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Kenya’s Man-Eating Lions Not as Man-Hungry as Previously Thought

November 3rd, 2009 11:00 admin Leave a comment Go to comments

tsavo-lions-webAccording to legend, the infamous Tsavo man-eating lions dined on 135 people near a Kenyan labor camp prior to their capture in 1898. The two maneless lions have been a crowd favorite at Chicago’s Field Museum, where the stuffed beasts have been on display for over 80 years. But after analyzing fragments of the lions’ bones and fur, scientists at the University of California in Santa Cruz have determined that the true number of humans eaten by the lions was likely closer to 35. By comparing isotopes in the lions’ samples with their normal prey of zebra, wildebeest and buffalo, with other lions, and with the remains of 19th century Kenyans, the scientists estimated that one of the lions ate 24 humans, while the other ate 11 [Chicago Tribune]. The results suggest that the lions hunted together but didn’t always share food, which makes the pair the first example of a cooperative hunting group that ate different prey.

The two lions developed a taste for man after drought, pestilence, and hunting killed of most of their usual prey, according to previous research. Also, the Tsavo lions lived near a slave trading route, which offered easy access to sick, injured, or dead slaves. The lions dragged people from tents at night…. After nine months of this, the beasts were finally killed in December [Nature News]. The recent analysis suggests one of the lions had developed a toothache, which made eating humans easier than devouring its normal prey. The study attributes 24 deaths to one cat, or 30 per cent of its diet, and 11 deaths to the other, just 13 per cent of its food [New Scientist].

Colonel John H. Patterson, a British engineer, shot the lions and then wrote a book about their killing spree, claiming that “28 railroad workers and scores of unfortunate Africans” had been killed [Chicago Tribune]. Some believe that in order to boost the selling price of the lions, he exaggerated the lions’ man-killing ways and inflated the death count to 135.  Patterson sold the lion skins for $5,000 to the Field Museum in 1924.

The current study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Image: flickr / lisa andres

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