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The Tsavo Man-Eaters



This short History Channel spot describes the two man-eating lions of Tsavo, Kenya who were accused of killing and eating 135 men in 1898 (the real number of deaths is unknown).  All of the modern stories of man-eating animals date from this true story. These deadly lions have been dramatized in books, movies, and even video games. The most famous is "The Ghost And The Darkness", a 1996 movie that took great liberty with the story. These lions have also been the subject of serious research, as scientists debated why the lions took to hunting humans and how many people did they actually kill and eat.


At the famed Chicago Field Museum in a sealed diorama are the mounted skins of the two Tsavo lions.  Both animals are males but do not have the distinctive manes of hair around their neck (a common feature on Tsavo lions in around the river region of the country). The animals' faces are thin, and their pelts smooth for large cats over nine feet long. One lies in on the ground, while the other stands in an almost alert pose.  The sedate scene does not convey the horrific history of these two lions.

The story of the Tsavo lions begins in March 1898, when a team of Indian engineers and experienced bridge workers led by British Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson British Army D.S.O. (Ret.) arrived in Kenya to build a bridge over the Tsavo River, as part of the Kenya-Uganda Railway project. The project was likely doomed from the start. First, Tsavo means, "place of slaughter." Secondly, the construction workers were primarily from India and knew nothing of the dangers to be found in the African bush. Third, these lions were different.

According to Zoologists, the Tsavo lion is a very different large cat as compared to the Serengeti lion, which is smaller and heavily maned. The Tsavo lion is a bigger, burlier lion than its highland relatives primarily because of its primary prey, the Cape Buffalo (one of the nastiest tempered animals on the African continent).

Shortly after Lt. Col. Patterson and his engineering group arrived in the Tsavo region, men began to disappear, presumed to have run off to find better work.  When they noted that one of their most trusted men had gone missing they began a search which quickly uncovered the porter's mutilated body.

As Patterson hunted for the lions, the killings continued.  The lions circumvented every fence, barrier or trap erected to keep them out and the workers safe. Hundreds of workers fled the site, putting a stop to the rail line and bridge construction. Those who remained lived in fear of the night.  The British financed Ugandan Railway Company was in serious trouble owing to the fact that it had signed multiple contracts with various businesses worth several million British pounds (which was to provide the return on investment to its British financiers).  No rail line and no bridge meant bankruptcy to the Ugandan Railway Company and a significant disgrace to their parent group in London.

The killing finally ended in when Patterson killed the first lion on December 9, 1898.  On December 27 he wounded the second man-eater and then tracked the lion for two days before killing it on the December 29, 1898.  

With the threat over, work on the rail line and bridge continued and was finished in February 1899. Lt. Col. Patterson kept the lions' skins and skulls and wrote a bestselling book about the attacks, "The Man-Eaters of Tsavo."  25 years later the skins, skulls and bones were sold to the Chicago Field Museum, where they were mounted and placed on display and remain so today.

The museum spent years studying the lions using chemical tests of their hair and bone which confirmed that these lions had eaten human flesh for months before they were killed.  The tests confirmed that one of the lions, in particular, preyed on humans, revealing that half of its diet for its last nine months consisted of human flesh. The rest came from eating local herbivores.

The research supported the narrative that the two lions worked together as a hunting unit.  Zoologists theorized that the two lions came in together to scatter their prey, something most lions only do when hunting large animals such as zebras. One lion then concentrated on human prey while the other mostly fed on herbivores. This alone makes the Tsavo lions unique.  According to zoologist Bruce Patterson: "The idea that the two lions were going in as a team yet exhibiting dietary preferences has never been seen before or since,".

In 2017, Dr. Larisa DeSantis looked deeper into the lions' diets by studying the clues found on the animals’ teeth, called dental microwear texture analysis. They looked not only at the Tsavo lions, but also from a lion from Eastern Kenya that killed and ate six people in 1991. Their new research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.  The study revealed that the lion that ate the most people had several dental diseases, a poorly aligned jaw and damage to its skull. It likely turned to human prey out of desperation. At the same time as the Tsavo killings, a significant decline in the lion's normal prey was noted, mostly because of the rail and bridge construction. When the human factor forced the prey to move, that's when man became the lion's replacement dinner.


As I went back and visited this story in books, movies, and documentary, I began to look at this event more as a business continuity response than a particular trait of leadership or intent.  Lt. Col. Patterson not only organized the hunt for the lions but put in place the countermeasures outlined above to try and bring calm and order to the work camp. He consulted with tribal elders, hunting experts and used his military experience to create the safest possible design of the work camp to thwart the lions (which at first failed).

He was under extreme pressure from the Ugandan Railway Company and its parent group of financial backers in London who saw a financial disaster on the horizon if they did not meet construction schedule milestones.  Patterson focused on resuming business after construction operations ceased by ensuring that critical operations continued like delivery of material, health, welfare, and care of his workers. Most importantly, he saw that daylight work continued (the lions hunted almost exclusively at night).  Patterson demonstrated that even high impact, low probability events could occur, and the operational outline could continue.

The most important thing Patterson did was to prioritize the critical needs of the camp and its objectives.  Safety first, but operational activity reports that were transmitted to London showing construction activity contained a mere mention that lions have been observed in the area, and that safety precautions are being put in place.  As attacks became more frequent, reports to London noted the lion issue and that it was being addressed.

With critical services and products identified, Patterson prioritized objectives based on minimum acceptable risk with the maximum period of time for construction milestones to be met.  With a focus on daily operational cost with the lions presumed activity, Patterson determined the impact of these events when acquiring competent workers, delivery of required material, loss of revenue from their London backers, and additional expenses and the intangible losses due to no quantifiable guarantee of safety for the workers.  All of this “business must get done", while he hunted the lions at night.

While no American business today may be concerned with man-eating lions, we do contend with natural and man-made threats that can affect everyday business or our home lives.  There is an old West African saying that modern businesses might consider “Opportunity does not waste time with those who are unprepared.”

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