The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa's Notorious Man-eaters


New book by Field Museum zoologist covers complete history, science of infamous lions

The Lions of Tsavo

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CHICAGO–The very day that the first team of volunteer conservationists joined Dr. Patterson in Kenya to study the notorious Tsavo lions, a lion was heard roaring at the foot of their camp.

Nevertheless, the volunteers persevered, and others followed. Good thing. Such volunteers are the eyes and ears of Dr. Patterson's research, the first thorough scientific project aimed at understanding the ecology and behavior of these rare, maneless lions.

The volunteers are part of Earthwatch, which coordinates volunteers from around the world to assist in scientific fieldwork. Their efforts in Tsavo National Park is the subject of the introduction to The Lions of Tsavo (McGraw-Hill, January 2004) by Bruce Patterson, PhD, MacArthur Curator of Mammals at Chicago's Field Museum.

Maneless male lions named “Bahati” (left) and “Kabochi” are being studied by Earthwatch teams on Taita Ranch in Tsavo. Kabochi has been affixed with a radio collar, and Earthwatch volunteers monitor him regularly. Photo by B.D. Patterson, (c) 2003; Courtesy of The Field Museum.

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Part adventure story, part natural history survey, the new book entertains and informs. Telling the fascinating story of Tsavo's legendary lions, it is the definitive, most complete and most up-to-date book on the best-known lions of all time.

"The Lions of Tsavo represents an outstandingly successful example of cross disciplinary research," said Chapurukha M. Kusimba, Associate Curator of African Archaeology and Ethnology at The Field Museum, in his introduction to the book. "Because lions in Kenya live in close proximity with people, our awareness of interspecies conflict is more than ever a matter of public concern and a priority among international conservation agencies."

Two Tsavo lions are famous for having killed and eaten as many as 135 railway workers in 1898-1899, halting the construction of a railroad across British East Africa between Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean. Their story was made famous by the major motion picture "The Ghost and The Darkness" (Paramount Pictures, 1996), and those two man-eaters are on display at The Field Museum.

A maneless male lion named “Bahati” lounges in the sun on Taita Ranch in Tsavo. Photo by B.D. Patterson, (c) 2003; Courtesy of The Field Museum.

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But Tsavo lions continue to eat people today, largely due to human encroachment on their traditional territory. Bullets stopped "Ghost" and "Darkness," but perhaps modern science can help find a way for lions and humans to live together in Kenya.

In fact, the ultimate goal of Dr. Patterson's long-term research project is to mitigate the animal-human conflicts that plague Tsavo, home to one of the world's largest natural havens for lions, elephants and other wild animals.

"This is the frontline of conservation," Dr. Patterson said. Radio collars are affixed to lions in order to track them, document their behavior and study their breeding practices. Hair, tissue and scat samples are taken to learn about the lions' hormones, genes and eating habits.

Follow-up research is conducted at The Field Museum, where data and samples are analyzed and compared with collections dating back more than a century. Other analyses take place at the New York State Museum, where co-principal investigator on the Earthwatch project Roland Kays, PhD, is Curator of Mammals. Further analyses take place in Tsavo National Park, where co-PI of that team, Samuel Kasiki, PhD, of the Kenya Wildlife Service is based. Meanwhile, Jean Dubach, PhD, Conservation Biologist at the Brookfield Zoo, collaborates on the genetic research.

"The two Tsavo lions at The Field Museum are only two of more than 22 million specimens in the museum's vast collections," said John W. McCarter, President and CEO of the museum. "Each specimen has stories to tell and can speak to evolutionary origins, growth, development, ecology, functional morphology and behavior."

But none of the more that 175,000 mammal specimens at the museum has a more compelling and involved story than "Ghost" and "Darkness," shot by Col. John Patterson (no relation to Dr. Patterson) more than a century ago. "Their story offers an opportunity to synthesize the disciplines that comprise natural history – and make them accessible and intelligible to the public," Dr. Patterson said. "And that's what The Field Museum is all about."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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