The Man-Eaters of Tsavo : The Lions That Stopped A Railway – Part 1

This is probably the most remarkable lion story on record.

Colonel Patterson describes how two man-eating lions established a veritable reign of terror at the railhead construction camps of the Uganda Railway.

For three weeks the savage beasts kept several thousand men in a state of helpless panic, entirely stopping the progress of the railway. Men were dragged out of their tents and eaten almost nightly, and no one’s life seemed safe.

Countless traps were laid for the lions; they were fired at again and again, a Government reward was offered for their destruction, yet they escaped unharmed
At last, however, after numberless attempts, Colonel Patterson was fortunate enough to kill both the man-eaters, and with their death work on the railway was resumed. The interest of the narrative is heightened by a number of photographs.



THE COMING OF THE MAN-EATERS. In 1897 I received an appointment on the construction staff of the Uganda Railway, then being built. When I landed at Mombasa the rails had been laid for over 100 miles inland. There was a lot of work to be done in this neighborhood, and this I was deputed to take charge of, with Tsavo as my head-quarters.
Tsavo is a wayside station on the Uganda Railway, in British East Africa, distant about 13o miles from Mombasa. The country around is densely covered with dwarfish trees, undergrowth, and ” wait-a-bit ” thorns. In a jungle like this a wild animal has every chance against the hunter, for, however careful one may be, .something is certain to crackle
or snap and give the alarm. It is necessary to bear this fact in mind, as it has an important bearing on my story.


My first experience of the Tsavo man-eaters occurred about the middle of March, 1898. Rail head had just reached Tsavo when one or two of the coolies mysteriously disappeared. At first I thought that they had been the victims of foul play, but that idea was soon dispelled. I was roused about daylight one morning, March 25th, and told that a jemidar, named Ungan Singh, a fine, powerful Sikh, had been carried off during the night by a lion while he lay asleep in a tent shared by some dozen other workmen !

I immediately went and examined the place. It was clear enough that a lion had carried off the man, as the “pug” marks were plainly visible in the sand. The furrows made by the unfortunate victim’s heels marked the direction in which the brute had dragged him off.
One of the jemidar’s bedfellows had seen the whole occurrence. At midnight the lion put his head in at the open tent door, and-, as Ungan Singh was nearest, seized him by the throat. The unfortunate fellow cried out “Chora!” (“Let go ! “) and threw his arms up round the lion’s neck.

The next moment he was gone, and his terror-stricken companions described the terrible struggle they heard outside. Poor Ungan Singh must have died hard, but what chance had he? As a coolie gravely remarked, ” Was he not fighting with a lion ?”

That night I sat up in a tree near the late jemidar’s tent, hoping that the lion would return for another victim. I was followed to my perch by a few of the terrified coolies, who begged to be allowed to sit up in the tree with me. All the other workmen remained in their closed tents—no more doors were left open.

I had with me my .303 and a 12-bore shotgun, one barrel loaded with hall and the other with slugs. I had great hopes of bagging the brute, for soon after settling down I heard the ominous roaring of lions coming closer and closer.. It was evident that we had to reckon with more than one. The noise presently ceased alto¬gether, and quiet reigned for a couple of hours, as lions always stalk in absolute silence. Suddenly, however there was an uproar and fearful
shrieks came from a camp about half a mile away.

We then knew that the lions had attacked there, and that we should see nothing of them for that night.

Next morning I found that a man had been taken from the Railhead Camp, where we had heard the commotion. The camps at this time were very scattered, and the lions—we soon found there were two of them – had a range of some eight miles on either side of Tsavo.


Their tactics seemed to be to attack a different camp every night; hence it was very difficult to get at them. Hunting them by day in such a dense jungle as surrounded us was a very tiring and almost foolhardy undertaking. Often, at immense pains, I tracked them to the river after they had eaten a man, but could get. no trace of them afterwards. The brutes were not always successful in obtaining a meal at this time, and some amusing incidents marked their attempts to get hold of a man.

For instance, one charged an enterprising bunyah (Indian trader) as he rode along late one night on his donkey. The brute knocked both man and beast over, and gave the donkey a nasty wound. In some way or other, however, he got his claws entangled in a rope by which two empty oil tins were slung across the donkey’s neck, and the clatter these made as he dragged them after him gave him such a fright that he bolted into the jungle—to the intense relief of the paralyzed bunyah, who spent the rest of the night up a tree shivering with fear.

On another occasion one of the lions jumped on to a tent belonging to a Greek contractor, and carried off the mattress on which the man was sleeping. It was a rude awakening, but the Greek was quite unhurt,and he also spent the rest of night up a tall tree..

A similar thing happened to some coolies. The lion jumped on a tent and landed with one claw- on a man’s shoulder, hurting him rather badly. But instead of seizing the man he grabbed, in his hurry, a small hag of rice, which he made off with, dropping it in disgust some distance away.
But these were their earlier efforts. Later on nothing flurried or frightened them, and except as prey they showed an absolute contempt for man.

Having once marked their victim, nothing deterred them from securing him, whether he were inside a tent or sitting round a bright fire. Shots, shouting, and firebrands they alike laughed at. Finding man easy to catch and kill, and excellent eating, they developed the taste until finally they would touch nothing else if human flesh could possibly be got.

Towards the end of their career they stopped at nothing, and braved every danger in . order to get their favourite food. Their methods were so uncanny and their man – stalking so certain and well – timed that our every effort seemed futile, and it was quite evident that the brutes made a close and intelligent study of the habits of each camp before they attacked it.
Soon after my first experience with the man-eaters I joined Dr. Brock, the railway medical officer, who lived about a mile away, and close to the main camp of my workmen. We shared, a but constructed of palm-leaves and boughs, and surrounded by a boma (thorn fence) which was circular in shape and had a diameter of about seventy yards.



It was fairly well made, being thick and high. Our personal servants lived inside the enclosure, and a good fire was kept up all night long. For the sake of coolness Brock and I used to sit under the veranda of the hut. After the advent of the lions it was rather trying to one’s nerves to sit reading or writing there after dark, as we never knew but that a lion might spring over the boma at any moment and be on us before we were

We kept our rifles, therefore, within easy reach, and many an anxious glance was cast out into the circle of blackness beyond the firelight. On one or two occasions the lions came near and tried to get in at us, but they never succeeded in doing so.
The coolie camp was also- surrounded by a boma, and fires were kept burning all night. It was the duty of the camp watchmen to clatter half-a-dozen empty kerosene tins, which were suspended from a convenient tree, and this frightful din was kept up all night long in the hope that the noise would terrify the animals away. In spite of all these precautions, however, the lions would not be denied, and a man disappeared regularly every second or third night, the reports of the disappearance of this and that workman coming to me with painful frequency.
So long as Railhead Camp, with its three or four thousand men, scattered over a wide area, remained, at Tsavo, not so much notice was taken by the coolies of the dreadful deaths of their comrades, but when this large camp was moved ahead matters altered. I was left behind with a few hundred men to build bridges,’ a station, etc., and, the men being all camped close together, the lions naturally devoted their attention more particularly to us.
A regular reign of terror now commenced in our little camp. I accordingly made the men construct a very, thick and high boma round each camp, and side this they were fairly secure. The lions then attacked the Railhead Hospital Camp; which had been left behind at Tsavo, and which stood in rather a lonely position.

They jumped the boma and almost succeeded in seizing the hospital assistant, who had a marvellous escape. Being disappointed in this, one of them sprang on to and broke down a tent in which there were a dozen patients, and made off with a poor wretch, dragging him bodily through the thorn hedge. A couple of others were wounded by the lion as he jumped on them. The brutes seemed to find the invalids an easy prey, as they made several raids on the hospital.

A fresh site was accordingly prepared for the hospital near the coolie camp, and all the patients were removed. I sat up all night in the vacated boma, having been told that lions always visited deserted camps.


They did not come, however, and as I kept my lonely vigil in the empty hospital I had the mortification of hearing shrieks and cries coming from the direction of the new hospital, telling me only too plainly that our dreaded foes had eluded me again.

I found next morning that one of the lions had jumped into the boma and taken off the hospital Lhisti (water-carrier). Several men were witnesses of the whole terrible occurrence, which they could plainly see by the light of the big camp fire. The Lhisti, it appeared, was lying on the floor of his tent with his head towards the middle and his feet touching the side. The lion put hips head under the canvas, seized him by the foot, and dragged him out. The poor fellow in desperation clutched at a box, which he dragged with him until it was stopped by the tent and he was forced to let it go. He then caught a tent rope, which he held tightly until it broke. As soon as the lion got him clear he sprang at the man’s throat, and the poor water-carrier’s cries were silenced for ever.

The lion, not being able to leap the fence, ran up and down with his Lifeless burden in his mouth, looking for a weak place to force his way through. This he presently found and plunged into, dragging his victim with him, leaving shreds of torn cloth on the thorns as evidences of his passage.
Dr. Brock moved the hospital again, and a particularly strong boma was built round it. A railway siding ran close by the old hospital, so I had a covered goods waggon placed in a favourable position here, and Brock and I arranged to sit up in it and wait for the lions. We left a couple of empty tents standing in the hospital boma, and had some cattle put into it as a further temptation to the terrible brutes.

That afternoon the lions were seen in no fewer than three different places. At about four miles from Tsavo they attacked a coolie who was walking along the line. He managed, however, to escape up a tree, from which he was rescued more dead than alive by the traffic manager, who saw him from a passing train. A couple of hours later some men saw one of them stalking Dr. Brock as he was returning about dusk from the hospital. This lion had evidently taken a fancy to Brock, as an event which occurred the same night will show.


After dinner the doctor and I set out for the wagon, which was over a mile away. The night was very cloudy and dark, and, in the light of later events, we did a very foolish thing indeed in taking up our position so late. However, we reached our destination safely, and got settled down at about 10 p.m.

We had the lower half of the door closed, while the upper halves were wide open. We sat there in silence, looking out in the direction of the boma, but could not see it on account of the darkness. All was perfectly quiet for a couple of hours, and the stillness was. becoming monotonous, when suddenly, to our right, we heard the snap of a dry stick, and we knew that some heavy animal was about. Soon afterwards we heard a dull thud, as though some heavy body had fallen into the boma. The cattle became uneasy, and we could hear them moving about restlessly. Then there was a dead silence again.

I proposed to my companion that I should get out and lie on the ground, as I could in this position see better should the lion come ,in our direction with his prey. Brock, however, warned me to remain where I was. A few seconds afterwards I was very glad that I had taken his advice, for at that very moment the lion—although we did not know it —was quietly stalking us, and was even then almost within springing distance of us.
Brock had given orders for the boma entrance to be blocked up, and we therefore expected to hear the lion forcing his way out. The door, however, had not been properly closed, and while we wondered what he could be doing he was all the time silently reconnoitering our position.

Presently I thought I saw something stealthily coming towards us, but I feared to trust my eyes, which were strained by prolonged staring through the darkness. I asked Brock under my breath if he saw anything, at the same time covering the object as well as I could with my rifle. Brock did not answer. He told me afterwards that he had noticed something move, but was afraid to speak lest I should fire, and it might turn out to be nothing after all.

There was an intense silence for another second or two. Then with a sudden bound a huge body sprang at us. “The lion !” I shouted, and we both fired almost simultaneously, and not a moment too soon, for before he could turn I felt his hot breath on my face.


The lion must have swerved off as he sprang, probably blinded by the flash and frightened by the noise of the double report, which was increased a’ hundredfold by the hollow iron roof of the wagon. Had we not been on the alert he would undoubtedly have got one of us. As it was, we were very lucky to escape. The next morning Brock’s bullet was found embedded in the sand close to a footprint. It could not have missed the lion by more than an inch or two. Mine was nowhere to be found.


THE lions seemed to have got a bad fright the night they attacked us in the wagon, for they kept away from Tsavo and did not trouble it again for some considerable time—not until long after Brock had left me and gone on a journey to Uganda. They did not give up their man-eating propensities, however, but turned their attention to other camps.


On April 25th two men were taken from Railhead, and a few nights afterwards (April 28th) another man was taken from a place called Engomani.

Two more men were taken from Engomani on May 1st. One man was killed outright and eaten, and the other was so terribly mauled that he died in a few days.
It struck me that in case they should renew their attempts at Tsavo a trap might perhaps be the best way of getting at them, and that if I were to construct one, and put a couple of men into it as “bait,” the lions would be quite daring enough to go in after them, and so get caught.

I had not much suitable material for the construction ‘of the trap. It was made entirely of wooden sleepers, tram -rails (which I broke into suitable lengths), pieces of

telegraph wire, and a bit of chain. It had two

compartments, one for the men, the other for the lion. A sliding door at one end admitted the men, and once inside they were perfectly safe, as between them and the lion, if he entered, ran a cross-wall of iron rails, only 3in. apart, firmly embedded in sleepers. The door which was to admit the lion was, of course, at the opposite end, and the whole thing was made very much on the principle of the rat trap, only that it was not necessary for the lion to seize the bait in order to send the door clattering down behind him.


As soon as he entered the cage he was bound to tread on a concealed spring which released the wire, when down would come the door behind him. As soon as our ,trap was ready I pitched a tent over it to deceive the lions, and made an ‘exceedingly strong boma round it. One small entrance was made at the back for the men, which they were to close by pulling a bush after -them.

Another opening was left in front of the door for the lions. I acted as ” bait” myself for several nights, but nothing happened, nor did the lions come near us at Tsavo for some months. The coolies, believing that -the savage beasts had now gone for good, resumed all their usual habits and occupations, and everything returned to its normal condition.

We were suddenly startled out of this feeling of security by hearing one dark night -the old terror-stricken screams and cries, and we knew at once that the lions had returned and had added another unfortunate to their long list of victims.

This time they had seized a poor man and eaten him within thirty yards of his tent, and so daring had they become that they did not attempt to move until the ghastly meal was finished, although several shots were fired at random in their direction by the jemidar of the gang.
On the chance that they might return I took up my position at nightfall in a tree near the place and waited. Nothing came near me, however, but a hyena. An attack was made that night on another camp some two miles from Tsavo, for at this time the camps, were again scattered. The brutes got another victim, and ate him quite close to the camp.

I sat up every night for over a week near likely camps, but the lions either saw me and went elsewhere or else I was unlucky, for they took man after man without ever giving me the chance of a shot at them. This constant night-watching was most dreary and fatiguing work. I felt it a duty, however, that had to be undertaken, as the men naturally looked to me for protection.

I have encountered nothing more nerve shaking in the whole of my experience than to listen to the deep roars of these dreadful monsters growing gradually nearer and nearer, and to know that. some one or other of us was to be their -victim before morning dawned. Once they got into the, vicinity off the camp the roars ceased, and then we knew that they were stalking for their prey. Shouts would then pass from camp to camp : ” Khabar dar, chaieon, shaitan ata ” (” Beware, brothers, the devil, is coming “).


The Indians firmly believed that the man-eaters were the incarnation of some terrible cannibal chiefs belonging to one of, the old African tribes, who had taken this form in order to avenge themselves and show their resentment at a’ railway being made through their country.

The warning cries would be of no avail, however, for agonizing shrieks would sooner or later break the silence and another man would be a-missing next morning.
I felt very much disheartened at being foiled night after night. Tracking the lions through the dense jungle during the day was a hopeless task, but still something had to be done to keep up the spirits of the workmen, so I spent many a weary hour crawling on my hands and knees through the dense vegetation, endeavoring to track the-brutes through that exasperating wilderness. Had I met them they would most probably have devoured me too, as everything would have been in their favour.

I have a vivid recollection of one particular night when the brutes took a man from the railway station and brought him close to my camp to eat. The noise of their dreadful purring filled the air and rang in my ears for days afterwards. It was hopeless to attempt to go out, as the night was pitch-dark. There were half-a-dozen men inside a small thorn fence close beside mine, and on hearing the lions they got frightened and implored me to let them in, which I did.

A short time afterwards I remembered that ‘there was a sick man in their camp, and on asking if they had brought him in they said “No.” I at once took some men and went after him. On reaching the dark tent I went in and lifted the coverlet, but saw by the light of the lantern that the invalid was dead. The poor fellow must have died of fright after hearing all his comrades flee away from the savage lions to a place of safety.

Matters were now getting desperate. As a rule, up to this time, only one of the lions went into a boma and did, the foraging while the other waited outside, but now they changed their tactics ; both entered together, and each seized a man !

Two poor Swahili porters were killed in this way one night in the last week of November. On November 3oth the two lions made another successful raid within a hundred yards of a permanent way inspector’s hut. I could plainly hear from my hut the commotion and the terrified shrieking of the coolies. The inspector fired over fifty shots in the direction of the lions, but so bold were they that they did not attempt to move, but calmly lay there until daylight.

I visited the spot early next morning, and with the permanent way inspector followed the brutes. He felt confident that he had wounded one, as ,there was a trail as of the toes of a broken limb on the sand. We quickly came up with the lions, and were saluted with fierce growls from the concealed beasts. Cautiously advancing and pushing the bushes aside, we saw in the gloom what we took to be a lion cub. A closer inspection, however, showed it to be the remains of the unfortunate coolie taken the night before.

Now the bravest men in the world, much less the Indian coolie, will not stand this kind of thing indefinitely. I was not at all surprised, therefore, on my return to camp this same afternoon—December 1st, 1898—to find that all the men had struck work and were waiting to speak to me. They came and stated that they would not stay at Tsavo any longer. They said ” they had come from India on an agreement to work for the Government, but not to supply food for devils.”


Some hundreds of them stopped the first passing train by throwing themselves on the rails, and then, swarming on to the trucks and throwing in their possessions anyhow, they fled from the accursed spot. sight to see them perched on top of water-tanks, roofs, and girders—anywhere for safety. Some even dug deep pits inside their tents, into which they let thernselves down at night, covering over the top with heavy logs of timber. Every good-sized tree in camp had as many beds lashed on to it as its branches could bear, and sometimes more.

So many men got up a tree once when the camp was attacked that the tree came dawn with a crash, hurling its terror-stricken load of shrieking coolies close to the lions. Fortunately, however, the brutes did not heed them, as they were then busily engaged in devouring a man they had just seized.


SOME days before the workmen fled I had applied for a couple of armed police to be put into each camp in order to give confidence to the men. I had also asked Mr. Whitehead, the District Commissioner, to come up and bring any of his Askaris (native soldiers) that he could spare. He wrote saying that he was coming, and I expected him to arrive in time for dinner on the evening of December 2nd.
The train was due about six o’clock, so I sent my ” boy ” up to the station to meet Mr. Whitehead and assist in carrying his things down. He returned trembling with terror.


He said there was no sign of the train or of the station staff, but that an enormous lion was standing on the platform ! I did not believe this, and told him so- I found out next day, however, that it was quite true, and that both the station-master and the signalman had been obliged to take refuge from the man-eater, by locking themselves up in the station buildings.

I waited some time for Mr. Whitehead, but as he did not turn up I thought he had decided not to come that evening, and so had my dinner, as usual, in solitary state. During the meal I heard a couple of shots, but paid no attention to them, as shots were constantly being fired in the camp. After dinner I went out alone to watch for my friends the lions. On this particular night I sat up on a sleeper crib, which I had ‘had built on a big girder that was close to a ” likely ” camp for the lions to attack. Soon after taking up my position I was surprised to hear the two lions growling and purring over something quite close to where I was sitting.

I could not understand it, for I had heard no commotion in camp—and by bitter experience I knew that every meal the brutes got meant trouble for Us. After a time I saw their eyes glowing in the dark’ and promptly fired at them. They then took whatever they were eating and went over a small rise which prevented me from seeing them and there finished their meal.

As soon as it was light I got out of my crib and went towards the place where I had last seen them. On the way, who should I meet but Mr. Whitehead, the District Commissioner. He looked very pale and ill, and his general appearance was strange. ” Where on earth have you come from ? ” I said. ” Why didn’t you turn up to dinner last night?” “A nice reception you give a fellow when you invite him to dinner,” he replied. “Why, what’s up?” I said. ” That infernal lion of yours jumped on me last night,” said Whitehead. “Non- sense, you dreamt it !” I cried, in astonishment.


For answer he turned round and showed me his back. “That is not much of a dream, is it ?” he asked, laconically. His clothing was split right from the nape of his neck downwards, and on the flesh there were four huge claw marks showing red and angry throu gh the torn cloth. ‘

Without further parley I hurried him off to my tent and bathed and dressed his wounds. He then told me the whole story of what had happened. His train, it appears, was very late, and it was quite dark when he arrived at Tsavo. In order to reach my camp he had to come through a cutting. He was accompanied by Abdullah, his sergeant of Askaris (native soldiers), who carried a lighted lamp. When they were about half-way through the gloomy cutting one of the lions suddenly jumped down from the high bank right on to Whitehead, knocking him over like a ninepin and tearing the clothing off his back.

Fortunately, however, Whitehead had his carbine in his hand, and this he instantly fired. The flash and loud report must have dazed the lion for a second, enabling Whitehead to disengage himself, but the next instant the brute pounced like lightning on the unfortunate Abdullah, with whom he made off Whitehead fired again at the lion as he was going off, but apparently missed. This was the District Commissioner’s welcome to Tsavo !

It was, of course, poor Abdullah that I had heard the brutes eating during the night. Whitehead himself had had a marvellous escape. Fortunately his wounds were not deep, and caused him little or no trouble afterwards.
On this same day, December 3rd, Mr. Farquhar, the superintendent of police, and a score of Sepoys arrived from the coast to help in hunting down the lions, whose reputation had now spread far and wide. Elaborate precautions were taken and Sepoys were posted on trees near every camp. The lion trap was put in thorough order, and three of the Sepoys were placed in it as ” bait.” Several officials had also come up to join in the hunt, and each watched a likely spot, Mr. Whitehead sharing a post with me.
In the evening, at about 9 p.m., to my great satisfaction, the intense silence was broken by. the noise of the trap-door clattering down. One of the lions had charged on the Sepoys and was caught at last. The men had a lamp burning in the cage, and each had a Martini rifle and plenty of ammunition. They had been given strict orders to shoot the lion if it should enter the trap.

However, they were so terrified when he actually did rush in and began to dash himself madly against the bars of the cross-wall that they quite lost their heads and were too unnerved to fire. It was not for some. minutes, until Mr. Farquhar, who was close by, had called out to them and cheered them on, that they recovered themselves. Then they began to shoot with a vengeance—anywhere, anyhow. Whitehead and I were at right angles to the direction in which they should have fired, yet bullets whizzed all round us. They fired over a score of shots, and in the end with one unlucky shot they blew away one of the door-bars and let the lion escape !
How they failed to kill him is a mystery, as they could have put the muzzles of their rifles right on to his body. There was some blood scattered about the trap, and it was some consolation to us to know that the beast had at least been wounded.
Next. morning we arranged a hunt, and spent the greater part of the next day on our hands and knees, following the lions through the dense thickets of thorny jungle. We never got up with them, however, though we heard growls, and only Farquhar of the whole party caught a momentary glimpse of one as it bounded over a bush.

A couple of days were spent in this manner, but without any success, and then Mr. Farquhar and his Sepoys departed to the coast. Mr. Whitehead also returned to his district, and I was left alone once more with the man-eaters.

[The second and concluding instalment of this remarkable narrative will be published next month. It describes how the first man-eater fell to Colonel Patterson’s rifle ; how the second commenced a campaign of revenge against the camp ; and how he, too, was at last killed, with the result that the reign of terror these brutes had established came to an end, and operations were resumed on the lung-delayed railway. As in this instalment, the narrative will be illustrated with photographs, including snap-shots of the redoubtable man-eaters themselves.]
Col. John Henry Patterson, DSO
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