All Things Kenyan

The Maneaters of Tsavo By Col. Patterson

The railway in Kenya was built around the turn of the 20th century. The idea was to have a train go from Mombasa to the port on Lake Victoria, which is in Kisumu, Kenya. The British press dubbed it the “Lunatic Line” or the “Lunatic Plan”. The press thought it was a ridiculous idea to build a railway through the jungles of Africa. Today, the Kenya railway is nicknamed the “Lunatic Express”.

Perhaps, it was a lunatic idea to build the railway. After all, the lions in Kenya seemed to think so. As the story goes, the track had been laid down starting from Mombasa and going towards Kisumu. When the railway workers, made up of mostly Indian (Asian) workers called coolies, got to the Tsavo area, about 132 miles from Mombasa, they encountered a rather unexpected problem. Lions. Two lions had developed a taste for human flesh. Some people feel these lions had come across some human remains that had been improperly buried and found humans to be rather tasty.

At this stage in the building of the railway, Col. Patterson was in charge of the operation. He later wrote a book “The Maneaters of Tsavo” detailing his experiences with the lions and building the railroad. At first Col. Patterson didn’t believe that there were lions actually feeding on his crew. Then after a few of his workers went missing and he found their remains Col. Patterson realized he had a problem. Two lions were managing to attack and kill one worker a week.

Col. Patterson had fences built around each encampment out of bomas, a thick thorny bush. Patterson felt the lions would stay away since they couldn’t possibly get through the bomas fences. He was wrong. These lions, nicknamed “The Ghost” and “The Darkness” for their cleverness, got through these fences and killed more workers. The lions got bolder and started attacking workers almost daily. These two lions got so bold they would drag their victims just outside the bomas fence and eat them right there, within earshot of everyone. According to Col. Patterson’s account you could even hear the lions purring and crunching the bones of their victims.

Why didn’t they just shoot these lions? Well, the lions always came in the middle of the night. In Kenya it is very dark and the men could only see about three feet in front of them. When the lions did attack, Col. Patterson and a few other brave men would grab their guns and start shooting in the direction of the lions – always missing them. These lions were very lucky and clever. So much so, the coolies and native people felt that they were dealing with demons in lion form.

Eventually, Col. Patterson himself managed to kill both lions. He shot one lion in the shoulder, but the lion took off and returned about ten days later to feed on more workers. That lion was shot five or six more times before it finally died.

If you would like to read about Col. Patterson’s adventures with these infamous lions and the building of the Kenya railway you can buy his book The Maneaters of Tsavo at There is also a documentary video The Maneaters of Tsavo based on Col. Patterson’s book and a movie that was released in 1996 called The Ghost and the Darkness starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer.