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Were bad teeth to blame for these man-eaters’ taste for humans?
Tucked within an arresting collection of taxidermied mammals of Africa in the Rice Gallery, the man-eating lions of Tsavo are two of the Field Museum’s most famous residents—and also the most infamous.
In March 1898, the British started building a railway bridge over the Tsavo (SAH-vo) River in Kenya. But the project took a deadly turn when, over the next nine months, two maneless male lions mysteriously developed a taste for humans and went on a killing spree.
The rise and fall of the Tsavo lions
Crews tried and failed to scare the lions away, forcing people to flee the area and halting construction on the bridge. Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, the civil engineer at the helm of the railway project, took matters into his own hands so that work could continue on the railway.
The lions’ reign of terror ended when Colonel Patterson (no relation to our current MacArthur Curator of Mammals Bruce Patterson) shot and killed them in late 1898, and the railroad was completed a few months later.
He later told the story of the lions, and the hunt that eventually took them down, in his book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures . Patterson reported that the lions’ feeding frenzy took the lives of 135 railway workers and native Africans. Later research by Field Museum scientists drastically reduced that estimate to 35 (which is still disconcerting!).
The lions’ journey to Chicago
Patterson turned the fearsome felines into trophy rugs from his hunt, and they remained harmless floor ornaments until 1925, when he sold them to the Field Museum during a trip through Chicago.
Museum staff restored the lions to their former glory—minus the appetite—by mounting them as taxidermy specimens and displaying them in a diorama.
In addition to Patterson’s written account, several movies are based on his tale of the man-eating lions, including The Ghost and the Darkness . The 1996 film contained some glaring inaccuracies, including casting lions with manes for the part, but the story captivated moviegoers and increased interest in these infamous lions.
A third man-eating lion from Mfuwe, Zambia, dined on six people in 1991. That specimen is also on display in the museum, on the ground level.
How we study the Tsavo lions
Using archival documents, Assistant Collections Manager Tom Gnoske and Adjunct Curator Julian Kerbis questioned whether the lions had eaten as many people as initially reported. In 2008, a team of scientists including the Field's Bruce Patterson helped discover just how many people they ate. The scientists examined the lions’ skeletons and pelts—specifically, their bone collagen and hair keratin levels—to get a more accurate picture of what the lions had been eating in the months leading up to their death. This research revealed that the lions ate closer to 35 humans—about 100 fewer than Colonel Patterson’s original estimate.
The bigger mystery, though, is why the Tsavo lions got an appetite for people. Was it food scarcity and desperation? A habitual dietary choice made after feasting on the remains of conveniently already-dead railway workers? Or was it the crippling aftereffects of dental injury?
Several researchers—including Bruce Patterson and Larisa DeSantis of Vanderbilt University—have been just as captivated by these lions as the museumgoers who flock to the display. Using state-of-the-art technology to research the lions’ skulls, they found that the wear patterns on their teeth resembled those of zoo lions, which eat soft foods and do not crack bones. Previous X-ray imaging of the lions' remains found that they suffered from severe dental issues, including a root-tip abscess in one lion’s canine.
Researchers now believe the lions of Tsavo—as well as the Mfuwe lion also on display at the Field—switched to humans for practical reasons: they were easier to catch and chew.
Research continues today. After rediscovering the cave deemed the "Man-Eaters' Den" in 1997, Gnoske and Kerbis continue to explore the mysteries of the Tsavo lions, including studying hairs from various prey the lions ate.
The importance of museum collections
The lions of Tsavo drive home the fascination and importance of museum collections. Bruce Patterson says:
"It’s astonishing that, [more than a hundred] years after their death, we can be talking about not only how many people they ate, but differences in the behavior of two animals, all from skins and skulls in a museum collection. When you think of the hundreds of thousands of specimens upstairs and all the stories they have to tell, … the value of museum collections is just astronomical."
Related content, Check this out
Tsavo Man-Eaters: The True Story of the Ghost and the Darkness
In 1898 two African lions, known locally as "The Ghost" and "The Darkness", killed a number of workers on the East Africa Railroad at the Tsavo River and halted the project until they were hunted down and shot by a British foreman. The incident was described in a book titled The Man-Eaters of Tsavo that became, in 1996, the basis for a movie starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. Today, the mounted taxidermy skins of the two lions are on display in the Field Museum in Chicago. Join me below for the real history of the Ghost and the Darkness.
The Tsavo Man-Eaters, on display at the Field Museum in Chicago.
In 1896, the British decided to construct a railroad in their East African colony, running from the coastal port city of Mombasa, in modern-day Kenya, all the way to Lake Victoria and then on to Uganda. Officially named the Uganda Railroad, it was mocked by critics as "The Lunatic Line" and was said to run "from nowhere to nowhere". The British colonialists hoped that the railroad would encourage people to move into the interior of Africa, and would provide a method of transporting trade products between Africa and Europe. Thousands of laborers (called "coolies") were imported from India to build the railroad, which would cover about 580 miles, cross several rivers and valleys, and take over 30 years to complete, reaching Nairobi in 1899, Kismu on the shore of Lake Victoria in 1901, and Kampala, Uganda in 1928. It was considered a shining symbol of modern British progress in the "civilization" of what was then known as "The Dark Continent".
In February 1898, two years into its construction, the railroad line had reached the Tsavo River in Kenya, 130 miles northwest of Mombasa. A temporary bridge was built to allow the track to cross the river and continue being built on the other side. In March, British Army Colonel John Henry Patterson was brought in from India to oversee the construction of a permanent railroad bridge across the river. The river valley was about 100 yards wide. Patterson began by locating a source of suitable stone about three miles away and building a small tram line to the bridge site. These stones would be used to form foundation piers in the river bed, upon which the bridge pillars would be constructed. Meanwhile, construction of the actual railway continued. Because of this, several thousand workers were scattered in a string of camps along the railroad over a distance of some 20 miles. Patterson was responsible for all of them.
Within just a few days of Patterson's arrival, people began to disappear.
At first, Patterson didn't believe the natives who told him that there was a lion attacking the workers. Quickly, however, reports of lion sightings began coming in, and the remains of dead workers began to be found. It became clear that there were at least two lions involved. Every few days, one of the lions would strike at one of the scattered campsites, then another, attacking horses, donkeys, goats, cattle, and people. The Indian workers constructed protective fences around their camps, known as a boma , made from the thorny branches of Acacia trees, and kept campfires burning all night, but still the lions found their way through. In one incident, one of the lions clawed its way into a tent and attacked a sleeping worker, but in the confusion dragged away the worker's mattress instead--when it realized its mistake, the lion dropped the mattress and ran off.
By April, the railroad rails extended some 40 miles away from Tsavo, and only a few hundred workers remained behind to construct the bridge. They were concentrated into a number of camps at the bridge site, and this is where the lions now began to concentrate their hunts. Patterson spent several nights perched in a tree with his rifle hoping to spot the lions, but couldn't find them. One night, one of the lions broke into the hospital tent and dragged away one of the patients. Patterson decided to move the hospital tent to a different spot, but the next night, the lion returned to the new location and dragged the water-carrier out of the hospital--his head and one of his hands were found the next morning.
Patterson then moved the hospital tent again, and placed a railroad car with some cattle inside at the old location. Accompanied by the camp doctor, he stayed up all night with his rifle, hoping the lion would return. And it did. The lion managed to get into the boxcar and kill one of the cattle, but couldn't figure out how to drag the body out through the boma fence. Instead, it began to stalk Patterson and the doctor. When it attacked, Patterson managed to wound it in the mouth with a rifle shot, breaking off one of the canine teeth.
After that, the lions apparently left the area for a few weeks (Patterson later learned that they had been raiding one of the construction camps at the railroad, which was now many miles away). Assuming they would be back, Patterson constructed a mechanical trap inside the railway car that would drop a set of iron bars if anything entered. For several nights in a row, Patterson himself was the bait, spending the night inside the boxcar to try to lure one of the lions in.
A few weeks later, the lions were back. One of the cats entered a boma and dragged one of the workers out, where he was joined by the second lion. They ate the worker just 30 yards away from the camp. For the next several months, the lions would periodically return to make another kill. On December 1, most of the workers boarded one of the trains and left. Only a small number remained behind to finish the bridge.
Two days later, the Superintendent of Police arrived with 20 men to help hunt down the lions. That night, one of the lions finally entered the boxcar trap, but despite a number of shots being fired at it from close range, was able to get out. The Police Superintendent and his men spent several days looking for the lions, with no success. They left, after providing Patterson with a high-powered hunting rifle.
On December 9, one of the lions killed a donkey and, as it ate, Patterson instructed a group of workers to approach it making as much noise as possible, to drive it into the open. When the lion emerged, Patterson managed to wound it with the rifle. Expecting that the lion would return that night to his kill, Patterson built a wooden platform and waited. The lion indeed returned, but ignored the dead donkey and approached Patterson instead. Patterson killed it with two rifle shots.
One lion remained, and a few nights later it attacked two goats. Patterson set out three more goats as bait, tying them to a short section of railroad tie, and waited. The lion returned, killed one of the goats, then dragged the entire railroad tie, still attached to the goat, away. Patterson's shots missed. The next morning, Patterson and a group of workers followed the trail and found the lion, which ran off. Patterson built another wooden platform, and when the lion returned that night, wounded it with two shots.
For the next ten days, nothing happened, and Patterson concluded that the lion had died of its wounds. Then, the lion returned and made an unsuccessful attack on a worker sleeping in a tree. That night, Patterson lay in ambush in the same tree, and when the lion returned, wounded it twice more. In the morning, they followed the blood trail and found the lion, which charged at them. Patterson killed it with two more shots. It was December 29, 1898.
Examination of the two dead lions showed that they were both males and were, like most of the lions in the Tsavo region, maneless. Most likely, they were brothers--young male lions without a pride of their own often form small packs or partnerships.
In 1996, Patterson's 1907 book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo , was adapted into a Hollywood screenplay titled "The Ghost and the Darkness", which starred Val Kilmer as Patterson and Michael Douglas as the fictional big-game hunter character Charles Remington.
For years, there was much debate over just how many people the two lions actually killed over the nine-month period, with estimates running from the railroad company's figure of 28 to Patterson's figure of 135. In 2009, a team of biologists was able to do a chemical analysis on hair and skin samples from the Field Museum specimens, and used isotope ratios to determine the chemical makeup of the proteins in the lion's diet during their last months of life. They concluded that one of the Tsavo lions had eaten around 11 humans, and that the other had eaten around 24. That meant that one of the lions ate mostly herbivores with only about one-third of its diet coming from humans, while the other made up almost two-thirds of its diet with humans.
Patterson kept the skulls from both lions, and used their skins as rugs. In 1924, he sold the remains of the man-eaters to the Field Museum in Chicago, where they were mounted and put on display in 1928. They are still there today.
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The Ghost and the Darkness
A bridge engineer and an experienced old hunter begin a hunt for two lions after they start attacking local construction workers. A bridge engineer and an experienced old hunter begin a hunt for two lions after they start attacking local construction workers. A bridge engineer and an experienced old hunter begin a hunt for two lions after they start attacking local construction workers.
- Stephen Hopkins
- William Goldman
- Michael Douglas
- Tom Wilkinson
- 212 User reviews
- 73 Critic reviews
- 46 Metascore
- See more at IMDbPro
- 1 win & 5 nominations total
- Charles Remington
- Col. John Henry Patterson
- Robert Beaumont
- Dr. David Hawthorne
- Angus Starling
- Helena Patterson
- Indian Victim
- (as Rakeem Khan)
- Nervous Sikh Orderly
- Nigel Bransford
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- Trivia Director Stephen Hopkins said about filming: "We had snake bites, scorpion bites, tick bite fever, people getting hit by lightning, floods, torrential rains and lightning storms, hippos chasing people through the water, cars getting swept into the water, and several deaths of crew members including two drownings... Val came to the set under the worst conditions imaginable. He was completely exhausted from doing " The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) "; he was dealing with the unfavorable publicity from that set; he was going through a divorce; he barely had time to get his teeth into this role before we started filming, and he is in nearly every scene in this movie. But I worked him 6 or 7 days a week for 4 months under really adverse conditions, and he really came through. He had a passion for this film."
- Goofs Mahina's (a Muslim) body is burned in a funeral pyre after he is killed and his fellow Muslim workers are shown praying at the event. Cremation is strictly forbidden in Islam.
Mahina : You know, I also have killed a lion.
Angus Starling : How many shots did you need?
Mahina : I used my hands.
- Crazy credits The beginning of the end credits is shown with a photograph of the real bridge as background.
- Connections Edited into Kot (2005)
- Soundtracks Hamara Haath (Our Hands Unite) Written and Produced by George Acogny Performed by The Worldbeaters with The Johannesburg Choir, featuring Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
User reviews 212
- Dec 4, 2013
- October 11, 1996 (United States)
- United States
- Ác Thú Và Bóng Đêm
- Tsavo National Park, Kenya
- Constellation Entertainment
- Douglas/Reuther Productions
- Bernina Film
- See more company credits at IMDbPro
- $55,000,000 (estimated)
- Oct 13, 1996
- Runtime 1 hour 50 minutes
- Dolby Digital
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The Ghost and The Darkness
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The Ghost and The Darkness  are a combined entity formed with the two stuffed bodies of the Man-Eaters of Tsavo, a pair of man-eating lions who killed construction workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway in 1898.
- 3 Classification
- 4 Appearances
- 5 References
History [ ]
While the Chicago Ghostbusters examined the Field Museum of Natural History 's World of Gozer exhibit before it was debuted to the public, Tiamat used her power to combine the Ghost and the Darkness on display into one being and animated it. The entity entered the World of Gozer area and pounced Ron Alexander . Rookie detected another reading on the P.K.E. Meter and followed it rather than help Ron. Despite the inherent danger, Ron fired his Boson Caster at short range and blew off one of the Man-Eaters' heads. However, in its place, an ethereal head manifested. Rookie and Ilyssa Selwyn found an active Gozerian artifact with the warning "Beware" emblazoned on it. Rookie destroyed the artifact and the Man-Eaters entity was reduced to a bloody fur coat. Ron passed the coat onto Ilyssa, who revealed she had a contract with the Board of Trustees that stipulated she wouldn't be held responsible for any damages caused by supernatural forces.
- On page eight of Ghostbusters Volume 2 Issue #15 , there is a flier about the Ghost and the Darkness posted outside Ray's Occult Books .
Classification [ ]
The Ghost and the Darkness are corporeal Class 6 entities. 
Appearances [ ]
- "Field Trip"
References [ ]
- ↑ Narrator (2016). Insight Editions - " Tobin's Spirit Guide " (2016) (Book p.29). Paragraph reads: "Indeed, the Windy City has seen the ghosts of slaughtered cattle stampeding through the streets and goring pedestrians on the Magnificent Mile; an attempted invasion of Lake Michigan by a massive spectral shark from Shedd Aquarium; and even the reanimation of the infamous man-eating lions known as the Ghost and the Darkness displayed at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History."
- ↑ Narrator (2016). Insight Editions - " Tobin's Spirit Guide " (2016) (Book p.28). Paragraph reads: "CLASS VI. MAY BE CORPOREAL."
Gallery [ ]
- 3 Ecto Cooler