Courage Against the Man-Eaters of Tsavo

The bridge engineer showed courage. Still, the beasts of Tsavo would have had him. Credit extraordinary luck.

Courage Against the Man-Eaters of Tsavo

Patterson (left center) was initially dispatched to oversee construction of the Tsavo railway bridge. Famed explorer F.C. Selous wrote the foreword for Patterson’s book and said, “… he did not lose his nerve.”

“Presently I fancied … something coming very stealthily towards us, [but my eyes] were strained by prolonged staring through the darkness, so under my breath I asked Brock whether he saw anything. There was intense silence again, then with a sudden bound a huge body sprang at us.”

The animal was a man-eating lion, one of a pair that nightly terrorized workers on a new railroad inching toward Uganda in 1898. They entered camps with impunity to drag workers from their tents. The killing halted construction of the Tsavo River bridge. J.H. Patterson’s efforts to end the carnage inspired the 1996 film, The Ghost and the Darkness.

Orders from the British Foreign Office reached Colonel John Henry Patterson within a week of his March 1 arrival in Mombasa on Africa’s east coast. The Office had gained control of the protectorate and other assets of the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1895. Within a decade, administration would fall to the Colonial Office.

Patterson boarded a train that brought him over the Strait of Macupa on the Salisbury Bridge then wound steadily upward through woodlands cloaking the Rabai Hills. Beyond their summit lay the Taru Desert, a landscape of “scrub and stunted trees … carpeted in the dry season with a layer of fine red dust.” Eighty miles on, only the color of the dust changed. At last the N’dungu Escarpment broke the horizon. The Tsavo River was close at hand. There the line was yet unfinished. Patterson disembarked.

Thousands of Indian coolies and other workmen were pushing the rails “with all speed” through wilderness beyond the Tsavo, spanned by a temporary bridge. Patterson’s job was “to erect the permanent structure” and finish the project 30 miles either side of the river. 

Reports of missing coulees were at first laid to rumor, or to murders by rail gangs stealing rupees from fellow laborers. But three weeks after his arrival, Patterson was told “a fine powerful Sikh named Ungan Singh had been seized in his tent during the night, and dragged off and eaten.” The six other men in the tent, one of whom had seen the lion enter and grab Singh by the throat, huddled in terror as their companion struggled, briefly, outside. A blood trail and tracks of two lions led Patterson to the remains. The ground there “was covered with blood and morsels of flesh and bones, [the head] left intact, save for the holes made by the lion’s tusks.”           


The second man-eater stalked Patterson, perched in this low, flimsy machan in the dead of night.
The second man-eater stalked Patterson, perched in this low, flimsy machan in the dead of night.

Waiting, Watching

That night, Patterson sat in a tree near the victim’s tent. Besides his .303 rifle, he had a 12-bore shotgun, a slug in one barrel, buckshot in the other. The roars of approaching lions suddenly went silent. Minutes ticked by; then frenzied cries erupted from tents half a mile distant. Next evening, Patterson’s vigil there was spooling out quietly when “a heart-rending shriek” signaled a kill in yet another camp. 

Early on, the man-eaters sometimes failed. One night an Indian trader and the donkey on which he was riding were flattened by a lion that sprang upon them. But its claws caught ropes securing empty oil tins to the donkey’s neck. The clatter sent the beast packing! A contractor asleep in his tent survived when a lion bit through his mattress instead, and made off with it. Fourteen coolies were awakened by a lion that leaped onto, then tore into their tent. But the animal miscued, driving its huge canines through a bag of rice, spitting it out after bounding away. Such mistakes wouldn’t repeat.

The man-eaters became bolder, ignoring thorn bomas and bright campfires to get human flesh. They proved devilishly clever, attacking in a different place each night over a range of 8 miles either side of the Tsavo. Thick bush and rocks precluded tracking them beyond where they’d eaten. Carcasses laced with poison — probably strychnine — were left untouched. 

Perhaps because of their number (approaching 3,000) the coolies came to accept with fatalistic shrugs the loss of a man here and there. Odds for being targeted were slim.

But as railhead moved forward, leaving fewer workers in the cats’ hunting ground, those odds changed. The killing continued. A sleeping water-boy was grabbed by an ankle and dragged, screaming into the night. Frantically, he clutched at tent ropes. They broke. The lion killed him, grabbed him as a cat might a mouse and pulled him through the boma, whose thorns left a bloody wake. Patterson found “only the skull, the jaws, a few of the larger bones and a portion of the palm with one or two fingers attached.”

The man-eater that sprang upon Brock and Patterson the night they heard its stealthy approach evidently dodged the bullets from both men. Local attacks stopped for a time, albeit victims were reported several miles away. Patterson used the interlude to build a trap of wire and chain, with a spring release much like a modern live-trap. Iron rails 3 inches apart separated its two compartments, one for the bait. Patterson occupied it first, with no result. Had he and Brock discouraged the killers?       

Then, months later, a man-eater broke through a nearby boma, ignoring stones and firebrands to make off with a victim. The cats were back. Night after night they raided, always where Patterson wasn’t waiting. “I have never experienced anything more nerve-shaking than to hear the deep roars of these dreadful monsters [coming] nearer and nearer, and to know that some one or other of us was doomed.” 

Seemingly Invincible Beasts

The infamous beasts drew other hunters to no effect. “It seemed as if the lions were really devils after all,” wrote Patterson, who recalled the brutes seizing a man from the railway station, then bringing him “near my camp to devour. I could plainly hear them crunching the bones.” While earlier one cat would kill and fetch the prey for both to eat, now the pair might enter a camp and claim two victims. Once they ignored more than 50 rifle shots sent into the night after a kill, finishing their meal close by.

Odds of being eaten had risen too high. On December 1, workers at the river struck. Hundreds swarmed the first train back to the coast and fled. The remaining few insisted on lion-proof housing. Rail construction halted for three weeks to accommodate that demand. It was not enough. One night so many men climbed a tree “that it came down with a crash, hurling its terror-stricken load of coolies close to the very lions they were trying to avoid.”

One evening, a lion stood on the platform of the Tsavo rail station, evidently awaiting the train. 

After the arrival of sepoys from Mombasa, Patterson put two in the trap with a Martini rifle and plenty of ammo. They were told to fire between the bars to kill any cat that entered the other side. About 9 o’clock that evening, all in Patterson’s camp heard the trap door fall. But the sepoys were so terrified, they didn’t shoot as the imprisoned beast went wild in its cage! Reminded by shouts outside, they at last began firing — but without aim. One bullet blew off a bar in the door. The lion slipped away into the night.

“Simba! Simba!” Early on December 9, a breathless boy ran to tell Patterson the cats had botched an attack on a man but had killed a donkey and were still feeding on it. Seizing a big-bore double rifle a colleague had loaned him, Patterson hurried toward the site. Alas, a broken twig scuttled the final sneak. Keen for another try, he organized an impromptu beat with all the workmen he could muster.

The din from the advancing line of coolies paid off when “out into the open path stepped a huge maneless lion. I let him approach to within about 15 yards [then] covered his brain with my rifle. I pulled the trigger [but] to my horror heard the dull snap of a misfire.”

So unnerved was Patterson, he forgot to fire the other barrel. The lion could easily have killed his antagonist. Instead, it bounded off.

Disgusted, Patterson tarried for another look at the donkey. Only a hindquarter had been eaten. As lions typically “begin at the tail of their prey,” the cat or cats hadn’t been on the carcass long. Securing it with wire, Patterson built a machan 12 feet high and just 10 feet away.

Waiting, and Being Hunted

Well after dark, a rustling in the bush jarred him awake. A long sigh, then a growl. But the beast wasn’t after the donkey. For the next two hours it crept “round my crazy structure, gradually edging nearer and nearer.” Heart hammering, Patterson forced himself to stay still. Then a light-hued form took shape almost at his feet. The shot drew a terrific roar. Patterson kept firing toward the sound of the lion thrashing about.

Only in the full light of morning did he descend to trail the man-eater. It lay dead a few paces on. Just two bullets had struck, one a hind leg, the other the heart. Nose to tail, the lion taped 9 feet 8 inches. “It took eight men to carry him back to camp.”

A few nights later, a government official heard a noise on the veranda of his bungalow. Thinking it a drunken coolie, he shouted, “Go away!” The lion instead hopped off the porch and killed two goats, devouring them on the spot. Sensing opportunity, Patterson arrived the next day, tied three goats to a 250-pound length of rail and settled into a blind at dusk. The returning lion was smart. It killed one goat, then dragged it, with the other two and the rail, into the darkness. The bullets Patterson sent brought no effect.

Trailing the cat the next day, Patterson and his party found the remaining goats, all dead but two hardly touched. He built a machan and took his position at nightfall. The lion appeared shortly, a shadow passing beneath his blind. Patterson fired both barrels of his shotgun, crumpling the cat with the big slugs. But the beast recovered quickly and was gone before the hunter could bring his rifle to bear. All optimism vanished when next morning the blood trail diminished and Patterson lost the spoor in rocks.

For 10 days, there was no sign of that man-eater. Camp precautions remained. On December 27 shouts awakened Patterson. The lion had returned, probing each empty tent, then circling a tree holding several frightened coolies. The next day, Patterson put a machan in the tree. His wait that night was short. The cat came silently. At 20 steps Patterson put a .303 bullet into its chest, sending three more quickly as the animal dashed away. 

Blood in morning’s sun was promising. Suddenly, a growl! Patterson peered into the brush, spied the beast, aimed carefully and fired. Instantly the cat charged. “I fired again and knocked him down; but in a second he was up. A third shot had no apparent effect, so I put out my hand for the Martini.” But it wasn’t there! His terrified gunbearer had fled up a tree! Patterson followed suit, just as the beast reached the tree. Firing the Martini from his perch, then stopping one desperate rush from the crippled cat on the ground, John Henry Patterson ended his quest.

The 9-foot, 6-inch lion had been hit six times.

Between them, these fearsome animals had killed and devoured at least 28 Indian coolies, also many African natives of which no official record was kept. 

In January, 1899, the rail project was again underway. Coolies who’d left it came back to work. Colonel Patterson wrote of his weeks-long effort to bag the lions — and completion of the bridge — in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, a book first published in 1907. 

The Guns of Tsavo 

J.H. Patterson used a “heavy” double rifle just once during his hunt for the Tsavo lions. After its misfire, he returned to his bolt-action .303. But his writing references a Martini too. Great Britain adopted the Martini-Henry falling-block single-shot as its service rifle in 1871. British officers gave it a workout on big game in Africa and India. The rolled case of the rimmed, bottleneck .577/.450 cartridge soon gave way to drawn brass. Cordite powder supplanted black in the 1890s. The 480-grain lead bullets in military loads left at just 1,350 fps, but carried nearly a ton of energy. Later Kynoch loads featured lighter bullets.

The .303 British followed the .577/.450 Martini Henry in service rifles. Developed for the Lee-Metford Mk I bolt-action magazine rifle invented by James Paris Lee, it was introduced in 1888 with 215-grain .311-inch bullets driven 1,850 fps by 70 grains of black powder (compressed). In 1892, Cordite boosted the .303’s muzzle velocity to 1,970 fps. 

On the eve of the Great War in 1914, those blunt missiles gave way to 174-grain spitzers at 2,440 fps. Not powerful by today’s standards, the .303 British has accounted for countless thousands of big game animals. W.D.M Bell famously and routinely used it on elephants. It may have killed more Canadian moose than any other cartridge. Hunting ammo, with 150-grain soft points at 2,685 fps, and 180s at 2,460, is still loaded. 

The Lee-Metford’s shallow segmented rifling was abandoned for the deeper Enfield type in 1895, changing the rifle’s moniker. The new name – Short Magazine Lee Enfield — remained as improvements kept SMLEs in British and Canadian service into the 1950s. Crude at a glance, the cock-on-close action is smooth and reliable My first SMLE, a war-weary specimen that cost $30, could cycle a full magazine of empties without a hiccup!

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