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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

The Ghost and The Darkness: The Tsavo Man-Eaters

Written by Matt Granda

By Superx308 Jeffrey Jung email: superx308 at gmail.com – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3596511

Mother Nature can be a terrifying thing.

Natural disasters such as volcanoes and earthquakes can ravage an entire population, and diseases run rampant throughout many parts of the world.

However sometimes it’s our fellow members of the animal kingdom that can be the most horrific of them all.

For centuries, mankind has more often than not seen ourselves to be above the other creatures that inhabit this world with us, but what happens when the wildlife we claim to be superior to fights back?

Whether it be for food, self-defense, or the struggle for territory, nothing can be more terrifying than an angry beast ready to strike.

The year is 1898 in the Tsavo Region of Kenya and British colonialism is in full swing, having been under British control for nearly three years.

The British were ambitious and wanted to construct a mighty railway that would link from Uganda all the way to the Indian Ocean, and construction started on a railway bridge over the Tsavo Region in order to push forward their goal.

The building site was spread over an 8-mile area with several camps within, with a workforce of several thousand mostly Indian workers.

Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson was the head of the bridge project. Irish in ancestry, he was a member of the British Army, as well as an accomplished tiger hunter from his time of service in India.

Soon after his arrival to the worksite though, members of his labor force began to disappear in the night, and that was just the start.

Let the hunt begin.

Arrival in Tsavo

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It was March 1st, 1898, when John Henry Patterson landed in the city of Mombasa, more precisely at the former Portuguese fort, Fort Jesus.

He then took the 20-mile journey by train to the construction site, arriving at Tsavo by sundown the next day and making his way to the camp the next morning.

Construction had been going swimmingly for quite some time, the Indians, or “Coolies” as they were called, working diligently day after day to finish the project.

Things looked to be rather simple, that is until the next day when Patterson was informed that a lion had attacked the camp.

He initially dismissed the attack, even blaming the other Indian workers, saying they killed him in order to get the payment he’d received, but that was all disproven as an assistant of Patterson’s by the name of Singh was also taken by the bloodthirsty beasts 5 days later.

Following the tracks of the large lion, along with the smears of blood in the sand, they soon found the remains of Singh, ripped apart and partially devoured.

They buried the remains and returned to the camp, but not before noting the massacre seemed to be the work of 2 lions.

That night, Patterson set up a tree stand to kill the beasts, but he was soon met with roars, some close and some far, marking the arrival of the beasts.

After three hours, all fell silent, until a scream shattered the calm night air.

The next morning, Patterson was informed that a lion had snuck into the camp, attacked one of the workers and dragged him into the darkness to be devoured.

The next night was more of the same: an attempted trap, a scream from the camp, a missing worker, pawprints and blood in the sand.

Patterson was dealing with a couple of man-eaters, beasts that were silent, deadly…and intelligent.

Days of Terror

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Patterson ordered the camp to be condensed in the thought that it might afford him a better shot, and for the camp to be enclosed in a wall of thorns, which the natives called bomas, along with the construction of larged campfires to keep the site lit throughout the night.

No matter the precautions though, no matter how many hunting attempts and traps were set up, 7 more workers were taken within the following 8 days and progress on the railroad slowed considerably.

More and more attacks occurred over those first two months with more and more of the workers being dragged off and eaten by these cruel beasts.

It got to the point where Patterson himself moved his lodgings into the medical encampment for security as the work progressed.

The construction on the bridge began soon after, the laborers splitting the camp into two with the smaller camp settling next to the bank of the river, surrounded by another boma, and burning the nearby brush so the lions wouldn’t have cover.

They thought the lions would be more likely to stick close to the less guarded encampment… they were wrong.

Over the first few days of construction on the bridge, several workers were taken by the Man-Eaters, who Patterson had come to know as The Ghost and The Darkness.

This included an injured man within the hospital tent and a water carrier, both eaten after they were dragged far off into the distance, their screams fading into the shadows.

Eventually Patterson and a fellow hunter named Dr. Brock made a plan to kill the lions.

Bringing a reinforced enclosed wagon (nicknamed The Coffin) to the site of a recent attack with a pair of goats as bait, the two of them waited, rifles in hand, for the beasts to strike.

That night, one of the lions attacked and they fired, though the blasts temporarily deafened the pair of them.

They missed and the lion retreated, the two of them staying inside The Coffin for their own safety for the night, the lion clearly hunting them as they hunted it.

Come morning, Patterson and Brock emerged and saw that one of the goats was missing.

They hadn’t taken their eyes off the goats, and yet one had been taken right from under their noses, silent as the night.

The Hunt Continues

After this incident, the lions would be absent from the river encampment for two months, not appearing again until July, though 5 workers had been snatched from the main camp within that time.

After those 60 days though, the attacks continued on the riverfront.

The workers had gotten comfortable, they’d begun to sleep outside once more, and the lions took advantage of that, snatching one man in view of nearly everyone, and eventually leaping over the boma regardless of the earnest attempts to save the worker.

Then, in what could perhaps have been an attempt to mock Patterson and the camp, the monsters didn’t even take the poor soul as far as they usually would, devouring the screaming man close by in full earshot of everyone.

After this brazen assault, the attacks came again with renewed vigor, as did the lion’s practice of announcing their intentions to strike by roaring loudly into the night.

Patterson was demoralized, as were all his workers and compatriots.

More and more workers were being taken and eaten, all the while even more men had been leaving in attempts to save their own lives.

Patterson, desperate at this point, wrote to Mombasa and was answered with the arrival of Mr. Whitehead, a District Officer and self-proclaimed big game hunter.

Whitehead received one hell of a welcome too, for as soon as he arrived with his men, he was attacked by one of the lions, receiving a large wound under the armpit and watching as his assistant Abdullah was taken by the beast.

Arriving at the camp, Whitehead constructed a large tiger cage to trap the lions, and while the first night was a failure, the second night bore them fruit.

One of the lions became ensnared in the cage, but because of the fear and clumsiness of the workers with their rifles, not only was the monster uninjured, but they hit the lever that kept the cage shut, allowing the lion to escape into the night.

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Exorcizing the Ghost

Patterson was frustrated and downtrodden at this point, nothing they did seemed to be enough to catch and kill these murderous beasts.

However, one day, he managed to get lucky.

While hunting one of the lions, Patterson had managed to get a shot off, wounding it in the leg before it ran off into the tall grass.

The beast being wounded, Patterson was much more confident, and set up his tree stand once more.

That night, he caught sight of the wounded animal, though it seemed to not have noticed him.

Once it got close enough to shoot, Patterson unloaded several shots towards the beast, one entering through its shoulder and penetrating its heart.

He lost sight of the creature as it ran back into the brush…but the sounds told him all he needed to know as the lion thrashed and whimpered, scrambled and gasped, yowling in agony as it tried to escape.

It didn’t make it far.

The next morning, Patterson took a hunting party out to see if he could locate the wounded beast, and it didn’t take long following the blood smears and pawprints before they found the lion’s corpse, laid out in the tall grass.

The Ghost was dead.

It was an enormous beast, measuring 9 feet 8 inches (2.95 m) from nose to tail tip and 3 feet 9 inches (1.14 m) high to the shoulder, maneless as most Tsavo lions are, and required 8 men to carry it back to the camp.

That day, the camp celebrated the death of one of the monsters that had tormented them for so long, and 10 days passed without  a single attack from the now sole killer.

Banishing the Darkness

Signs of the second lion were discovered close to camp on the 11th day, a goat going missing in the night along with several fresh pawprints.

A moonless night went by and another goat was taken, and soon they found its corpse, the lion unseen, but certainly heard fleeing from its meal.

Patterson set up his stand near the fallen goat, and waited for night to come.

The lion returned that night, Patterson managing to shoot it in the rear, causing it to flee in pain.

10 more days passed before he was able to take another crack at the monster.

Then one night, under the full moon, Patterson spotted the beast, the blackness of night no longer cloaking its movements, though it seemed to not be aware it had been spotted.

There was no doubt that it had seen Patterson though, and it seemed intent on getting to the proud hunter, as if driven by revenge for both its injury and the loss of its hunting partner.

Allowing the brute to come as close as he was comfortable with, Patterson let off five shots with his 303 British, hitting the beast with three of the five.

The lion roared in pain and bounded off, but the wounds were certainly fatal.

The next day, Patterson and his men found the wounded animal, roaring and snarling within a thorn bush.

It charged at Patterson, who shot it multiple times, though it continued forward, driven by pain, anger, and bloodlust.

Patterson scrambled up a tree with his men and, once the lion lept towards him and clung to the tree, Patterson finished the monster with a shot directly to the head.

The Darkness was dead.

The second beast was about the same size as the first, if not slightly larger, at around 9 feet 6 inches (2.90 m) from nose to tail tip, and 3 feet 11 inches (1.19 m) tall, maneless like the first, and its body likewise marred with scars and wounds.

After 10 long months, from March all the way to December, the threat of the Tsavo Man-Eaters was finally over.

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Aftermath and Legacy

Construction on the bridge continued and finished, with the workers presenting Patterson with a silver bowl in appreciation for his heroics, an inscription thanking him for saving their lives and never giving up.

Patterson stated that it was his most prized and hardest won trophy, and he treasured it until his death in June 1947.

Patterson wound up writing a book about the ordeal, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, released in 1907, where much of this information originates from.

The book has also been adapted into several films since, most recently The Ghost and The Darkness in 1996 starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.

The pelts of the lions were used as Patterson’s throw rugs until 1924 when he sold them to the Field Museum of Natural History for $5,000.

The pelts were in poor condition, but were eventually restored and reconstructed, though somewhat smaller than they were in life.

The lions are on display in the museum to this day, along with the skulls of the beasts.

The number of victims of the Tsavo Man-Eaters is debated even to this day, with many experts claiming that it was most likely around 30-40 while Patterson himself stated it was closer to 135, and there are some who argue that these beasts could have been hunting people for even longer than the camp attacks, meaning the total could be closer to 300.

It’s unknown as to why the two male lions turned into man eaters, as their diet seemed to also consist of the normal lion diet of gazelles and water buffalo.

Perhaps they’d somehow overcome their natural fear of mankind and simply saw the workers as a plentiful food source, we may never truly know.

Lion attacks are fairly rare, though in recent years it has gotten more common in Tanzania and Mozambique with sick and desperate lions being to blame.

Outside of possible tooth infections, the Man-eaters were not sick, however, they were strong and fierce, as if they enjoyed the thrill of hunting the prey of man.

Nowadays, we’re one to sterilize lions, seeing them as kind and friendly creature, akin to Simba in The Lion King or Kimba in Kimba the White Lion, but that is simply not the case, as lions are deadly and dangerous creatures that deserve our respect and for us humans to keep our distance under most if not all circumstances.

The lion is called the King of the Jungle for a reason and, in the case of The Ghost and The Darkness, they were not afraid…to show us why.

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