Maneless lions legendary for more than a century
The Ghosts of Tsavo
by Philip Caputo
Adventure Press (c/o National Geographic Society, 1145 17th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036), 2002. 275 pages, hardcover. $27.00.
The Lions of Tsavo:
Exploring the Legacy of Africa’s Notorious Man-eaters
by Bruce D. Patterson
McGraw-Hill Co. (Two Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121), 2004. 231 pages, hardcover. $24.95.
Both reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Eight years after shooting two maneless male lions who had killed as many as 135 railway workers in a two-year binge, Colonel John H. Patterson in 1907 published The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, the first authoritative book about the already famous episode.
Financially stressed, Patterson in 1925 sold the pelts of the two lions to the Field Museum in Chicago. Stuffed and mounted as a prominent exhibit, the pelts sustained interest in the serial attacks sufficient that Paramount Pictures produced the film The Ghost & The Darkness in 1996. The film took a few liberties in condensing incidents and characters, but remained close to the well-known history.
Two more recent investigations
Drawing heavily upon research by Bruce D. Patterson of the Field Museum, Philip Caputo published The Ghosts of Tsavo in 2002, exploring and eventually rejecting the possibility that the two maneless lions were representatives of a different subspecies from the familiar African lion.
(The Caputo book is not to be confused with Ghosts of Tsavo, a 2015 mystery romance by Vered Ehsani.)
Bruce D. Patterson contributed his own theories about The Ghost and The Darkness and two years later in The Lions of Tsavo (2004).
Found lions’ cave
Patterson and Dr. Samuel Kaseki of the Kenya Wildlife Service have together retraced every known step of the stories of The Ghost and The Darkness, who hunted humans together more avidly yet elusively than any other lions on record.
Discovering a compass error in Colonel John Patterson’s description of the site, Bruce D. Patterson and Kaseki found and explored the long-lost cave that the lions had supposedly filled with human remains. Flooding long since emptied it, and it may have been a tribal burial location, not a lion dining hall––but even if it was a tribal burial chamber, the lions might have feasted there.
Meat-hunting to feed railway workers
Looking into local history, Patterson established that the attacks of The Ghost and The Darkness were not without precedent, nor without subsequent parallel. Meat-hunting to feed the railway builders and epidemics of plague, rinderpest, and dysentery had simultaneously thinned the Tsavo wildlife while making human remains abundant. Many of the recent dead were Hindu laborers whose coworkers’ attempts at traditional cremation were often incomplete.
In effect, the Tsavo lions were taught to eat people. The Ghost and The Darkness, who were relatively elderly, with bad teeth, had more incentive than most to make a habit of it.
The most important part of The Lions of Tsavo is Patterson’s exploration of how their story influenced the subsequent attitudes of Kenyans toward wildlife, especially in the future Tsavo National Park (created in 1949), and what will become of the present-day Tsavo lions as human activity increasingly surrounds the park.
Patterson leans toward the common view of U.S. hunter/conservationists that hunting the Tsavo lions may become necessary to keep them from overpopulating the limited habitat.
Unlike Caputo, however, who is an enthusiastic hunter, Patterson seems to accept the idea rather than like it, and seems to accept it chiefly from not seeing any viable alternatives.
Patterson wrote, however, just before recent advances in wildlife contraception which suggest the possibility of restricting reproduction, as habitat conditions require, without permanently interfering in pride structure and without turning lions into a cash crop, as they have become in much of southern Africa.
The Lions of Tsavo is likely to stand as the most definitive of all the accounts of The Ghost and The Darkness, and is a valuable source of background about the ongoing struggle, heavily funded by U.S.-based trophy hunting proponents, over keeping the 1977 Kenyan national ban on sport hunting.
Caputo & Hemingway
Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and novelist, several times digresses from his focus on the title animals of The Ghosts of Tsavo to defend hunting in passages which, outside of the opening few chapters, about three other men’s hunt for a human-eating lion, seem chiefly defensive and irrelevant.
Despite Caputo’s anachronistic soliloquies about hunting, however, his ability as a reporter and suspenseful author must be appreciated––along with a strong parallel between his narrative and the stories of Ernest Hemingway about lion hunting in many of the same locations.
Cultivated macho image
Caputo is too grounded a reporter to directly liken himself to Hemingway, which would come across as fatuous, but invites comparison.
Both men made their names writing of a foreign war they had experienced in youth, became distinguished journalists as young men, enjoyed early success in writing fiction, cultivated a macho image that helped them sell books, and from time to time revealed a sensitivity toward animals which might have made animal rights activists of them if they had not grown up as hunters, in families of hunters.
Hemingway rediscovered his own mortality and limitations during the Kenyan safari that inspired The Green Hills of Africa, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Caputo endured a similar experience. Neither found wisdom, nor any remarkably deep insights, but such were not what either one sought.
Exactly what they were seeking remains as mysterious as the motivation of the leopard whose frozen carcass Hemingway described as visible near the summit of Kilimanjaro.
Why, Hemingway wondered, did the leopard climb so high into habitat where he could not survive? Hemingway and some of his characters imagined that the quest of the leopard and their own futile quests had something in common, but they never did quite articulate whatever it was.
Evolved in North America
As Caputo mentions in passing, both lions and elephants evolved first in North America. They arrived in southern Asia first, and later Africa, by way of escaping snow and ice. Glaciers covering most of the northern hemisphere drove elephants, lions, elk, antelope, ancestral zebras, cheetahs, and many other species now considered “Asian” and “African” far south of the regions they had original inhabited.
Much later, the glaciers carved out bodies of water as they melted and retreated, including the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf, that kept many of the animals they pushed south from returning to the northern hemisphere.
Emigration to Africa
Pumas evolved from smaller cats to fill the vacated niches of lions and cheetahs in the Americas. Elephants, after the extinction of the woolly mammoth, lived nowhere above the 30th parallel north latitude.
How biologically diverse lions were before the ice ages is still unclear and much disputed, as is their route of descent from either saber-toothed ancestors or common ancestors of both lines.
Elephants, however, were for millions of years hugely diverse and abundant. They were the dominant northern hemisphere land mammal throughout most of that time, with the most ability to transform habitat. Yet elephants had begun their global decline to present scarcity long before modern humans emerged to hunt them.
Australopithicus didn’t hunt either lions or elephants
Indeed, for the first six million years of human evolution, humans and protohumans seem to have been no threat to elephants, who by then were the dominant mammals in the same habitat that produced the human species. Human ancestors who conflicted with elephants got stomped, as appears to have been the fate of some of the Australopithicus robustus specimens now in museums, including “Lucy,” the first specimen of the species to be discovered.
Colonization & the ivory trade
Humans eventually helped to kill off the woolly mammoth, but it was not until the 19th century European colonization of Africa and Southeast Asia that hunting began to significantly impact either African or Asian elephant populations.
Having depleted the elephants of the most easily accessible parts of Africa, British ivory traders prevailed upon the British government in 1898 to build a railway from Mobassa into the Congo by way of Nairobi, to haul ivory from interior Africa.
Lions stopped the railway
But the railway was extended less than half the distance to Nairobi when work was virtually halted by the Ghost and the Darkness, as terrified East Indian railway workers named a pair of lions who documentedly killed at least 28 of them, among the 135 people they are believed to have killed in all, including local Africans.
Lions have always eaten humans from time to time, as predators of opportunity, but if humans had ever been their preferred prey, our ancestors might never have survived long enough in Africa to eventually conquer all the world.
Why did they hunt humans?
The particular mystery about the Ghost and the Darkness has always been why these two lions became preferentially hunters of humans, when nothing about their skeletons suggests infirmity obliging them to focus on weaker and smaller prey.
Caputo concludes their environmental factors were mostly to blame, but the theory he pursues most avidly is the hypothesis advanced in the mid-1990s by Thomas Gnoske of the Field Museum that African lions are not one but two subspecies.
Maned vs. non-maned lions
According to this theory, the maned lions, who live mainly at higher elevations where prey is abundant, have evolved as the subspecies whom humans best know and understand.
Maned lions live and hunt in prides typically including two males and four females, and preferentially kill large prey, such as buffalo and zebra. They relatively rarely hunt humans, as one human is not big enough to feed a pride.
Male lions with small manes or none, on the other hand, live at low elevations, often in sparse desert habitats like Tsavo. Their prides typically consist of no other adult males, but up to seven females. That gender ratio leaves most males of small mane or none to hunt alone, or with other bachelors. These lone males are far more likely to kill humans. To them, a human is fast food.
The Ghost and the Darkness were maneless.
But it seems there is a simpler explanation for the behavioral difference than a subspecies differentiation, now accepted and voiced by Gnoske: maneless lions are the poor cousins of African lion society. They occupy the most inhospitable habitat. The females, who do most of the hunting for prides, cannot support as many males as their upland kin, and the males they do support have to fight twice as often to hold their status against bachelor challenges. Constant fighting keeps their systems suffused with testosterone, making them more aggressive but inhibiting hair growth. Removed to zoos, their testosterone levels decrease and their manes grow thick.
Over time, distinct family traits have emerged among the upland and lowland lions. These are, however, much below the subspecies threshold.
Maned and maneless lions are not so different, for example, as the African plains elephant and the smaller African forest elephant, nor as different as the common Southeast Asian elephant and their mammoth-like Himalayan kin.
In the end, it was probably not any inherent behavioral difference, but simply greater hunger that made maneaters of The Ghost and The Darkness. They lived, and died, coincidental with a rinderpest outbreak that had severely depleted the stock of hooved animals, both wild and domestic, throughout their range.
Rinderpest at peak in the 19th century killed as many as a million hooved animals per year in central Europe, Asia, and Africa. A third of the human population of Ethiopia reportedly starved in the 1880s due to livestock losses occasioned by rinderpest.
This may never happen again. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) on May 25, 2011 formally announced the eradication of rinderpest the first time an animal disease has been extinguished through human efforts, and only the second time that any disease has been eradicated. The first, smallpox, was last reported in 1977.