The Ghost and The Darkness: The Tsavo Man-Eaters


Colonel Patterson with the first Tsavo lion he shot.

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, under certain circumstances these rules of human/animal interaction do not apply. If a predator, such as a big cat, can no longer access its regular prey, they have no problem switching to humans as a food source. After all, compared to large herbivores we are slow, easy kills. This is especially the case in regions where humans have encroached into predator territory.

Back in 1898, this was the case in the Tsavo region. From March through December of that year, monsters stalked in the darkness of the African night. Known as The Ghost and The Darkness, the pair of predators would become legends known as the Tsavo Man-Eaters.


Monsters on the hunt

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.

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.


The second man-eater.

The second man-eater.

Enter Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson

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.

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.


Not as monstrous as they first appear

Science has shown in recent years that the Tsavo Man-Eaters were not quite as monstrous as the legends surrounding the infamous incident would have them be. This begins with their appearance. Lions in the Tsavo region generally do not have the heavy manes traditionally associated with male lions, because the Tsavo region is drier and a heavy layer of fur would make it harder to stay cool. Their man eating ways were also not entirely unusual. As was mentioned earlier, any big predator will turn to humans if we are A) encroaching on their habitat and B) more plentiful than their normal prey. Arab slave caravans had long traveled through the region, often leaving behind bodies of unfortunate slaves who could not survive the harsh conditions. These became meals for lions, who have no problem being opportunistic scavengers, giving them a taste for human flesh. In addition, sick or injured predators are more likely to go for human prey, because again we’re slower and squishier than a large herbivore. One of the Tsavo Man-Eaters had an infected tooth that would have made it less able to kill its normal prey.

All in all, the story of the Tsavo Man-Eaters is unusual more for the scale of the killings than anything else. Which if anything is more horrifying. Humans are usually content to think of ourselves as the top of the food chain, but we would do well to remember that without our technology, we are little more than small, weak primates in a world full of killing machines who would like nothing better than to make us into lunch.



Borzo, Greg. “Field Museum Uncovers Evidence Behind Man-Eating; revises legend of its infamous man-eating lions.” January 14, 2003. The Field Museum. May 18, 2014.

Janssen, Kim. “Scientists Restate Tsavo lions’ taste for human flesh.” November 2, 2009. Chicago Tribune. May 18, 2014.

Raffaele, Paul. “Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” January 2010. Smithsonian Magazine. May 18, 2014.