African man-eating lions: Ghost and Darkness from Tsavo

“In the forests bordering on this line, there are found those lions called “man-eaters,” and moreover these forests are full of thorns and prickly shrubs.
Portions of this railway from Mombasa to Uganda are still being made, and here these lions fell on the workmen and destroyed them.
Such was their habit, day and night, and hundreds of men fell victims to these savage creatures, whose very jaws were steeped in blood.
Bones, flesh, skin and blood, they devoured all, and left not a trace behind them.
Because of the fear of these demons some seven or eight hundred of the labourers deserted, and remained idle;
Some two or three hundred still remained, but they were haunted by this terrible dread,
And because of fear for their lives, would sit in their huts, their hearts full of foreboding and terror.
Every one of them kept a fire burning at night, and none dared to close his eyes in sleep; yet would some of them be carried away to destruction.
The lion’s roar was such that the very earth would tremble at the sound, and where was the man who did not feel afraid?”

Roshan Mistari, 29th January 1899. From J H Patterson, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, 1907.

The Tsavo Man-Eaters were two large male lions in the Tsavo area of Kenya who killed around 135 workers engaged in the construction of a bridge of the Kenya-Uganda Railway, project led by British Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson.

The construction of the bridge over the Tsavo river started in March 1898 involving several thousands of imported Sikh workers from British India along with local laborers. During the next nine months of construction, the two maneless lions prowled around the campsite, dragging workers from their tents at night and devouring them, despite thorn fences (still employed today in Masai villages to safeguard against predators) and campfires.

With the escalation of these attacks, numerous workers fled from Tsavo, leading to a halt in the bridge construction, and additional Sepoy Indian soldiers were dispatched to aid in the lion-hunting.
After repeated unsuccessful attempts to ambush the lions, Patterson shot and wounded the first lion on 9 December 1898, but it escaped. Later, it returned at night and began hunting Patterson back. He shot it again with a more powerful rifle and found it dead the day after.

Tsavo Lion

To kill the second lion it took nine shots with different rifles. The first shot was fired from a platform that Patterson had built near a goat killed by the lion. After eleven days, two shots from a second rifle struck the lion while it was trailing Patterson and attempting to escape. The next day, Patterson shot it three more times with the same rifle and three more times with a third rifle, eventually killing it with the last shot in the head. He claimed it died still trying to reach him from a branch. It was the 29th December 1898, 20 days after the killing of the first lion.

Tsavo Lion

The construction crew returned and finished the bridge in February 1899. The railways are still in use today under the control of the Kenya Railways Corporation and Tsavo lions continue to occasionally threaten humans.

The lions’ skins, sold to the Field Museum of Natural History of Chicago in 1924 for a sum of $5,000 were used to reconstruct the lions which are along with their skulls.
The two lions are known as FMNH 23970, and FMNH 23969, but the people named them back then “the Ghost” and “the Darkness”.

“The Ghost” was 9 feet 8 inches (2.95 m) long, and 3 feet 9 inches (1.14 m) high.
“The Darkness” was 9 feet 6 inches (2.90 m) long and 3 feet 11 inches (1.19 m) high.

Colonel Patterson published the book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures in 1907. It is possible that he exaggerated the figures, suggesting that as many as 135 individuals had been consumed by the lions. This sensationalization may have played a role in boosting book sales. On the contrary, the Ugandan Railway Co. reported 28 deceased workers, with estimates ranging from 28 to 31 victims, based on their examination of Colonel Patterson’s original journal.
However, the same analysis also pointed out that the journal exclusively referenced Indian workers and that Patterson indicated that African worker casualties might have been substantially higher.

Recent studies on the isotopic signature analysis of their bone collagen and hair keratin were published in 2009 and suggested that the first lion ate the equivalent of 10.5 humans and the second 24.2 humans.
Though none of these modern studies have taken into account the people who were killed but not eaten by the animals. The diet of the victims could have also affected the outcome of the test, since many of the workers at Tsavo were Hindus and may have had a vegetarian diet, which could have led to categorize the victims as vegetarian species.

Theories for the man-eating behavior of lions have been reviewed by Peterhans and Gnoske, as well as Dr. Bruce D. Patterson (no relation to Colonel Patterson). Their discussions include the following reasons:

In 1898, a rinderpest outbreak (cattle plague) had a significant impact on the lions’ typical prey, compelling them to search for alternative sources of food.
The Tsavo lions might have become accustomed to discovering deceased humans near the Tsavo River crossing. This area was a frequent route for slave caravans headed to Zanzibar, the central hub of the East African slave trade.
An alternative argument indicates that the first lion had a badly damaged tooth that would have compromised its ability to kill natural prey. However, this theory has been generally disregarded by the general public, and Colonel Patterson, who killed the lions, personally disclaimed it, saying that he damaged that tooth with his rifle while the lion charged him one night, prompting it to flee.

Dr. Patterson also researched why the man-eating lions of Tsavo were maneless and concluded that mane absence was due to the hot temperature.

Patterson’s book was the basis for several films:

Men Against the Sun (1952)
Bwana Devil (1952)
Killers of Kilimanjaro (1959)
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
Prey (South Africa, 2007)
Prooi (Netherlands, 2016)

Tsavo Lion
Male lion at Tsavo West National Park, Kenya – June 2023 © mytouristmaps

Tsavo lions are not the only man-eaters reported in recent history, here are some of the other famous lions:

From 1932 to 1947, in southern Tanzania, a particularly menacing group of 15 lions earned the ominous moniker Man-eaters of Njombe. These lions’ aggression stemmed from the British colonial administration’s attempts to curb a rinderpest virus outbreak. To contain the virus that was decimating local livestock, the government initiated the killing of wild animals such as zebras, wildebeests, and antelopes. This action led to a scarcity of prey for the lions, driving them to seek out alternative sources of food.
The Njombe pride exhibited a cunning approach, adopting nighttime movements and daytime hunts, a deviation from the typical behavior of lions. Prior to their eventual extermination by the British game warden, the Njombe pride tragically claimed the lives of an estimated 1,500 individuals.

In 1909, Chiengi Charlie, nicknamed the “White Lion” due to his unique light coloration, instilled fear across Zambia. His unusual appearance, resembling whiteness and sporting a half tail, led local communities to hold him in a sort of legendary awe. Roaming through villages, he hunted the residents, later joining forces with two other male lions. He managed to elude capture by villagers for an entire year, during which he devoured a total of 90 individuals. His reign of terror only came to an end when he was finally shot.

Between 2002 and 2004, a young lion named Osama, named after the Arabic word for lion, claimed the lives of more than 50 individuals. When he was shot in 2004, he was just 3 ½ years old. The youth of his age has prompted certain researchers to theorize that Osama acquired his people-hunting skills from his mother. Another hypothesis posits that he targeted humans due to a substantial abscess on one of his molars, similar to the Tsavo lions.

In 1991, the Lion of Mfuwe struck terror by claiming approximately six lives in Zambia’s Luangwa River Valley. An individual from California, USA, was on a safari visit during this period and reportedly patiently awaited his chance in a hunting blind for nearly three weeks before finally being presented with the opportunity to take down the lion. Renowned for its huge size, measuring close to 10 feet in length, the lion’s remains now reside at the Field Museum in Chicago.

In 1929, there was a lion that started following and attacking people near the Msoro Mission. This lion got the name Msoro Monty because of the similar sounds in the name. “Msoro Monty” was good at avoiding traps set for him. After causing a lot of deaths, he suddenly disappeared leaving no traces.

Namvelieza, or The Cunning One, killed 43 people near Kasawa, Zambia. Tanzania’s Paper Lion got his name because he seemed to drift from victim to victim randomly, like a scrap of paper floating in the breeze.

These man-eating lions are still subjects of oral stories passed on by inhabitants of the African villages and everybody can learn a lesson from these stories. Human interference (again!) is often the root cause of these killings. When ravaged by hunger and pushed to desperation, big cats can and will turn to humans for food.

Best Places to see Gorillas in Africa

Arguably one of the most fascinating species on the planet, gorillas are amongst the closest living relatives to humans due to their DNA, around 98% similar to humankind.
They have feet and hands like humans with big toes, opposable thumbs, and individual fingerprints.
Another important feature in common with humans is their intelligence: they can grieve and laugh, they are able to use tools, and according to some research they might have even spiritual and religious feelings.

Herbivorous, they are the world’s largest primates reaching up to 270 kg weight and 180 cm height, with an average lifespan between 30 and 40 years, although some zoo gorillas have registered a maximum age of more than 50 years (the longest living gorilla was the 61 years old Ozoum “Ozzie”, died the 25th of January 2022 at Zoo Atlanta, United States).

Adult male gorillas, after reaching the age of around 12 years, develop some characteristic grey/silver hair on the back, hence the nickname “silverbacks”.
The dominant silverback is the undisputed leader and makes all the most important decisions of the troop, choosing the movements, the feeding sites, and protecting the whole group.

There are around 5,300 gorillas in the wild and all their species and subspecies are classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.

Mountain Gorilla © Maciej / Flickr

Thanks to the brilliant primatologist Dian Fossey, who studied gorillas in Rwanda from 1966 to 1985, gorillas are no more depicted as violent and aggressive against humankind. Some of Fossey’s young gorillas became famous after they had been filmed playing with David Attenborough in 1979 for the tv series Life on Earth.
However, gorillas, if threatened, can be extremely dangerous and aggressive, but usually, most of the violence is directed towards other gorillas.

There are two species and four subspecies of gorillas:

  • Western Gorilla (Gorilla Gorilla), divided in Western Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla Gorilla Gorilla) and Cross River gorilla (Gorilla Gorilla Diehli),
  • Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla Beringei), divided in Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla Gorilla Beringei) and Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla Gorilla Graueri).

Best places to see gorillas in the wild

Gorillas live in only Central Africa, more precisely in Cameroon, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola (Cabinda area), Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Rwanda and Uganda.

Gorilla distribution map

You can find Western Lowland gorillas only in the Cabinda region, but there are few tourist infrastructures. You can see gorillas in the Maiombe Forest Reserve.

Cameroon is home to both Cross River gorillas (West, border with Nigeria) and Western Lowland Gorillas (South).
Cross River gorillas are quite difficult to be seen, due to their small number and the lack of tourism infrastructures.
There are great chances to see Western Lowlands gorillas at Ndzanga Sangha National Park and Lobéké National Park,
At Limbe Wildlife Centre and Mefou National Park, you can find rescued gorillas in rehabilitation.

Central African Republic
The Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve is one of the best places to meet Western Lowland gorillas in Africa. WWF started a project in habituating two groups of this species.

Republic of Congo
The Republic of Congo is home to more than 120,000 Western Lowland gorillas. The best areas to meet them are the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, in the northwest of the country, and Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park around Mbeli Bai. In the Léfini Reserve you can meet rescued gorilla rehabilitation.
The best time to go is during the dry seasons, from June to September and from December to February.

Democratic Republic of Congo
Three out of four subspecies of gorillas live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but check the security situation of the country before planning your trip.
Eastern Lowlands gorillas can be found in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, one of the best gorilla-viewing experiences.
Great chances to see Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest national park in Africa.
You can see some Western Lowland gorillas west of the country in the Madiakoko Mountains, Bas-Congo.

Equatorial Guinea
There are no groups of habituated gorillas and tourist infrastructures in Equatorial Guinea, but you can avail of local tourist guides to bring you across the Monte Alen National Park to meet some Western Lowland gorillas.

Gabon is one of the best areas to see Western Lowland gorillas: in the Lopé National Park visitors can see them on generic safaris, and the Moukalaba-Doudou National Park is one of the places with the highest density of gorillas in Africa.
The best choice for gorillas sightseeing is the Loango National Park, home of the only group of habituated gorillas in Gabon.

Although Nigeria has lately invested in tourism infrastructures, the chances to meet Cross River gorillas in the Cross River National Park are still low, due to their small number and given that they are not habituated.

Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is one of the best places (and one of the most famous, thanks to Dian Fossey’s research) to see Mountain gorillas in the wild. Rwanda is home to around 30% of the overall population of Mountain gorillas.

About half of the remaining population of Mountain gorillas live in Uganda.
Mgahinga National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park have a considerable number of habituated gorillas and excellent probability of sightseeing.

Where to see Gorillas
Chances to see gorillas in the wild

Dry seasons (December to February and June to September) are the best periods, but guided tours are available all year round, and in the low seasons, permits might be discounted.

Gorilla safari permits might be very expensive, the cost is around 400$ per person in Congo, 600$ in Uganda and 1500$ in Rwanda.
The reason for these prices is the high demand and the limited availability, but mostly due to the need for found to protect the primates: 75% of the amount is to conserve the gorilla surviving population, 15% goes to the governments and the 10% goes to the local communities.

Blue Whale Watching

The gigantic blue whale is the biggest animal on earth: up to 30 meters long and 150-170 tons of weight (like about 2000 men!). Its tongue can have the same weight as an elephant and its heartbeat can be detected from more than three kilometers.

Blue Whale comparisonThe blue whale name comes from the underwater colour, although his body is actually grayish-blue.
His diet mainly consists of krill, small crustaceans of which a blue whale can eat up to 4 tons every day (about two million of them!).

According to recent scientific studies, the life expectancy of a blue whale is up to 70-90 years and can be determined by the layers of their earwax.

The blue whales emit a particular vocalization sound that permits them to hear each other: the low-frequency sounds may travel up to more than 1500 km underwater.

World’s best places for blue whale watching:

Saguenay Fjord
from June to October

from May to August

Pico Island
April, May

Monterey Bay, California
San Diego, California
from June to October

Baja California Sur
from January to March

Sri Lanka
from December to April
from March to August

Corcovado Gulf
from January to April


Perth Canyon
from March to May

New Zealand
July, August

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Ngorongoro Crater
© Vincenzo Gianferrari Pini

With 16 km of diameter and 265 square km area, the Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s largest unbroken volcanic caldera. Formed three million years ago by a massive volcano, it is located in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (Tanzania). Due to its climatic conditions, the crater area has its own, unique, ecosystem.

Around the Magadi Lake, in the middle of the crater, live an impressive variety of animal species, among which elephants, black rhinos, leopards, lions, buffalos, hippos, hyenas, crocodiles, cheetah and thousands of pink flamingos, giving the area the appearance of a large water park for wild animals.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is the only one Tanzania’s Park in which the Masai population can live and move freely.

Pantanal, Brazil

© Raphael Milani
The Pantanal Conservation Area, located in Brazil, Bolivia & Paraguay, is the world’s largest tropical wetland, with an estimated surface area of about 170.000 square kilometers (at least 20 times the size of the Everglades, in Florida); it is one of the most unspoiled and unexplored places of the world.
For much of the year, the 80% of the land is submerged by the water, allowing the growth of a large variety of aquatic plants and supporting one of the world’s best diversity of wildlife. 
In addition to anacondas, caimans, jaguars and many other animals, you can also meet the pantaneiros, people living here of animal husbandry.

The Big Five, South Africa

photo © mytouristmaps (Pilanesberg Nat. Park)

Known all over the African continent, the “big 5” expression refers to the five most dangerous animals at the time of hunting safari: LION, ELEPHANT, RHINO, LEOPARD and BUFFALO.

They all can be found in many African parks and reserves (particularly in South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya, …) or, more simply, on the South African bills (with 380 Rand you will have them all).

South African Rand

Dovrefjell Nat. Park, Norway

Musk Ox
photo © NTNU, Faculty of Natural Sciences / Flickr
The Dovrefjell National Park is the only area of Norway where you can see the majestic musk ox: a large mammal of the caprinae family, known for its thick coat that reaches almost the ground and the characteristic odor of musk.
During the period of love, rival male musk oxen fight to conquer females: they collide head to head at the speed of 60 km/h making a noise that you can hear in kilometers.
The guided tour starting from Oppdal, Knogsvoll, Furuhaugli and Hjerkinn, have a duration of 4-7 hours on a distance of about 10-13 km of enjoable and easy hiking.

Bear in mind that if the musk ox feels threatened, he might attack, therefore it is suggested to keep at least 200 metrs distace from them. If you are too close and you see them looking towards you and scrolling their head, you could be in real danger. 
The park ecosystem includes other animals like wild mountain reindeer, arctic foxes, golden eagle and gyrfalcon.