Demon Lions: The Ghost, The Darkness, and Other Mysterious Man-Eaters
Lions have long been part of the myth and lore of many cultures. They are powerful, fierce beasts well deserving of their reputation as majestic creatures. Being predators, of course they might occasionally turn to humans as prey, it is the way of nature, yet in some strange cases these malevolent big cats have transcended mere lion attacks to firmly root themselves into the world of the strange. Defying their normal behavior and showing a cunning beyond what one would expect from animals, the lions in these cases have managed to mix with the superstition and lore of the local populace of various regions of Africa to present us with man-eaters that have come to be regarded as far more than just animals, but rather “demon lions”; supernatural fiends that are more than they appear to be. Here we will take a look into these cases from faraway, exotic lands, concerning ravenous beasts that may or may not have been tainted with something more than mere bloodlust.
By far the most well-known case of marauding demon lions in Africa occurred in a barren region of Kenya known as Tsavo in the late 1800s. The region was already long known as a somewhat forsaken place with a dark history, with even its name meaning “slaughter” in the language of the native Kamba people. Up until the 19th century this arid, bleak region was continually crossed by Arab ivory and slave caravans, and a combination of the brutal, inhospitable, and otherworldly landscape, as well as the rampage of outbreaks of disease in the form of the tsetse fly borne sleeping sickness left many of the slaves dead during these harrowing journeys. Rather than properly bury these bodies, the corpses were typically just left where they lie to rot and fester under the blistering sun, and it has been estimated that at least 80,000 people a year died on these perilous journeys. Additionally, the Masai people of the region were known for being ruthless and mercilessly slaughtering weaker tribes, adding to the bloodshed and collection of corpses strewn about the wilderness.
Perhaps it is all of this death and these corpses lying out in the open that first gave the region’s lions a taste for human flesh, and Tsavo’s lions were long known as being more aggressive and prone to attacking humans than their savanna brethren. Even the appearance of Tsavo lions is different and somewhat more intimidating than savanna lions, being typically larger and with the unique feature of males that are maneless, a feature thought to be due to an adaptation to the exceptionally hot, brutal desert landscape here. Even the social structure of Tsavo lions is different. Whereas savanna lion prides are typically composed of up to 20 females and two males, Tsavo lion prides are smaller, with only around 10 females and only one male, with Tsavo males supposedly never sharing power.
It was through this forbidding moonscape land of sweltering, blazing heat and a history of death and man-eating lions through which in the 1800s the British were attempting to build a railway over as part of the Kenya-Uganda Railway project, which was meant to link Mombasa, Kenya to Lake Victoria in Uganda, stretching and meandering 580 miles through remote plains, valleys, and savannas. The railway was intended to allow the British to push further into the interior of Africa, which at the time was still considered a mysterious frontier of wild, untamed land. The thousands of railway workers needed for the massive project were comprised of locals and a large number of foreign workers who were mostly Sikh laborers from British India, and they toiled away in the relentless sun under the command of British Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who in March of 1898 was tasked with overseeing the ambitious construction of bridge over the Tsavo River.
The Kenya-Uganda railway project had already been beset by various difficulties. Besides the general harsh environment itself, in 1895 the Masai had killed approximately 500 of the workers after accusing the foreigners of raping two tribal girls. Additionally, the foreign workers were unaccustomed to the harsh conditions, and many back in Britain considered the project to be a major waste of money in general, making it an unpopular venture among both politicians and the public, with the railway often referred to back home as “The Lunatic Line,” and mocked for going “from nowhere to nowhere.” Adding to all of this was the fact that the thousands of railway workers were spread out along 20 miles in a procession of separate camps, and Patterson was faced with the daunting responsibility over overseeing all of them.
Nevertheless, the construction of the bridge began on schedule, and was almost immediately met with a new, ominous threat. Just a few days after construction began one of Patterson’s porters went missing, and the other men claimed that a lion had taken him. Patterson at first did not believe this, but his mind would soon be changed when he ventured out with some others and found the man’s body not far away in a decidedly maimed and mangled state. Patterson would later write of the grisly scene thus:
On reaching the spot where the body had been devoured, a dreadful spectacle presented itself. The ground all round was covered with blood and morsels of flesh and bones, but the unfortunate jemadar’s head had been left intact, save for the holes made by the lion’s tusks on seizing him, and lay a short distance away from the other remains, the eyes staring wide open with a startled, horrified look in them. The place was considerably cut up, and on closer examination we found that two lions had been there and had probably struggled for possession of the body. It was the most gruesome sight I had ever seen. We collected the remains as well as we could and heaped stones on them, the head with its fixed, terrified stare seeming to watch us all the time, for it we did not bury, but took back to camp for identification before the Medical Officer. Thus occurred my first experience of man-eating lions, and I vowed there and then that I would spare no pains to rid the neighborhood of the brutes.
Not long after this initial attack, more men began to go missing, and lion sightings around the camps became commonplace. It was ascertained that indeed there were two lions going about their grisly business in tandem, and the attacks quickly escalated to the point that 17 workers had been killed by April, often attacked and dragged away from their camps in front of other horrified witnesses, which is strange considering that lion attacks on humans are almost always carried out on lone individuals. The lions were said to attack at any time without warning, including clawing right through tents to drag their screaming victims away into the night.
In response, the terrified workers took precautions in an effort to secure their camps from the marauding beasts. They set up barriers, bonfires, and spiny fences fashioned from the branches of thorny Acacia trees, but these seemed to do little good. The lions reportedly were able to easily circumvent and get through every trap, barrier and fence that was put up, dragging away men and upping their death toll without even being slowed down by these methods, and the lions also apparently showed no fear of fire, certainly none of humans.
This lack of a fear of fire and their extreme boldness in attacking even when other people were around were some of several anomalies with these particular lions. There was also the fact that the two lions were both male and working together closely as a team, something unheard of with Tsavo lions. Additionally, in many of these cases when the bodies were found it was reported that in some instances the lions had not actually even eaten the victims, but rather just appeared to be killing for the fun of it. This was all very unusual lion bahavior, and along with the lions’ uncanny ability to get through all defenses, this started whispers among the superstitious men that these were not actually lions at all, but rather evil spirits or demons. Indeed, the two Tsavo man-eaters would earn the sinister nicknames “The Ghost and the Darkness.”
The killings went on unabated, and hundreds of frightened workers left the project, refusing to come back and causing construction to be halted. The workers who did remain concentrated into larger camps in the hopes of discouraging more attacks, but the fearless lions continued to pick the men off, becoming seemingly even bolder if anything, as if they somehow knew no one could stop them. In the meantime, Patterson went about his vow to hunt the bloodthirsty animals down, setting up a blind in a tree to lie in wait, yet the lions continued their attacks right under his nose. In one instance the lions broke into a hospital tent and dragged off a patient, and when the tent was moved yet another was taken, his head and hand later found to be all that was left of him. All of this was done under Patterson’s watchful eye, as if they knew he was hunting them, and intentionally avoiding his tree. Traps set up by Patterson were equally evaded, and it seemed as if they were truly unstoppable.
The frustrated Patterson came up with a plan to trap the lions by moving the hospital again and setting up a railroad boxcar baited with cattle in that spot, where he would gun down anything that arrived. One of the lions showed up this time, killing one of the cattle and dragging it away, but unable to get the large prey through the perimeter fence. The lion then allegedly turned on Patterson, who scared it off with a shot from his rifle. He modified the boxcar to have bars that would fall if anything entered, and graduated to using himself as bait, but the lions did not go for it, instead continuing to drag off workers as they avoided him, sometimes killing the victims just yards from the camp before slinking off into the night. The few remaining workers fled in droves, until there were practically none left at all.
Patterson soon gained help in the form of 20 armed men under the command of the Superintendent of Police, but they were unable to track down the mysterious lions. The closest they got was when one of the animals entered the boxcar trap but managed to escape even as it was fired upon by the men. In the end, the police left after several days, and Patterson was left on his own once again, this time armed with a high powered rifle that they had given him. It would not be until December 9, 1898, nearly 10 months after the killing spree had started and dozens of deaths later, that Patterson would finally make some progress.
On this night, one of the lions was driven out into the open by a group of workers after killing a donkey in broad daylight, where Patterson shot and wounded it. This time it managed to escape, but would return later that night, and when it did Patterson was ready for it. He had placed the dead donkey under a platform in a tree, where he sat in wait counting on the lion returning to claim its kill. When the lion arrived as expected, it reportedly ignored the donkey and seemed to be out for Patterson himself, who managed to shoot it in the leg and wound it. Instead of retreating, the injured lion instead began to stalk Patterson, who shot it once more, this time killing it. It turned out to be a massive beast, allegedly a full 9 feet 8 inches (2.95 m) from nose to tip of tail that apparently took 8 men to drag back to camp, but at least it was dead. One down, one to go.
The second lion proved to be a bit more difficult. Patterson managed to lure it in using goats tied to railroad tracks as bait, one of which it purportedly dragged away railroad tie and all, but he was not able to hit it with his rifle. Patterson built another platform in a tree and managed to wound the lion when it returned that night, but it still managed to escape. However, the beast did not return for a full 10 days and had halted all attacks, leading Patterson to presume that it had died off in the wilderness of its wounds. He was mistaken.
Without warning, on December 29, 1898, the deadly, malicious lion made a surprise attack on a worker, after which Patterson was able to hit it with his rifle again. The lion retreated, leaving a trail of blood behind which was used to track it through the thick brush. When Patterson caught up to it, he allegedly shot it three more times but the lion did not fall, instead charging him in a fury as he fired three more rounds at it, hitting it twice in the chest and once in the head, until it was dead. In the end this last lion purportedly took a total of up to 9 shots to finally bring down and supposedly died gnawing on a tree branch, still trying to kill him. The lions’ reign of terror was over, the railway bridge was completed, Patterson would keep the skins and skulls of the two big cats as trophies, and he would go on to become a game warden in Africa, writing a book about his ordeal in 1907, called The Man-eaters of Tsavo. The remains would eventually be sold to the Chicago Field Museum in 1928, where they were mounted and remain on display to this day.
The final death toll of the Tsavo lions’ 10-month killing spree? Well, that depends on who you ask. Patterson himself claimed that the Ghost and the Darkness had killed 135 people, while the railway company downplayed this number and stated that it was only 28. Researchers in later years have found that the real number is probably somewhere in between, with evidence suggesting that one of the lions had killed 11 people, while the other had killed 24, for a total of 35, although the true number is still contested and debated to this day. The account has become somewhat romanticized in later years, and was brought to the screen in a somewhat exaggerated form in the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. The case remains fascinating to this day, and holds much allure considering its exotic locale, the scary factor of killer animals, and the fact that they managed to halt the progress of the British Empire in Africa at the height of their power.
While the man-eaters of Tsavo are certainly the most well-known case, there have been other similar incidents, and the Tsavo pair don’t even have the highest body count. That macabre distinction would have to go to a whole pride of lions that engaged in a bloody man-eating spree of breathtaking proportions between the years of 1932 and 1947 in the Njombe district of southern Tanzania. During this time, the 15 strong pride willfully and systematically targeted humans and their settlements, often deliberately moving great distances from village to village in order to avoid being tracked down. Oddly, these lions also showed aberrant behavior in that they only attacked in broad daylight, using the cover of darkness to travel undetected, which is the opposite of what lions typically do.
The man-eaters of Njombe struck fear into the hearts of villages all over the region, where they were claimed to be supernatural creatures or powerful shamans taking the form of lions. It was up to British game warden George Rushby to bring them down. When he arrived, Rushby was reportedly surprised that such a healthy pride of lions could be present in the area considering the lack of prey in the area following a culling program the colonial government had pursued in an effort to staunch the spread of the livestock disease rinderpest, and he surmised that this lack of prey was what had driven the lions to eating humans.
He would eventually track them down one by one and kill them all, but they proved to be incredibly evasive, and he theorized that they passed bodies down a line in a sort of relay system in order to stay hidden and drag bodies safely and efficiently into the wilderness. In the more than a decade that they terrorized Tanzania, the pride is thought to have killed as many as 1,500 human beings, and it remains the worst outbreak of man-eating lions ever recorded. Rushby would once say “The renowned man-eaters of Tsavo were very small fry compared to what these proved to be.”
This case is unique in that a whole pride of lions was engaged in man-eating behavior, which has reinforced the theory that man-eating could be in some instances a learned social behavior passed down from generation to generation within a pride. It is thought that these lions were not only passing down the habit of man-eating itself, but also strategies such as not attacking the same village twice, passing along carcasses, traveling by night, and eluding human traps. Since lions are intelligent, social animals, this would make man-eating almost a sort of culture for the pride and their offspring, a social tradition, and the Njombe pride would likely not have stopped their deadly reign until all of them were killed and the deadly cycle ended. One lion expert by the name of Kerbis Peterhans has commented on this thus:
Lions are a social species, capable of transmitting behavioral traditions from one generation to the next. The fact that they can be born and raised to hunt and eat humans means that an outbreak of man-eating usually doesn’t stop until all the responsible lions and their offspring are eliminated.
The country of Zambia has had many cases of man-eating lions claimed to be supernatural by the locals. One of the more famous of these is the lion called Chiengi Charlie, who in 1909 terrorized a British outpost called Chiengi, which was located in Zambia, known at the time as Northern Rhodesia. Chiengi Charlie, who was described as having half of his tail missing and also known as “The White Lion” due to his abnormally light coat, also teamed up with two other males to kill a total of 90 people in the area. He was notable not only for his large body count, but also for his ability to constantly and skillfully evade traps, and to escape unharmed even when faced with skilled marksmen. There were even reports of firing at the lion at close range, only to have it seemingly run off unharmed, which with his strange coloration only added to the rumors that he was some sort of evil supernatural terror. There were rumors among local hunters that bullets had no effect on the lion, increasing the terror it caused.
Bullets apparently did have an effect on it after all, as Chiengi Charlie would eventually be undone by a gun trap. Also in Zambia was the 1929 case of a lion named Msoro Monty, who haunted the Msoro Mission, in the Luangwa River Valley in the eastern portion of the country, killing dozens of people in the process. Similar to Chiengi Charlie, Msoro Monty was said to have an almost supernatural ability to avoid traps, and cemented his mysterious legacy by never being caught, instead suddenly disappearing without a trace just as mysteriously as he had arrived.
More recently was a lion that went on a rampage in the Mfuwe area of Zambia in 1991, also in the Luangwa River Valley, and which like the Tsavo lions was a male with no mane. The Mfuwe lion was an enormous 10 feet long, and responsible for slaughtering at least 6 people over a span of several months, often by crashing into their homes, before being taken down in August of 1991 by a Californian man on safari named Wayne Hose and professional hunter Charl Beukes, after spending 20 nights waiting for the beast up in a hunting blind using chunks of hippo meat as bait. The Mufwe lion purportedly often appeared to stalk about near the blind, avoiding the bait, managing to avoid getting hit by the rifles, and seeming to be toying with the hunters before they were finally able to kill it. Interestingly, this lion was found to be completely healthy, with no indication as to why it should become a man-eater.
The Mufwe lion is most famous for the laundry bag it carried around with it and seemed to cherish. Apparently, the lion had first stolen the laundry bag from a women’s hut, after which it went to the center of the village and dropped the bag to let out a huge, defiant roar before stalking off into the wilderness with it. The Mufwe lion then reportedly carried the laundry bag wherever it went, and was often seen to nuzzle or play with it. It is unknown why it engaged in this bizarre behavior, and this led many villagers to believe the lion was a powerful sorcerer in lion form. Like the Man-Eaters of Tsavo, the mounted Mufwe lion is also on display at the Chicago Field Museum.
Now lions are wild animals, and there are a lot of reasons why they would want to go after humans. In some cases it is because their natural prey has become scarce, forcing them to look to other means of sustenance. In others, it is because the animal has suffered some injury, disease, or birth defect that renders it unable to pursue its powerful natural prey such as antelope, zebra, wildebeests, and bush pigs. In some of the cases mentioned here this is thought to be the root cause of their murderous rampage against humans, such as with the lions of Tsavo, which were found to have tooth problems and jaw misalignment. There are also those lions who might have had a parent or pride that was a man-eater, and this behavior was passed down to them, as is likely the case with those beasts who killed in prides or turned out to be totally healthy and in an environment with ample other prey. It could even be plain laziness, as for a lion we are really no match, easy to kill compared to the powerful animals they are meant to take down. Human encroachment only exacerbates this problem, as the lions come into closer contact with us.
When looking at these cases it is important to look at the reasons why these animals were considered to be supernatural entities rather than just normal lion attacks, which are not particularly rare in these regions. In nearly all of the cases we have looked at, the lions in question displayed unique traits among their kind in the way they killed or in the habits and behaviors they displayed. Among some of the strange traits peppered throughout these incidents are attacking humans amongst groups, in broad daylight, the Tsavo males hunting as a pair, erratic movements, carcasses that weren’t eaten, lack of any fear of humans, fire, or firearms, and the apparent ability to premeditate and coordinate complicated attacks or toy with their pursuers or use subterfuge to mask their movements. Add to this these lions’ extraordinary ability to evade capture, traps, and barriers, or to formulate plans to travel by night or not attack the same villages twice, and it is easy to see why superstitious locals and even foreigners might start to view the creatures as malevolent supernatural entities rather than normal lions.
The native people of many locales of Africa also have long strongly believed that evil spirits and shamans have the power to take the form of lions. So prevalent is this belief that the families of such victims often will not tell authorities, as they feel that they have been visited by retribution for something they or their relatives have done. In some cases of lion attacks, villagers will actually consult with a shaman or village medicine man to try and determine if the attack was by a normal animal or a supernatural spirit in disguise. If the animal is deemed to be a normal lion it is seen as just nature running its course, but if it is the work of a demon lion then that is when the villagers are truly terrified. These superstitious beliefs are so prevalent that villagers will often take justice into their own hands, lynching those they think are responsible for the lion attacks and only furthering the bloodshed.
In the end we are left with tales of violent lion attacks out in the remote wildernesses of Africa which have become legendary in their mayhem, uniqueness, and strangeness. While there is probably a rational explanation for all of this, these lions nevertheless bucked trends for their species and displayed behavior and cunning beyond the norm. Whether they are demon lions, shamans, or evil spirits or not, the locals certainly seemed to think they were, and considering the details of these accounts it is not hard to see why.