The Ghost and The Darkness, on display in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago Illinois.
I’ve written a lot about serial killers on this blog. Serial killers are the predators among humanity. Amoral, and motivated only by unfathomable urges, they have killed and terrorized likely for as long as there has been civilization. However, humans are not the only animal capable of senseless killing. The animal world has its share of killer beasts as well, monsters our ancestors whispered about around camp fires while casting wary eyes toward the impenetrable blackness of the night.
Most often, animals leave humans alone. If there is an animal attack, often the violence is provoked by a human invading the animal’s territory or otherwise making the animal feel threatened. However, every now and then I’ve come across stories where the normal rules of human/animal interaction do not apply. More often than not, if you leave an animal alone, it will leave you alone. Also, most animals don’t see humans as a food source as we’re not only too small for a big predator but also too dangerous.
Back in 1898, though, all bets were off. From March through December of that year, monsters stalked in the darkness of the African night. The British Empire commissioned the Uganda/Kenya railway be built to connect its colonial territories. The workers used to build the project were primarily Sikhs and Hindus from Britain’s India colony. Designers planned the railway to cross the Tsavo River, which obviously meant that the workers would need to build a bridge to span the waterway.
A typical male lion. Notice the distinct mane, unique among feline species. The Tsavo Man-Eaters lacked manes. Some mane-less males have been reported, although it doesn’t seem to be common.
The best planners in the world couldn’t have foreseen what would happen next. Panic began to ripple through the work camp when workers began to disappear, dragged screaming into the night by some massive predator, only to be found killed and shredded when the morning sun peeked over the horizon. Nothing the workers did–from building massive fires to scare the beasts to surrounding their encampments with fences of thorns–kept the attackers at bay. Fear of The Ghost and The Darkness–the worker’s name for the predators that plagued them–became so widespread that many workers fled. For all intents and purposes, construction came to a halt.
What were these creatures that inspired such terror among the work crews? The killers stalking hapless construction crews were a pair of mane-less male lions. It is odd, although not unheard of, that a pair of adult male lions would be lack a mane. And adults they were, at least in terms of size–the first of the pair to be shot was about 10 feet long, which is huge for a lion (or any animal for that matter) and it took 8 men to carry the corpse back to camp. Their appearance wasn’t the only strange thing about them. Lions do attack people from time to time, but again only if said people are in their territory. Or alone. These animals deliberately attacked a large gathering of humans, and some contemporary accounts of the attacks claim that the lions didn’t always eat their victims. In some cases, it seems, the lions killed simply to kill.
If this sounds like something from a monster movie, well, just wait. It gets better. Or worse I guess, if you were a Sikh or Hindu rail worker. Not only were The Ghost and The Darkness brutal, they were also cunning. Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, leader of the project, set out to kill the animals so that the project could continue as planned. In true monster movie fashion though, they didn’t go down easy.
Patterson and the first Tsavo lion. Notice the large size and the lack of a mane.
When Patterson set out to hunt the lions, he soon found himself hunted. He shot the first lion in the rump, only to have it come back and stalk him that night even as he hunted it. Patterson had to shoot the thing several more times before he managed to bring it down. The second lion didn’t go down easy either–Patterson shot it five times, and then even when it was laying their crippled it tried to charge him again. Three more shots rang out, and the beast was dead.
All told, the death toll from the Ghost and the Darkness’ killing spree was exceptionally high for a series of animal attacks. Patterson claimed that 135 workers were killed in that 9 month period. Modern estimates, based on complex measurements of various isotopes taken from the bones of the Tsavo man-killers, put the number at closer to 35.
We may never know just how many lives were lost during the killing spree. The biggest mystery around this case, too, remains unanswered. Why did these lions act so contrary to their species’ normal behavior?
Nobody knows. Various explanations have been set forward. Some claim that the Hindu practice of cremating their dead left partially burned bodies for the lions to consume, which gave them a taste for human flesh.
The predominate explanation, based upon examination of the lion’s remains, claims that one lion had a severely damaged tooth that kept it from eating its normal prey and forced it to turn to a plentiful, easier to catch alternative which the British Empire kindly provided when it decided to build its railway through the lion’s territory. There are problems with that explanation as well, as it doesn’t explain why the second animal began to hunt humans. It also doesn’t explain the unusual size and odd appearance of both animals, and why, if the reports of the behavior are accurate, they would sometimes kill just for the sake of it.
No one knows. It seems I use those three words a lot on this site, doesn’t it? We live in an odd world, and while science has helped us to understand a great deal of it, many mysteries and unanswered questions abound. We may never fully know what made The Ghost and The Darkness commit their killing spree so long ago.