The Man-Eaters of Tsavo : The Lions That Stopped A Railway – Part 2

This is one of the most remarkable lion stories 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 hundred 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 numerous 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.


A FEW days after Farquhar’s departure, as I was leaving my boma soon after daylight one morning (December 9th, 1898), I saw an excited Swahili running towards me. He kept turning round as he ran, crying, “Simba, Simba!” (“Lion, Lion!”). On interrogating him, I found that the lions had tried to snatch a man from a camp by the river, and, failing in this, had killed a donkey. They were eating it at that moment not far away.

Now was my chance! I rushed for the heavy rifle which Farquhar had kindly left with me should an occasion like this arise. Led by the Swahili, I carefully stalked the feeding lions. I was getting along beautifully, and could just make out the outline of one of them through the bushes, when my guide unfortunately snapped a rotten branch. The lion heard it, growled, and retreated into a patch of thick jungle close by.

I feared that he would escape once again, so I arranged for the men to bring with them all the tom-toms, tin cans, and other noisy instruments that could be found in camp. I then posted them quietly in a half-circle round the thicket, and gave the head jemidar instructions to have a simultaneous din raised directly I had got behind the thicket. My position was a most likely one for the lion to retire past—a broad animal path leading straight from where he was lying concealed.


I knelt behind a small ant-hill and waited expectantly. Soon a tremendous noise was raised by the advancing line of coolies, and, to my great joy, out into the open path stepped a huge, maneless lion. It was the first time during all those trying months that I had had a fair chance at one of these terrible brutes, and the satisfaction I experienced at the prospect of bagging him was unbounded. He advanced slowly along the path, stopping every now and then to look round. I was not fully concealed, and if he had not been so much occupied with the noise behind him he must have observed me.

I let him approach within about fifteen yards and then covered him with my rifle. The moment I moved he saw me. He appeared very much startled by my sudden appearance, for he stuck his fore-feet into the ground, threw himself back on his haunches, and snarled savagely. I felt as I covered his brain that I had him absolutely at my mercy—but never trust an untried gun! I pulled the trigger, and, to my horror, heard the dull snap that tells of a misfire.

I was so disconcerted at this untoward accident that I forgot all about firing the left barrel, and, with the intention of reloading, lowered the rifle from my shoulder. Fortunately, however, the lion, instead of bounding on to me, as might have been expected, sprang aside into the bush. I fired the left barrel at him as he did so, and an answering angry growl told me that I had hit him. However, he made good his escape once more. I bitterly anathematized the hour I had trusted to a borrowed weapon, and in my chagrin abused owner, maker, and gun with fine impartiality.

My continued ill-luck was most exasperating. The Indians, of course, were further confirmed in their belief that the lions were evil spirits, proof against mortal weapons—and, indeed, the brutes seemed to bear a charmed life. On extracting the unexploded cartridge I found that the needle had not struck home, as the cap was only slightly dinted, so the fault lay with the rifle, which I returned with mild compliments to Farquhar.

I tried to track the beast I had wounded, but could not keep the trail, as there was no blood on the rocks to give a clue which way he had gone. I returned to look at the dead donkey, which I found only slightly eaten at the quarters. Lions always begin at the tail of an animal, and eat up towards the head. It was practically certain that one or other of the brutes would return at night to finish the meal. There was no tree of any size near, so within ten yards of the dead donkey I had a staging made about 12ft. high, consisting of four poles, with their ends fixed in the ground. They inclined towards each other at the top, and here a plank was lashed for me to sit on. As the nights were still dark, I had the donkey’s body secured by strong wires to a convenient stump, for I did not want it dragged away before I could get a shot at the brutes.

At sundown I got up on my airy perch. Much to the disgust of my gun-bearer, Mahina, I went alone. I would have taken him, only he had a bad cough, and I feared lest any noise or movement should spoil everything. Darkness fell almost immediately, and everything became wonderfully still. The silence of an African jungle at this time is most impressive, especially when one is alone and isolated from his kind. The solitude and silence, and the errand I was on, all had their effect on me, and from a condition of strained expectancy I fell into a dreamy mood, which harmonized well with my surroundings.

I was startled out of the reverie into which I had fallen by the sudden snapping of a twig, and, straining my ears, I heard the rustling of a large body forcing a way through the bushes. “The lion!” I whispered to myself, and my heart gave a great bound. “Surely tonight my luck will change and I shall bag one of the brutes.” Such were my thoughts during the intense stillness that had again fallen after the breaking of the twig.

I sat on my eyrie like a statue and waited, every nerve tense with excitement. Soon all doubt as to the presence of the brute was dispelled. A deep, long-drawn sigh—sure sign of hunger in a lion—came up from the bushes, and the rustling commenced again as he advanced.

A sudden stop, followed by an angry growl, told that he had spied me, and I began to think that disappointment awaited me once more. Matters soon took a different turn, however, for the lion, instead of making for the bait prepared for him, began to stalk me! For about two hours he horrified me by slowly creeping round and round my crazy structure, gradually drawing closer. I feared that he would rush it—and my post had not been constructed with an eye to this possibility. If one of the rather flimsy poles broke, or if he could spring the 12ft.— ugh! the thought was not a pleasant one. I began to feel distinctly creepy, and heartily cursed my folly for placing myself in such a hazardous position.

I kept perfectly still, however, hardly daring to blink my eyes. Down below in the gloom I could faintly make out the body of the dead donkey. The long-continued strain was beginning to tell upon my nerves; so my feelings may be imagined when, about midnight, I suddenly felt something come flop and hit me on the back of the head!

I was thoroughly terrified for a moment and almost fell off my plank. I thought it was the lion that had sprung at me from behind! A moment afterwards, however, I realized that I had been struck by an owl, which, no doubt, had taken me for a branch of a tree. It was not a very alarming thing to happen, I admit, but, coming at the time it did, it almost paralyzed me.

I could not help giving an involuntary start, and this was at once answered by a sinister growl from below. I kept absolutely still again after this, though I was actually trembling with excitement. I had not long to wait this time, as the lion now began to creep noiselessly up towards me. I could barely make out his form as he crouched among the whitish-yellow undergrowth. Still, I saw enough for my purpose, and before he could get any nearer, I took careful aim and put a bullet through his heart. He gave a most terrific roar and leaped and sprang about in all directions. I could not see him, as his first bound had taken him out of my sight into the thick bush, but I kept blazing away in the direction of the uproar. Then I heard him give a series of mighty groans, gradually subsiding into deep sighs and then ceasing altogether, and I knew that one of the “devils” who had so long harassed us was dead at last.

As soon as I ceased firing, a tumult of inquiring voices came across the dark jungle from the men in camp about a quarter of a mile away. I shouted back that I was safe, and that the lion was dead.


Then such a mighty cheer went up from all the camps as must have made the wild beasts of the woods for miles around tremble. In a very short time, I saw scores of lights twinkling through the bushes. Every man in camp turned out and came running and shouting towards me, the crowd raising a fearful din by playing tom-toms and blowing horns. There was a race as to who should reach me first. As soon as they got up, they surrounded me, and I was astonished by their prostrating themselves before me, putting their hands on my feet, and crying “Mabarack!” which, I believe, means “Blessed one.” This was in token of their gratitude.

I would allow no one to look for the body of the dead lion that night in case the other might be close by. Besides, it was possible that he might still be breathing and capable of making a last spring, so we all returned to camp, where there was great rejoicing all night long. The Swahili and other Africans from the far interior had a specially savage dance, accompanied by a weird chant, to celebrate the great event.

I anxiously awaited dawn, and even before it was thoroughly light I was on my way to the spot. After playing me many a shabby trick, my luck had changed at last, for I had scarcely traced the blood for more than a few paces when I saw in front of me a most magnificent lion, seemingly alive and ready for a spring. On looking closer, however, I saw that he was stone-dead. He must have died as he was in the very act of crouching for a spring. Many were the exclamations of my followers at his enormous size. A large crowd gathered around; and they laughed and danced and shouted with joy, carrying me in triumph round the dead body.

After these ceremonies were over, I examined my prize and found two bullet-holes in him. One was close behind the


right shoulder, and had evidently penetrated the heart. The other was in the off hind leg. He was a big animal, and it took eight men to carry him to camp on poles.


I measured him carefully. His length from tip of nose to tip of tail was 9ft. 8in., and he stood 3ft. 9in. high. The skin was much scored by the boma thorns through which the lion had so often forced his way in carrying off his victims.

Hundreds of people flocked from up and down the line to see the brute who had been such a notorious man-eater, and telegrams of congratulation kept pouring in.


Our troubles at Tsavo were not yet over. The other lion was still about, and he very soon began to make things lively. A few nights after his comrade was shot he tried to get at a permanent way inspector. This was on December 17th. The brute climbed up the steps of the bungalow and rambled round the veranda. The permanent-way inspector, thinking it was some drunken man, shouted to him angrily to go away. Luckily, however, he did not come out or open the door, and the disappointed brute, finding he could not get in, killed a couple of goats close by and ate them there and then.

The next night I waited for him near here. There was an iron house handy with a convenient loophole in it, and outside this, I had a half length of rail put, weighing about 250 lb.; to this I tied three full-grown goats as bait.

Towards morning the lion came, pounced on one of the goats, and carried the others away with him, rail and all. I fired several shots in his direction, but it was too dark to see anything, and I only succeeded in hitting one of the goats. The trail of rail and goats was easily followed next morning, and I soon came up to where the lion was still eating, some quarter of a mile away. He was concealed in some bushes, and growled at us as we approached. On getting closer he made a charge, causing every man of the party to fly hastily up the nearest tree, with the exception of one of my assistants, Mr. Winkler, who stood steadily by me. The lion did not charge home, however, and on throwing stones into the bushes, we found that he had slunk off. One goat had been eaten; the other two were, of course, dead, but hardly touched.

Knowing that the lion would in all probability return to finish his meal, I had a very strong scaffolding put up a few feet away, and got into it before dark. I took Mahina, my gun-boy, with me to take a turn at watch, as I was worn out for want of sleep, having spent most of my nights recently in waiting for the lions. I was dozing off when suddenly I felt my arm seized, and on looking up saw Mahina pointing to the dead goats. “Sher!” (“Lion!”) was all he whispered. I grasped my double smoothbore, which I had charged with slug, and waited. The lion came almost directly under us. I fired both barrels practically together, and could see him go down under the force of the blow. I reached for the magazine rifle, but before I could fire a shot, the lion was out of sight, and I had to fire after him at random among the scrub.

I expected to get him the next morning and had no difficulty in following the blood trail for over a mile. He rested several times, so I felt sure he was badly hit. Nevertheless, my hunt was fruitless. The drops of blood soon ceased, as a lion constantly keeps licking the blood from his wound, and I could not follow the spoor farther owing to the rocky nature of the ground.

For about ten days after this, there was no sign of the lion, and we all thought that he had died in the bush. Fortunately, however, every care was still taken after nightfall; otherwise, he would have had at least one more victim.


I was aroused one night—December 27th—by my trolley-men, who slept in a tree close outside my camp, screaming that the lion was trying to get at them. It would have been useless to go out, as the moon was obscured and it was impossible to see, so I fired off a few rounds just to frighten him away. This had the desired effect, and he did not molest the men again that night. He, however, went right into every one of their three tents, and, finding nothing but a goat, killed and ate it. The lion’s footprints were plainly visible under the trolley-men’s tree, around which he had made a regular ring.

The following night, December 28th, 1898, believing it probable that he would return, I took up my position in this very tree. As I was climbing up, I almost put my hand on a venomous snake that had apparently just emerged from a hole in it. I slid down pretty sharply, as may be imagined, and one of my men managed to dispatch it.

The night was cloudless, and the moon made everything almost as bright as day. I watched until about 2 a.m., and then roused Mahina to take his turn. I slept with my back to the tree for perhaps an hour, and then woke up suddenly with an uncanny feeling. Mahina was on the alert and had seen nothing. I looked round, but everything appeared as usual. I was about to lie back again when I thought I saw something move a little way off. I was not mistaken. It was the lion cautiously stalking us!

The ground was fairly open around our tree, with only a bush here and there. It was a fascinating sight to watch the lion going from bush to bush, taking advantage of every scrap of cover as he came. His skill showed that he was an old hand at this terrible game of manhunting.

I waited until he got quite close, say twenty yards, and then fired my *303 at his chest. I heard the bullet strike him, but it had no knockdown effect, for, with a low growl, he instantly turned and made off with great, long bounds. I was able to fire three more shots at him before he was out of sight, and another savage growl told that my last shot had found him again.

We commenced tracking him at daylight. There were three of us, the tracker leading, so that I had nothing to do but keep my eyes about. Mahina followed with the Martini carbine. Blood was plentiful, and we could follow briskly.


We had not gone more than three hundred yards when suddenly there was a fierce warning growl, and among the bushes ahead, I could see the lion glaring out and showing his great tusks. He was on the far side of a dry nullah. I took careful aim at his head and fired, and this instantly brought on a charge, and a most determined one it was. I fired again and knocked him over, but only for a second. He was up in no time and coming for me again as fast as he could. I fired a third shot without apparent result. This time I threw down my rifle and put out my hand mechanically for the Martini, hoping to finish him off with it. To my consternation, however, it was not there! The terror of the sudden charge had proved too much for Mahina, and both he and the Martini were well on their way up a tree. I lost no time in following suit, and, but for the fact that I had broken one of the lion’s hind legs as he charged down on me, he would most certainly have had me. As it was, I had barely time to get out of reach before he arrived at the foot of the tree. He limped back when he found he was too late, but I had got the carbine by this time, and the first shot I fired from it seemed to kill him, for he fell over and lay quite still. I came down from the tree and went up towards him. He was not done for yet, however, for he jumped up and came on at me again. A Martini bullet in the chest and another on the head finished him, and he fell not five yards from me and lay there dying, biting savagely at a branch which had fallen to the ground.

In the meantime, all my workmen had arrived on the scene, and so great was their resentment against the lion who had killed so many of their number that it was all I could do to keep them from tearing him to pieces after he was quite dead. I had him carried to my tent, which was quite close, amid the wild rejoicings of both the Africans and Indians, who claimed and received a holiday in honour of the event.


There were half-a-dozen bullet-holes in the lion’s body. Considering his wounds he had shown wonderful vitality. He measured 9ft. 6in. long from tip of nose to tip of tail, and 3ft. 11in. high. I found in his back, embedded only a little way in the flesh, the slug which I had fired into him about a week before.

When we were skinning our old enemy crowds flocked to look on, and many were the imprecations heaped on him. The lion’s body was deeply scored all over by the thorns of the bomas through which he used to rush with his victims. On hearing that the second “devil” was dead, all the coolies who had absconded came flocking back, and work, much to my relief, went on once more in its usual way; nor were we ever again molested by man-eaters at Tsavo.

I was presented by my workmen with a beautiful inscribed silver bowl as a token of their gratitude, as well as with a poem written in Hindustani, describing all our trials and my ultimate success. This handsome bowl now stands in the Castle Museum at Norwich, beside the life-like mounted heads of the once-dreaded man-eaters, and I shall ever esteem it as my greatest and hardest-won trophy.

A small Government reward was also given for the destruction of the man-eaters. I had often tried to find the lions’ den in the jungle, but it was not until a short time after I had shot them, curiously enough, that I one day accidentally came upon it. It was a dark and fearsome cave, running under some enormous rocks, with a great tree growing near its entrance. It extended a good way back, and I did not feel inclined to explore it. I fired a few shots into it through a hole in the top, but nothing came out.

The smell of the place was terrible. There were human bones lying about and also some copper bangles, such as the native of Africa loves to wear. These two brutes had devoured between them twenty-eight Indian coolies, besides scores of unfortunate Africans of whom no official record was kept!

In conclusion, I should like to add— for the benefit of those who may think this narrative exaggerated — that I have only written a plain and unvarnished account of what took place during my residence at Tsavo.

Col. John Henry Patterson, DSO
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