The Tsavo Lions

What kind of story do you guys fancy today? Something about Victorian imperialism? A mystery? A horror story? HOW ABOUT ALL THREE?

I learned about the Tsavo lions from having the ever-loving bejesus scared out of me when I was a kid after watching The Ghost and the Darkness. I remember being terrified that a lion would find its way to rural New England and climb into my window at night. Then I watched it again last year when I moved to the U.K. on the same day that I learned about the alien panthers in England. They're out there . . . breeding . . . plotting . . . Ghost and the Darknessing.

ANYWAY, in Ye Olde Africa, by which I mean 1898 Kenya, the British were racing with the French and the Belgians and the Germans (and, oh, bless them for trying, the Spanish, Portuguese and Italians) to conquer and colonize Africa and see who could be the most horrible bring Jesus and civilization to the natives. It was all for the good of European wallets the natives. A chief part of this race was who could build railroads the fastest, and thereby bring news, troops, supplies, subjugation, etc. to the area.

So the British are building their railroad as fast as their forced native labor Protestant work-ethic will allow, and then they encounter the Tsavo River. Enter Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson. In the film, he is portrayed by Val Kilmer as an architect, calling himself a "bridge builder". But in real life, I guess he was just a soldier hired by the British government to shoulder the white man's burden and ensure those wily Africans actually did some work, the lazy good for nothings oversee the bridge's construction.

With innocence and glory in his eyes. Val Kilmer, y u no in good movies no mo'?

Almost as soon as Patterson arrives, workers start getting eaten by lions. At first they thought it was just a natural part of being in Africa–there were lions around the area, the site wasn't well protected, there were a lot of people roaming around by themselves at night. However, when the killings kept happening . . . and happening . . . and happening, people unsurprisingly got a little freaked out. So Patterson decided to build up big fires at night and create this elaborate fence of thorn bushes that surrounded the entire camp. The lions said, "BAHAHA, WE LAUGH AT YOUR PUNY THORN FENCE", climbed through it and dragged off some more people. Like so:


What freaked people out was that lions don't behave like this. Even though the type of lions specific to Tsavo are more aggressive and have the males hunt, as well as the females, there was no way lions would need to feed on that many people in so short a time. Besides, lions don't typically kill humans (they don't like the taste) unless game is really scarce or they feel threatened. In such a mixed ethnic background as that of the workers, there were a whole lot of superstitions and rumors flying around about what these lions really were or why they were behaving in such an unorthodox way.

The natives and the imported Indian workers started going, "You know what? TO HELL WITH THIS" and hundreds of them left. Patterson was all, "But but but–guuuuys, if you don't let some of your number be sacrificed to the lion gods, we're gonna lose our raaaaaaaaaace. How are we going to colonize your savage asses if you don't build our railroads for uuuuus?"

So Patterson, to his credit, mans up and decides to ambush the lions. He climbs a tree and waits all night, shooting one of them.

Here is where fiction and reality diverge: After Val Kilmer climbs a tree and shoots a lion in the film, he has a hard time getting the other two lions (though in reality there were only two, not three) and builds all these traps that the lions weasel their way out of. (SPOILERS) There's some stuff with them killing a sweet little Scotsman and chomping a baby and having a murder den of human hors d'oeurvres, and blah blah, Patterson can't handle all this freaky crap on his own AND build the bridge on time. They have to call in Remington, the world-famous hunter of dangerous hell-beasts. This character was totally fictional. They just wanted to give Michael Douglas a chance to get in on this movie. Look, Val Kilmer can't shoulder the responsibility of providing all the sex appeal.


Between Val Kilmer's tight pants and Michael Douglas's buckskins, they are able to kill the lions, blah blah, victory, empire, vengeance, blah.

In REALITY, what actually happened was this: Patterson stayed up in the tree and killed the first lion. Ten days later, he climbed a tree and killed the second lion. THE END. Not quite as exciting as what happens in the movie, but eh. There you go. He skinned the lions and used them as rugs. The bridge got built and Britain got to go on and show the world what a stellar example of imperial dominance it was.

25 years later, Patterson decided to donate his trophy rugs to the Chicago Field Museum for $5,000. They were like, "Uhhh, the hell do we do with these nasty-ass carpets?" So they used them to reconstruct the lions, like so:


They look pretty good for two former throw-rugs. Also, Tsavo lions don't have manes (contrary to the film), so they look even freakier to me. Like two Mr. Bigglesworths from HELL.

So why did they go crazy? Patterson said the lions killed about 135 people, but modern research says it's more likely that they ate 35. All the same, that's definitely not normal behavior. There are a ton of theories floating around out there, such as:
1.) The cattle plague of 1898 reduced the number of game;
2.) The lions got used to the taste of human flesh because of the dead bodies found in the area, since the river crossing was a common place for slave caravans to travel through;
3.) The lions got used to the taste of human flesh because of the funereal cremation of Indian workers in the area;
4.) That one of the lions had a damaged tooth, making it difficult for it to catch natural prey;
5.) That the lions suffered from some kind of disease or mental condition resulting in changed behavior;
6.) That the lions were demons/witches/some sort of curse sent to prevent colonial expansion–Africa was fighting back.

I guess we'll never know the answer, and the Tsavo bridge site will forever be known–as it is known today–as "Maneater Camp". The End.

Please enjoy this picture of Val Kilmer/John Patterson impersonating a lion.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Tsavo Lions

  1. leia131 says:

    We watched like, half an hour out of the middle of that movie during our African colonization unit in high school, but I’ve never seen the whole thing. Clearly I am going to have to remedy this.

    Also, I’ve seen those lions in Chicago. They’re not even than big, as far as lions go, which kinda makes it even weirder. (That may be because they’re reconstructed from rugs though; I didn’t know that part.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s