In the exhibit showcase of the Field Museum in Chicago, USA, two leonine specimens are prominently presented. Devoid of imposing manes, they exhibit an appearance reminiscent of lionesses, yet their true nature reveals them as male lions. One reclines upon the ground, while the other stands with a tilted head and a slightly agape mouth. Despite their seemingly docile demeanor, the mere mention of their names invokes trepidation—the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo.
These two male lions stood accused of the ruthless slaughter and consumption of as many as 135 individuals in Kenya during the fateful year of 1898. Across more than a century, their saga has found resonance in various literary works, cinematic productions, documentaries, and interactive gaming experiences. They have metamorphosed into symbols of terror, becoming subjects of intense scrutiny by the scientific community. How many lives fell victim to their insatiable hunger, and what impelled them to prey upon humans? In October 2023, the American zoologist Bruce Patterson, after two years of diligent research, purportedly unraveled the enigma.
Death in the Nocturnal Realm
On August 4, 1895, aboard a seafaring vessel en route to Kenya, the ambitious 28-year-old British soldier John Henry eagerly anticipated his appointed task. A fortnight prior, he had received orders to supervise the inspection of the railway construction from Mombasa in the east to Kisumu in the west, specifically the challenging Wo section. Henry perceived this assignment as a fortuitous escape from military conflicts, affording him the opportunity to savor the splendors of Kenya.
To enhance his effectiveness, Henry acquired a comprehensive understanding of the expansive railway prior to his departure. Spanning 500 miles from Mombasa to Kisumu, the railway traversed deserts, grasslands, and formidable, impassable terrains. It intersected inhabited regions and navigated several wide rivers, posing a formidable engineering challenge. The British government mobilized a workforce of 35,000, primarily sourced from colonial India, to execute this ambitious endeavor.
After a week of travel, Henry arrived in the Chavo region. Rather than reveling in the picturesque landscapes, he found solace in the harsh natural surroundings. Nena, his interpreter, forewarned Henry about the extremities of the climate and the unpredictable appearance of wild beasts. Henry, a former hunter, scoffed at the cautionary tales. He boasted of solo tiger hunts, dismissing the threats: “Jackals, tigers, and leopards? Show them to me. Let’s determine who reigns supreme—them or the firearm in my grasp.” With a raised shotgun, he confidently asserted his dominance. Nena solemnly countered, “You haven’t encountered the beasts here; they harbor a taste for human flesh.” Undeterred, Henry asserted that no matter their prowess, they remained feeble creatures in his presence.
Under Henry’s stewardship, the project advanced methodically. However, mishaps soon ensued, accompanied by reports of missing laborers. Despite concerted search efforts, only the grisly remnants of these workers, consumed by wild beasts, were recovered. An eyewitness, tremblingly describing the ordeal, pointed to two lions—the aberrant aggressors. Lions, hitherto non-aggressors, infiltrated the camp, wreaking havoc and instilling panic among the residents. Kenya, a haven for wildlife, offered an abundance of prey, rendering the lions’ predation on human colonies perplexing.
Convinced that some laborers fabricated excuses to evade strenuous work, Henry dismissed the threat as exaggerated. In December, during a period of respite at the station, Nena breathlessly informed Henry that his brother Dinny was missing, presumably “dragged away by a lion.” Nena, who attended to Henry’s daily needs, shared a profound bond with him. Trusting Nena’s integrity, Henry grasped the gravity of the situation. He hastily assembled hundreds of workers for an extensive search near the railway, leading to the discovery of Dinny’s ravaged remains in the forest.
Do lions truly resort to human consumption? The Tsavo male lions differed markedly from their African counterparts. Largely attributable to European hunters seeking trophies, the Tsavo lions with manes fell victim to this relentless pursuit over a century. Europeans prized lion heads adorned with manes as symbols of valor. Concurrently, Kenya served as a conduit for Arab slave trade, marked by violent deaths along the roadsides. The cunning Tsavo lions adapted, resorting to human predation to satiate their hunger. European hunting, no longer reliant on female lions, hastened the degradation of the Tsavo male lion’s mane. Yet, their ferocity endured, even intensified.
In a bid to thwart further lion attacks, Henry directed laborers to rest collectively, fortifying the campsite with barbed wire and other obstacles. Despite these measures, lions continued to infiltrate the sprawling camp, tearing through tents, obliterating barriers, and seizing victims amid the ensuing pandemonium. Within a month, 28 lives succumbed to the predators. Faced with labor strikes and desertions, Henry reluctantly organized a hunting party, erecting traps near the camp, and personally overseeing vigilant sentries.
A lofty platform materialized in an open expanse, a donkey carcass tethered beneath to entice the lions. To counter the potential removal of the carcass, it was secured to another tree with a rope. Prepared with his shotgun, Henry assumed command, perched atop the platform alongside the party.
Despite the strategic advantage of elevated positions and the lure of livestock, the lions astutely outmaneuvered their pursuers, eluding traps and absconding with additional victims. Foiled in multiple attempts, Henry contemplated a daylight expedition to locate the lion’s den. The luxuriant woods of Tsavo, however, confounded direction, compelling Henry to abandon the endeavor.
One evening in 1896, as night descended, a hushed tranquility enveloped the surroundings. Perched in a tree, Henry, on vigilant watch, detected a rustling emanating from the dense forest. His gaze discerned two colossal silhouettes threading through the woods. A resounding roar pierced the silence, signaling the lions’ awareness. One lion retreated, while the other advanced deliberately, indifferent to the enticement of the donkey carcass. Henry, cognizant of the impending threat, fired his weapon at a strategic juncture, prompting the approaching lion to recoil in panic. Fearful of a second lion’s assault, Henry withheld further shots, opting to recover the body the following morning.
Throughout the night, the echoes of the lion’s roars reverberated. Henry interpreted this as a display of dominance, accomplishing the desired outcome. With one lion confirmed deceased and the other lion unaccounted for, Henry anticipated the eventual resolution of the crisis, restoring peace to the construction site, and facilitating his expeditious return to the United Kingdom for a reunion with his wife.
At dawn, Henry rallied the workforce, initiating a meticulous sweep of the dense forest. The lion’s lifeless form was soon discovered amidst the underbrush. Overwhelmed with relief, Henry approached to examine the trophy. To his astonishment, the lion, feigning death, lunged at him, sharp claws extended. A courageous worker intervened, firing a shot that halted the imminent threat. Dazed, Henry hesitated to approach the seemingly lifeless lion until the worker assured its demise.
Back at the camp, Henry measured the lion—standing at 1.12 meters and weighing over 800 kilograms. Recalling his narrow escape, Henry christened the deceased lion “Hanson,” reserving the name “Betty” for the elusive counterpart. Initially contemplating burial, Henry reconsidered, opting to preserve Hanson as a specimen for lucrative sale to a museum. Thus, he endeavored to procure ice to freeze Hanson, intending to transport both lion specimens to England upon the capture of Betty.
In order to avenge Hansen, Betty orchestrated a fervent vendetta. In a mere fortnight, it claimed the lives of five laborers consecutively, inducing a temporary state of panic among the populace. What further irked Henry was the ineffectiveness of all prior stratagems against Betty.
Late one nocturnal episode, Henry arose and chanced upon Betty at a distance of ten meters. His heart threatened to escape its confines. Had Betty struck then, his demise would have been inevitable. However, after a fleeting mutual gaze, Betty pivoted and departed. “Did Betty spare me in the hope of reciprocity?” Henry pondered incessantly for days.
The imminent demise of Betty prompted Henry to proffer a reward to the laborers. Subsequently, a proposal surfaced suggesting the use of Hansen as bait. Betty, tethered to her comrades, could not disregard this enticement. This stratagem not only served the purpose of luring Betty but also introduced an element of familial sorrow, providing Henry an opportune moment to strike.
With certitude, Henry positioned Hansen’s lifeless form upon a prominent boulder, surrounded by an array of ten shotguns. Betty’s appearance was guaranteed to be met with a barrage.
In the heart of the night, Betty emerged, weaving a frenzied dance in the vicinity of the prominent rock. Henry, concealed in satisfaction, observed the disarray of Hansen’s remains. A volley of gunshots pierced the night, their efficacy obscured by the inky darkness. Yet, Betty’s anguished roars confirmed the impact. Henry continued firing toward the diminishing echoes until Betty’s bellow waned. In that moment, pride engulfed Henry; the malevolent force had finally been eradicated.
Henry instructed the laborers to locate Betty’s remains. Tracing the blood trail led them to a point where it vanished near a wooded expanse. Henry’s apprehension materialized as a worker, in the early hours, conveyed the news, “Betty lives. She abducted a worker but is undoubtedly wounded.”
Undeterred by the peril, Henry sought aid. Armed with shotguns and torches, men embarked on the pursuit. True to expectations, Betty had not ventured far. As Henry poised his firearm for a shot, Betty, unexpectedly, knelt in his direction. “Is it supplicating to me?” Henry deliberated. Torn between mercy and resolve, a worker’s gunshot resonated. Betty convulsed, toppled, and drew her final breath.
Even in death, Betty retained a formidable visage, reminiscent of a latent threat. Henry observed, discovering Betty to be an adult male lion sans mane, surpassing Hansen in stature at 1.22 meters and weighing 912 pounds.
The menace quelled, Henry breathed a sigh of relief. Considering the logistical challenges of transporting to England, Henry preserved the lion’s pelt and skull. Upon returning to England, he resolved to fashion specimens from the fur and skull, intending to vend them to museums.
Liberated from the lion’s threat, Henry accomplished the railway project in a mere half-year. In July 1896, he returned to England, seeking to sell the lion specimens. However, no museum expressed interest.
A friend enlightened Henry, underscoring the mundanity of lions preying on humans. Eagerly embracing this insight, Henry concocted a riveting narrative. “The Man-Eating Lion of Chavo” emerged, detailing Betty and Hansen’s depredations and the concerted efforts of the laborers. While skepticism arose, Henry’s unwavering commitment and provision of names and addresses silenced dissent.
Single-handedly managed by Henry, the “Tsavo man-eating lion incident” captivated the UK, drawing crowds to witness the specimens. The Field Museum’s director, recognizing an opportunity, extended an offer to purchase at the steep price of 5,000 pounds, promptly accepted by Henry.
Welcoming the lion specimens, the Field Museum organized a grand press conference, bolstered by witnesses’ accounts. The popularity surged, attracting throngs of visitors and substantial revenue. Doubts about the veracity faded amid public admiration.
The “Tsavo man-eating lions” permeated literature, cinema, documentaries, and eventually, video games, metamorphosing into symbols of terror. Biologists delved into the specimens, yielding data but not unraveling the motivations.
In 2023, zoologist Bruce Patterson analyzed lion skins, determining that Hansen consumed 10.5 people, Betty 24.2, and collectively, they devoured approximately 35. The museum contended that not all victims were wholly consumed, tempering the count.
Bruce revisited the Field Museum, scrutinizing Betty’s skull. Observing wear patterns resembling a pampered captive lion, Bruce theorized tooth deficiencies compelling reliance on humans for sustenance. Survival exigencies fostered an alliance between Hansen and Betty, exploiting humans as vulnerable prey.
Thus, the enigma of the “Tsavo Man-eating Lion” found resolution, revealing the poignant tale of two “disabled” lions, compelled by circumstances to transgress into the realm of human predation.