Kenya wants man-eating lions. But who doesn’t?

Tsavo Maneaters: Even scary in black and white.
Tsavo Maneaters: Even scary in black and white.
Last week I made a trip to Chicago with the sole purpose of going to the Field Museum. I had never been there before, and I was not disappointed. I saw plenty of cool stuff, including the stuffed bodies of the famous Tsavo man-eating lions. Coincidentally, last week the National Museum of Kenya demanded the return of the lions to Nairobi, claiming that they are important artifacts of the country’s history and heritage. I’m all for it – as long as I’ve seen the lions, I really don’t care what happens to them. I make all my decisions that way.

I do recommend that you look into the story of the lions, though. It’s pretty “badass” (I got that term off of the text on the Field Museum’s display). The short version of the story is this: In 1898, during the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo River for the Kenya-Uganda railway (dubbed “The Lunatic Express”), two exceptionally large, maneless male lions killed and ate about 140 railway workers over the course of nine months. That’s so many people.

The workers built thorn fences around their encampment, and set traps for the animals, but the lions were always able to crawl through the barriers, and avoid the traps and any ambush attempts, to drag men from their tents and eat them. Eventually Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson (an engineer overseeing the bridge’s construction) was able to shoot and kill the lions, although he claimed that each was able to withstand several shots from his rifle before falling.

Scientists are still unsure as to cause of the Tsavo maneaters unusual aggression and preference for human flesh, but several theories have been put forth. Some think that the lions’ skulls indicate that each had abscessed gums, which could have made attacking large and tougher animals too painful. Another theory is that an outbreak of rinderpest disease (a viral infection effecting cattle and related species) had decimated the lions’ usual food source, and forced them to seek other prey (i.e., humans). John Patterson’s journals also indicate that the graves of deceased workers had been disturbed and that the bodies had been removed, and some believe that the lions developed their taste for humans by scavenging in this way, and then modified their behavior to capture the sleeping workers from their tents.

The movie The Ghost and the Darkness is about the Tsavo events. It stars Michael Douglass and international film sensation Madmartigan.

Any thoughts on artifact repatriation, or about the lions specifically?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Ben's picture
Ben says:

Once we start returning the artifacts where does it end? Do we return everything we have ever collected?
Man eating lions, tigers, and bears; OH MY! Good reason not to go out in the wild without the means to protect yourself from 2 or 4 legged creatures.

posted on Mon, 09/17/2007 - 7:35am
Joe's picture
Joe says:

Well, I think if something was collected in a way that was unethical or in some way did not consult their country of origin, its probably the right thing to do. If someone nicked the Liberty Bell and had it on display in another country we'd probably ask for it back.

posted on Tue, 09/18/2007 - 5:47pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

You saw the Lions of Tsavo exhibit? Wasn't that the coolest exhibit ever?!?! Isn't the development of that display the most impressive you have ever encountered?! And weren't the labels simply the most stunningly well-written labels in all of museology!? I certainly think so! Not that I'm biased or anything. Just an objective observation, that's all.

posted on Mon, 09/17/2007 - 9:37am
mdr's picture
mdr says:

I was shocked -- shocked, I tell you -- when I saw the display last year and learned that male lions in some regions don't have manes! It just doesn't make sense to me. How can they tell them from females?

posted on Mon, 09/17/2007 - 10:44am
Dave's picture
Dave says:

About the "maneless" male lions...the Tsavo lions were killed at two years of age. They simply hadn't time to fully develop thier manes. Full manes come in at 6-8 years of age, depending on the region. Tsavo is very hot, and males develop their manes more slowly in that region.

posted on Mon, 10/06/2014 - 9:54pm
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Looks like Yale University has agreed to return artifacts to Peru, so I guess there must be a return the loot trend taking place now.

posted on Mon, 09/17/2007 - 11:15pm
Joe's picture
Joe says:

Is Brotherhood of the Wolf also loosely based on this? But in France? And with wolves and not lions? That film is also "badass". Am I the only one seeing the connection? Probably.

posted on Tue, 09/18/2007 - 5:50pm
Elidan's picture
Elidan says:

Since the museum paid Patterson for the lions, and he is the one who shot them, they should be allowed to keep them. Perhaps they might loan them to Kenya for a short time.

posted on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 6:39pm

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