may be left in West Africa, and those big cats are confined to less than 1 percent of their historic range.  The new study, detailed in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests that without dramatic conservation efforts, three of the four West African lion populations could become extinct in the next five years, with further declines in the one remaining population.  The majestic lion once roamed throughout West Africa, from Nigeria to Senegal. But as people have converted wild lands to pastureland, hunted the lion's traditional prey — antelopes, gazelles, wildebeest, buffalos and zebras — and gotten into conflicts with the animals, the big cat population has plummeted in West Africa.

Man-eater is a colloquial term for an animal that preys upon humans. This does not include scavenging. Although human beings can be attacked by many kinds of animals, man-eaters are those that have incorporated human flesh into their usual diet. Most reported cases of man-eaters have involved tigers, leopards,  lions and crocodilians. However, they are by no means the only predators that will attack humans if given the chance; a wide variety of species have also been known to take humans as prey.

Tsavo is a region of Kenya located at the crossing of the Uganda Railway over the Tsavo River, close to where it meets the Athi River. ‘Tsavo', means ‘slaughter' in the language of the Akamba people. Until the British put an end to the slave trade in the late 19th century, Tsavo was continually crossed by caravans of Arab slavers and their captives.

More than a century ago, British engineers and their African and Indian labourers spent five years carving a railway through what would become Kenya in a bid to open up East Africa's interior. Along the way, close to 2,500 workers died, struck down by malaria, attacked by lions or overcome by exhaustion. Winston Churchill, who later shot zebras from the train, called it “one of the finest expositions of the British art of muddling through”.  By the time the 660-mile track reached the shores of Lake Victoria from Mombasa in 1901, the massively over-budget endeavour had been nicknamed “the lunatic express”.

The Tsavo Man-Eaters – two maneless male lions,  are the most notorious lions in history who  over  a nine-month reign of terror, killed so many men devouring them from their sites.  Terrified workers built snares, thorn fences and bonfires to scare them off but the beasts simply crawled under or leapt over them to reach their prey. The number of victims varies wildly between accounts.

Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who oversaw the project and ultimately killed the beasts, claimed they had slain 135 men, though that number is generally accepted to be a generous exaggeration.  Current estimates remain somewhere between 30 and 70 dead. Patterson first shot one on 9th Dec 1898 – that animal measured 3m, from head to tail. The 2nd too was killed days later.  The tale has since been made into three films, most recently the 1996 movie The Ghost of Darkness, starring Val Kilmer, as Patterson, and Michael Douglas. After 25 years as Patterson's floor rugs, the lions' skins were eventually sold to the Chicago Field Museum in 1924 for $5,000 where they were stuffed and put on display.

The rather sedate display doesn't quite convey the history of these two animals. They are the infamous Tsavo man-eaters.  The story of the Tsavo lions begins in March 1898, when a team of Indian workers led by British Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson arrived in Kenya to build a bridge over the Tsavo River, as part of the Kenya-Uganda Railway project. The project, it seems, was doomed from the start.  During the next nine months of construction, two maneless male Tsavo lions stalked the campsite, dragging Indian workers from their tents at night and devouring them.

Patterson writes in his account that he wounded the first lion with one bullet from a Martini-Enfield chambered in .303 calibre. The two lion specimens in Chicago's Field Museum are known as FMNH 23970 and FMNH 23969.  Recent studies have been made upon the isotopic signature analysis of Δ13C and Nitrogen-15 in their bone collagen and hair keratin and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. Using realistic assumptions on the consumable tissue per victim, lion energetic needs, and their assimilation efficiencies, researchers compared the man—eaters and have come to the conclusion that the lower number of 35 victims is more likely and confirms the study published 8 years previously by Julian Kerbis Peterhans and Thomas Patrick Gnoske (2001) who estimated 28–31 victims. The results showed that the diet of Tsavo’s modern lions consists almost entirely of grazing animals such as zebra, waterbuck and buffalo. The man-eaters were different.   According to researchers, the lion that killed the most people had severe injuries ~not exactly a King among beasts.

The Tsavo killings took place against a backdrop of intense environmental changes. Elephant populations had plummeted and as a result, woodlands were expanding and the savannah’s grazers were being driven away.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
16th Apr 2015

Inputs taken from BBC; Daily Mail & Discovermagazine.com; National geographic.


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