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The Tsavo Man-Eaters

The enigma of the Tsavo lions

The Tsavo lions had a mysterious appearance: neither of them had long hair. It was even thought that they were of a different species from that of African lions – which they do have – but genetic analyzes have shown that they were totally African. Why didn’t they have hair? The researchers point out that in an environment as hot as Tsavo and with so little water, they lost it in order to survive. In fact, maneless lions have now been observed in Tsavo.

What drove two male lions to hunt together and alone, outside of a pride? Why did they systematically stalk and kill human beings? Biologists have proposed different hypotheses to give an answer: one is the rinderpest of 1898, which by leaving the lions without their usual prey, they began to take a liking to the dead men who threw themselves into the Tsavo river, because they passed through there the slave caravans to Zanzibar; others have suggested that they were drawn to the hasty ritual cremations of deceased Hindu laborers. Finally in 2000, examination of the skulls showed that the dominant member – probably responsible for killing a larger number of humans – he was missing several teeth and had a severe dental abscess. Hence, researchers speculate that it must have been too painful for it to stalk and hunt typical prey and found humans easier to hunt…and eat.

In his book about his African adventure, Patterson wrote that, not far from camp, he found a cave with human bones at the entrance and inside, in addition to copper bracelets like those used by the natives of the area, the Taita. Was it the lair of the man-eaters? Biologists doubt that Patterson really saw this because lions neither live in caves nor carry their prey anywhere, which hyenas do. When a series of excavations were carried out in this place in 1998, no human remains were found. Did Patterson lie? It could be, but then those who believe it should explain why he did it.

What happened on the Tsavo River reveals totally mysterious animal behavior: For ten months, two solitary lions terrorized hundreds of workers, hunting them at night inside their tents. Neither traps, nor fires, nor thorns could stop them: only two .303 caliber cartridges fired from a Lee-Enfield rifle.

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