Kenya's Man-Eating Lions Not as Man-Hungry as Previously Thought

By Brett Israel | November 3, 2009 9:57 am

tsavo-lions-webAccording to legend, the infamous Tsavo man-eating lions dined on 135 people near a Kenyan labor camp prior to their capture in 1898. The two maneless lions have been a crowd favorite at Chicago’s Field Museum, where the stuffed beasts have been on display for over 80 years. But after analyzing fragments of the lions’ bones and fur, scientists at the University of California in Santa Cruz have determined that the true number of humans eaten by the lions was likely closer to 35. By comparing isotopes in the lions’ samples with their normal prey of zebra, wildebeest and buffalo, with other lions, and with the remains of 19th century Kenyans, the scientists estimated that one of the lions ate 24 humans, while the other ate 11 [Chicago Tribune]. The results suggest that the lions hunted together but didn’t always share food, which makes the pair the first example of a cooperative hunting group that ate different prey.

The two lions developed a taste for man after drought, pestilence, and hunting killed of most of their usual prey, according to previous research. Also, the Tsavo lions lived near a slave trading route, which offered easy access to sick, injured, or dead slaves. The lions dragged people from tents at night…. After nine months of this, the beasts were finally killed in December [Nature News]. The recent analysis suggests one of the lions had developed a toothache, which made eating humans easier than devouring its normal prey. The study attributes 24 deaths to one cat, or 30 per cent of its diet, and 11 deaths to the other, just 13 per cent of its food [New Scientist].

Colonel John H. Patterson, a British engineer, shot the lions and then wrote a book about their killing spree, claiming that “28 railroad workers and scores of unfortunate Africans” had been killed [Chicago Tribune]. Some believe that in order to boost the selling price of the lions, he exaggerated the lions’ man-killing ways and inflated the death count to 135.  Patterson sold the lion skins for $5,000 to the Field Museum in 1924.

The current study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Image: flickr / lisa andres

MORE ABOUT: animal behavior, lions
  • Jumblepudding

    perhaps they ate a large percentage of babies,lowering the amount of total isotope from humans found in their tissue and skewing the results. Let’s keep the legend alive, folks.

  • jhonkarlos

    Well. Not that I’m really interested enough to go and read the actual paper, but it seems to me that a lion could still kill that many people while only making up 15-30% of its diet that way. I can’t remember the last time I ate an entire chicken in one sitting.

  • Pooch McGinty

    Not noted in this story but also of importance is that the lions raped at least a dozen human females, which to many is a fate worse than death.

  • amphiox

    #3: “the lions raped at least a dozen human females”

    Now that is a claim that I am compelled to ask for sources on.

  • Daniel

    #4: I can confirm #3’s comment, because I am a lion child, an actual product of that very terrifying and yet productive evening!

  • scarlett

    I hope you men for making fun of men have your eyes gauged out and are ripped apart- what visions of delight. Sands of the Kalahari part two please. Or simply we meet- i am black belt in karate- mmm your deaths would be beautiful

  • Whatev

    Pooch McGinty – pure intentional hilarity.
    scarlet – pure unintentional hilarity.

    This site’s even better than

  • Anthony

    I wonder why the two maneless lions have been at Chicago’s Field Museum for that long, i think they should be returned to where they come from, i.e. Kenya.

  • keith

    Why Anthony? They were gifted to the Field museum by Patterson. One get tired of the more than occaisonal whiff of PC idiocy!!!


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