RIGHT: Photo by Mgiganteus
New study cuts likely death toll to 35
By Kim Janssen
3:37 p.m. CST,
November 2, 2009
For more than 80 years, the man-eating Tsavo lions have been one of the Field Museum's top tourist draws.
Now a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the Tsavo lions' taste for human flesh may have been exaggerated.
According to the man who finally caught them in 1898, the two maneless Kenyan lions munched their way through as many as 135 people before they were shot, skinned, sold, stuffed and put on display in Chicago.
The story of how they preyed on a terrified camp of imperial British railroad workers for nine months captivated museum-goers for decades and inspired a 1996 movie with Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer, "The Ghost and the Darkness."
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.
"The possible range is between 4 and 72 humans, but 35 is most likely," said Justin Yeakel, one of the study's authors.
Why the lions took the risk of targeting people is unclear, but changes to the Tsavo environment that affected their traditional prey likely are responsible, Yeakel said. Previous studies have suggested that lions developed a taste for human flesh because they lived near a slave trade route, with dead, sick or injured slaves offering easy prey, and that one of the lions may have suffered from toothache that made it easier to eat people than its typical diet.
The numbers killed have been disputed since the lions were shot by Col. John H. Patterson, a British engineer who went on to write a best-selling book about their reign of terror that won praise from President Theodore Roosevelt.
Patterson, a celebrity in his time, claimed in his 1907 book that "28 railroad workers and scores of unfortunate Africans" had been killed.
But after selling the lions' skins to the Field Museum for $5,000 in 1924, Patterson, short of cash and perhaps attempting to boost his reputation, wrote a pamphlet claiming 135 dead.
In recent years, the Field Museum has come to rely on the higher figure, though an audio tour it offers fudges the issue by saying that "legend has it they killed and ate over 100 people."
"It's remarkable how the myth has grown," said Roosevelt University Prof. Julian Kerbis, who has studied Patterson's diaries.
Field Museum staff now plan to update signage at the exhibit, spokeswoman Nancy O'Shea said.
"Anybody who studied the historical records retained some skepticism," said Bruce Patterson, the Field Museum's curator of mammals (and no relation to the colonel), who assisted with the study.
Lions in southern Tanzania in the 1940s ate more than 1,200 people, and individual tigers and leopards in colonial India ate hundreds, he said.
Though the study does diminish the number killed, it doesn't affect the reason for the Tsavo lions' notoriety, Bruce Patterson said.
"The signal feat of the Tsavo lions is that they stopped the British Empire, at the height of its imperial power, literally in its tracks at Tsavo, and it was not until Col. Patterson dispatched them that work on the railway could resume."
Also unchanged, Bruce Patterson added, is the "morbid fascination in considering the business end of an animal that can kill and eat you in seconds."
(Submitted by M Aruguete)