Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Post Revamp: the Buffalo Lion

In 1898, Britain was the world's great superpower.  India, Canada and much of Africa remained under its control -- and would not achieve independence for decades.  It was thus an Englishman, John Patterson, who oversaw the bridging of the Tsavo.  This Kenyan river was a major barrier to transportation -- in particular, to the construction of railroads.  The Uganda Railway Committee thus commissioned Patterson to create a bridge, across which the tracks would run.  He agreed, hiring a crew of Indian and African laborers.  Nine months later, when they finished the project, thirty-five of them would be dead.

As soon as construction commenced, workers began to die.  In the middle of the night, they would be slaughtered one by one -- by lions, which snuck into the camp and attacked them in their tents.  Lions are dangerous predators, and are certainly known to attack humans.  But for the most part, they aren't maneaters.  The killers of Tsavo were an exception.  Night after night they would return, eventually forcing construction to a halt.  The workers were terrified, and threatened to abandon the project.  Patterson was forced to take action, and set out to hunt the lions.

His attempts to trap the beasts failed, but Patterson (an experienced tiger-hunter) was not discouraged.  Eventually, he managed to fatally shoot the first lion -- and took down the second three weeks later.  Patterson later wrote a book about his adventures, claiming that the maneaters had killed 135 workers.  Official records indicate a much smaller death toll (28) -- but records were not kept of native Africans.  More recent estimates, based on studies of the lions' remains, indicate that they consumed thirty-five men.  But this fails to count those who were killed and not eaten.

It's been over a century since the slaying of the Tsavo lions -- but their story remains of cryptozoological interest.  Some have suggested that these attacks were not isolated.  The lions of Tsavo, they say, were a new kind of feline -- one with a taste for human flesh.  These "Buffalo Lions," it is said, have no manes and are unusually vicious.  Supposedly, they are genetically distinct from other big cats, and may represent a new subspecies.

These claims are certainly plausible, and are based on two lines of evidence.  First of all, East African lions do lack manes -- at least in many cases.  Second of all, lions from this region do have a maneating reputation.  Tsavo lions do appear to be distinct.  But are these distinctions the result of genetic differences, or are they caused by environmental factors?  Evidence seems to lean towards the latter argument.  Studies have shown that lions grow longer manes in cooler climates.  Large manes greatly increase heat retention -- which is helpful in cold places, but harmful in warm ones.  Kenya is brutally hot -- we should expect its lions to be less hairy.

The man-eating behavior of Tsavo lions may also be environmental.  In 1898, the year of the attacks, disease killed off massive numbers of African buffalo.  These animals were normally the lions' main food source -- without them they likely turned to other prey.  Furthermore, they may have been conditioned to eat human flesh.  Smallpox-slain workers in Kenya were often left unburied -- so that people wouldn't have to handle their infectious corpses.  The lions may have eaten these bodies, and come to think of humans as a food source.

A final piece of evidence is this -- we have reason to believe that man-eating is cultural.  Man-eating lions have been observed passing down the behavior, just as humans would pass down a custom or tradition.  They teach their offspring to act a certain way, and the offspring follow their parents' lead.  When one lion learns to eat human meat, it teaches its young to do the same -- raising a new generation of killers.  Man-eating lions are real, but they may not be a new species.  They're more comparable to a cultural group, and a very dangerous one at that.

Read more about man-eating lions:
Image (of the Tsavo lions, stuffed after their deaths) from

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