Man-Eating Lions Not Aberrant, Experts Say

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
Updated January 4, 2004

In 1898 a pair of maneless male lions purportedly killed and ate some 135 people during a nine-month rampage near Kenya's Tsavo River.

By re-examining this incident and others, researchers at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, found evidence suggesting that lions dining on humans might not be as unusual as previously supposed. The study, published in the Journal of East African Natural History, is one of the first to use scientific methods to examine the often-sensationalized subject of man-eating lions.

"Man eaters have historically been considered aberrant or exceptional," said study co-author Julian Kerbis Peterhans, an adjunct curator of mammals at The Field Museum and an associate professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois. "In fact they are carnivores that have always included primates [such as humans] as part of their diets," he said.

Lions may have repeatedly attacked humans as prey because of certain environmental conditions, researchers suggest. They also note that man-eating lion behavior continues today.

Reign of Terror

Despite other cases of lions eating humans, some involving higher death tolls, the much-romanticized Tsavo story endures. The incident, dubbed the "reign of terror" in popular accounts, was featured in the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness.

Various accounts of a pair of marauding lions in Kenya during 1898 probably inflated the number of humans killed. At the time, it was reported that 135 bridge construction workers were attacked and eaten. The incident temporarily halted the creation of a railroad linking Lake Victoria with Mombassa on Africa's eastern seaboard. A British officer, Colonel John Henry Patterson, eventually killed the lions, and the skins were sold to the Field Museum after Patterson lectured there in 1924.

"The Man-eaters of Tsavo have long-garnered a disproportionate place in popular imagination," said Craig Packer, a behavioral ecologist with the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. The incident may have been romanticized since it coincided with initial western impressions of East Africa, said Packer. In addition, it has "added a lot of spice" to Kenya's safari industry, he said.

Testing the Myth

Kerbis Peterhans and Field Museum colleague Thomas P. Gnoske decided to test the myths behind man-eating lions and examine legends surrounding the man-eaters of the Tsavo region.

During the 1990s the pair examined museum specimens of problem lions, and compiled anecdotes, historical accounts, and field journals. In addition, they combed scientific literature spanning 150 years. By comparing man-eating incidents, they were able to verify many circumstances often associated with the behavior.

Rather than being deranged oddities equipped with supernatural abilities, lions are often driven to man-eating because of man-made circumstances beyond their control, said Kerbis Peterhans.

Continued on Next Page >>


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