Slaughter in the dark

Author: By Matthew Sweet

Two animal killers, stalking their human quarry through the heat of an African night. The construction workers picked off, one by one, as they sleep in their canvas tents. The rumours, hugger-muggered around campfires, concerning evil spirits determined to revenge themselves on unwelcome colonists. The steely British colonel who shoulders his trusty 12-bore and tracks the monsters to their lair. His horrific discovery: a subterranean charnel house into which these creatures drag the mutilated bodies of their prey. The sinister reversal of the natural order: “The hunter became the hunted; and instead of either making off or coming for the bait prepared for him, the lion began stealthily to stalk me!” The story of the Tsavo man-eaters has an embarrassment of primal horrors. And some of it is even true.

For over a century, investigators have been attempting to establish what happened on the banks of the Tsavo River in 1898. Did two of the region’s uniquely maneless lions really enjoy a nine-month reign of terror, in which 140 railway employees were snatched from their mattresses and devoured? If so, why did these creatures develop such an insatiable appetite for human flesh? And did Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson really stumble on a cave in which the creatures piled their victims’ carcasses? Where does verifiable fact end and hyperbole begin?

One thing is true: the narrative has a pulling power as muscular as any man-eating lion. “If the whole body of lion anecdote,” observed The Spectator in 1900, “from the days of the Assyrian Kings till the last year of the 19th century, were collated and brought together, it would not equal in tragedy or atrocity, in savageness or in sheer insolent contempt for man, armed or unarmed, white or black, the story of these two beasts.”

The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907), Patterson’s memoir, offers the most dramatic account: the book is a dark riot of leonine bone-crunching; the archetypal colonial tale of the lone white hunter subduing the monsters of the Dark Continent. President Roosevelt hailed it, rather extravagantly, as “the most remarkable account of which we have any record”, and the title proved seductive enough with readers to keep the Colonel employed on the lecture circuit for decades. Eventually, in 1924, he was persuaded by the Field Museum of Chicago to take £5,000 for the beasts’ remains, cut unscientifically down into decorative rugs. They remain the museum’s most gawped-at exhibits.

The Tsavo lions soon migrated into other media. In 1952, United Artists filmed their story as Bwana Devil, the first 3-D studio feature film ever made (tagline: “a lion in you lap ? a lover in your arms”), pitting Nigel Bruce and Robert Stack against a menagerie of stereoscopic carnivores. In 1985, the veteran screenwriter William Goldman heard the tale at a camp in the Masai Mara: his script was eventually shot in 1996, as The Ghost and the Darkness. The four-legged star, an inappropriately-maned zoo inmate named Bongo, died three months ago, of lung cancer.

For the past five years, a team of scientists from Chicago’s Field Museum has been scuttering around the Tsavo region, digging for the bones of the man-eaters’ victims, and monitoring the lion population that still occupies the territory. Their most senior member, Dr Bruce Patterson (no relation to the Colonel), will publish an account of this research later this year ? The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa’s Notorious Man-Eaters ? attempting to put the events of 1898 into a broader ecosystemic context. “We’ve been trying to use forensics and scientific method to illuminate the dark parts of the narrative,” he explains.

In June, the National Geographic will supply a more full-blooded chronicle of the same story, with its release of Philip Caputo’s book, Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa. Caputo, a Vietnam combatant and former foreign correspondent with two Pulitzer prizes to his name, developed the book from a magazine article he wrote in 2000, describing his own hunt for the beasts in the company of photographer Rob Howard: “The lion made a noise like a man clearing his throat, only a good deal louder, and lunged across half the distance between us and him, swatting the air with one paw…”

But let’s track the legend back to its beginnings. In March 1898, the British Ugandan Railway Co embarked on a huge engineering project: to strike a railway line west from Mombassa, on the coast of Kenya, to the shores of Lake Victoria. Some 32,000 workers were imported from India to bed the track and bridge the Tsavo river. The scheme drew criticism in London, where it was dubbed the “lunatic line” by those who believed it would connect “nowhere with utterly nowhere”.

Colonel Patterson, a civil engineer, was despatched to Kenya to oversee construction of the railway. Almost immediately, his labourers began to vanish. When the first disappearances occurred, Patterson was sceptical about reports that lions had devoured the missing men, preferring to believe that their colleagues had murdered them for their savings. He was forced to revise these opinions when, about three weeks after his arrival, he was woken with the news that one of his lieutenants, Jemadar Ungan Singh, had been dragged from his tent in the night. A witness related how a lion had thrust its head in at the open door, and seized Singh by the throat, and hauled him, struggling, out of the compound. Patterson followed the trail of gore into the wilderness, until he discovered the shredded leftovers of his comrade: “the unfortunate jemadar’s head had been left intact, save for the holes made by the lion’s tusks on seizing him, and lay a short distance away from the other remains, the eyes staring wide open with a startled, horrified look in them. It was the most gruesome sight I had ever seen.”

Work encampments were corralled with thorn barriers, but failed to prevent the man-eaters from gaining access to their prey: the animals simply pushed holes through these defences and dragged their victims through, adding to their mutilation. Patterson made dozens of vain attempts to capture and kill their persecutors, but all met with failure. On 1 December, most of the railway workers fled back to Mombassa, refusing to return until the authorities had dealt with the creatures. Construction ground to a halt.

Once this crisis-point had arrived, Patterson’s strategies became more successful. He began a nocturnal vigil on a makeshift scaffold, below which was secured some suitably bloody bait, and on 9 December, he bagged his first man-eating lion. “I kept blazing away in the direction in which I heard him plunging about,” he recalled. “At length came a series of mighty groans, gradually subsiding into deep sighs, and finally ceasing altogether; and I felt convinced that one of the ‘devils’ who had so long harried us would trouble us no more.” Only a few weeks later, Patterson succeeded in tracking down and destroying a second man-eater. Both beasts measured more than nine feet from tip to tail.

Back home in England, the Colonel’s exploits were applauded by a press who were satisfied that the proper natural order had been restored: “When the jungle twinkled with hundreds of lamps,” gushes one account, “as the shout went on from camp to camp that the first lion was dead, as the hurrying crowds fell prostrate in the midnight forest, laying their heads on his feet, and the Africans danced savage and ceremonial dances of thanksgiving, Mr Patterson must have realised in no common way what it was to have been a hero and deliverer in the days when man was not yet undisputed lord of the creation, and might pass at any moment under the savage dominion of the beasts.”

Such certitude now seems quaintly comic. But that, perhaps, wasn’t inappropriate: Patterson’s public seems to have devoured his story as a whoop-de-do adventure with a touch of colonial camp. There was even a measure of this kind of humour in Lord Salisbury’s statement on the Tsavo events to the House of Lords: “A party of man-eating lions,” he announced, “appeared in the locality and conceived a most unfortunate taste for our porters. Of course, it is difficult to work a railway under these conditions, and until we found an enthusiastic sportsman to get rid of these lions, our enterprise was seriously hindered.” Patterson himself can’t resist including “amusing incidents” in his book: the tale of a trader who escapes death when an attacking lion gets its paws entangled in a rope slung across his donkey’s back; a yarn about a Greek contractor who has his mattress yanked out from under his sleeping body by a short-sighted man-eater; the one about a gang of workers who are overcome with panic when one of the beasts bursts into their tent, but only succeeds in swiping a bag of rice.

One final revelation captured the imaginations of Patterson’s admirers. Exploring a rocky area to the south-west of Tsavo, the Colonel chanced upon “a fearsome-looking cave which seemed to run back for a considerable distance under the rocky bank”. At the cavern entrance, he made a shocking discovery: a thick scattering of human bones, and several copper bangles of the kind worn by the local inhabitants. “In this manner,” he wrote, “and quite by accident, I stumbled upon the lair of these once-dreaded ‘demons’, which I had spent so many days searching for through the exasperating and interminable jungle during the time when they terrorised Tsavo.” He fired a couple of shots into the gloomy interior, and a swarm of bats issued forth. “I gladly left the horrible spot, thankful that the savage and insatiable brutes which once inhabited it were no longer at large.”

A century or so later, how should we read Patterson’s narrative? And how might the behaviour of the Tsavo lions be interpreted? Bruce Patterson argues that these events can only be examined in the context of larger environmental and historical circumstances. In the 1890s, an epidemic of rinderpest severely depleted the area’s population of zebra and gazelle, the natural prey of the lions. The year’s drought may also have affected their behaviour: in times of water shortage, Tsavo lions rarely stray from the vicinity of the nearest river. Examination of the teeth of Colonel Patterson’s specimens has also revealed that these lions were suffering from serious and chronic dental conditions: blinding toothache may have driven them to subsist on the agreeably soft-shelled humans making new incursions into their territory.

Sloppy burial practices among the mainly Hindu railway workers could also have contributed to the carnage. “Instead of carrying out a cremation,” explains Bruce Patterson, “they simply placed a symbolic live coal in the mouths of the dead, and the bodies were left lying about for any scavenger to prey upon. It might have whetted an appetite or two among the local carnivores.” Or, indeed, led witnesses to assume that human bodies disturbed by any predator were victims of a lion attack.

“When you have fundamentally smart mammalian carnivores,” asserts Dr Patterson, “that discover that people are not very good at hearing and don’t see very well, don’t have thick skins and can’t run very fast, they discover an available, accessible, poorly defended resource of which they may be emboldened to avail themselves. As a result, that kind of behaviour can easily become entrained. If you don’t nip this thing in the bud, you can have an epidemic on your hands.” Given the right circumstances, any lion population might begin to exhibit this kind of behaviour: despite their odd, sleeky manelessness, there is nothing especially malevolent about the Tsavo variety of lion.

Other aspects of the story, it seems, should be treated more sceptically. Colonel Patterson’s claim to have discovered the abandoned den of the man-eaters is refuted by the researchers at the Field Museum. Despite the familiarity of the expression, lions do not use dens. When you’re at the top of the food chain, there’s no need to hoick your kill back to some dank haven. Dr Chapurukha Kusimba, one of Bruce Patterson’s colleagues, has excavated the cave described in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, and hypothesised that what the Colonel discovered was man-made instead: a burial site or a shrine.

Colonel Patterson’s claims about “the man-eaters’ habit of licking the skin off so as to get at the fresh blood” is not, however, discounted by the Field’s mammalogists. A lion’s tongue, the Colonel’s modern namesake concedes, is certainly rough enough to remove skin from a human carcass. Bruce Patterson’s own interactions with the Tsavo lions have been informed by this knowledge: “I have a very healthy respect for them. I enjoy making my observations from within a 4,000lb Land Rover. It helps to be safely ensconced in steel when you’re studying creatures with a predilection for human flesh.”

As humans and lions attempt to occupy the same territory, such attacks are becoming increasingly common across Africa. In 1998, gamekeepers at the Kruger National Park, South Africa, noticed that a number of lions had begun to supplement their diet with Mozambican refugees attempting to cross the border through the reserve. Rangers culled seven of the beasts, and according to the Johannesburg press, a wallet was recovered from the gullet of one. In 1999, a British tourist was mauled to death and partially eaten when lions attacked the tent he pitched on the banks of Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe. His companions attempted to chase the lions away. The safari guide, Bradley Fouche, told the coroner a tale for which Colonel Patterson had already established the appropriate language: “I heard a long yell, but I didn’t know if it was animal or human. The yell was long and loud and was suddenly cut off, [and was] followed by prolonged sound of growling of animals. I lit flares which detonated to make a loud noise. In the light of the flare I could see David was surrounded and covered by approximately 12 lions.” The lioness apparently responsible for the attack was discovered to be suffering from a broken leg, which would have prevented her from landing her customary prey.

Such testimony drains the Tsavo story of its atmosphere of Boys’ Own campness. But the coexistence of these two elements, and the tremendous violence and rambunctious adventure has been legible in most lion tales since Tsavo ­ from Johnny Weissmuller’s tussles with leonine stock footage in the jungles of MGM, to the fate of the defrocked Rector of Stiffkey, mauled to death during his lion act on a Skegness stage, the auditorium filled with nervous laughter.

The work that Bruce Patterson and his colleagues are conducting in the Tsavo is dependent on and an attempt to transform the mythology of the man-eater. Without the Colonel’s taxidermal sideshow, the Field Museum would never have gained the specimens with which this work was inaugurated. Without the ballyhoo surrounding The Ghost and the Darkness, the Tsavo National Park would not receive the visitors it relies on for its livelihood. At the same time, the Field group’s plan to electronically tag the lions was thwarted by the Park authorities, who rightly suspected that lions wearing plastic collars wouldn’t offer the frisson of danger that tourists ­ and journalistic observers such as Philip Caputo ­ adore.

Caputo’s preliminary article for National Geographic Adventure, Patterson reflects, “didn’t exactly put out the fires of misconception surrounding the Tsavo lions and their circumstances”. These creatures are not, he insists, “bigger, badder and meaner lions than any other lions in Africa”. Ironically, however, as the lions’ territory becomes increasingly compromised by human incursion, this terrifying reputation may ensure the continued existence of their kind. Colonel Patterson may have preserved more than the skins of the Tsavo man-eaters. In encouraging the world to consume their gruesome history, he may have saved them from being swallowed up as comprehensively as Jemadar Ungan Singh.

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