Podcast Episode 239: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo


In 1898, two lions descended on a company of railway workers in British East Africa. For nine months they terrorized the camp, carrying off a new victim every few days, as engineer John Patterson struggled to stop them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll track the “man-eaters of Tsavo” and learn what modern science has discovered about their motivations.

We’ll also consider more uses for two cars and puzzle over some prolific penguins.


MIT drops a piano off a building every year.

French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée proposed honoring Isaac Newton with a sarcophagus inside a 500-foot globe.

Sources for our feature on the Tsavo man-eaters:

John Henry Patterson, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, 1907.

J.H. Patterson, “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo: The Lions That Stopped a Railway,” Wide World Magazine 10:55 (October 1902), 3-12; 10:56 (November 1902), 112-118.

J.H. Patterson, “The Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo,” Field Museum of Natural History, 1926.

Philip Caputo, Ghosts of Tsavo, 2002.

Bruce D. Patterson, The Lions of Tsavo, 2004.

Julian C. Kerbis Peterhans and Thomas Patrick Gnoske, “The Science of ‘Man-Eating’ Among Lions Panthera leo With a Reconstruction of the Natural History of the ‘Man-Eaters of Tsavo,'” Journal of East African Natural History 90:1 (2001), 1-41.

T.P. Gnoske, G.G. Celesia, and J.C. Kerbis Peterhans, “Dissociation Between Mane Development and Sexual Maturity in Lions (Panthera leo): Solution to the Tsavo Riddle?” Journal of Zoology 270:4 (2006), 551-560.

Justin D. Yeakel, et al., “Cooperation and Individuality Among Man-Eating Lions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:45 (2009), 19040-19043.

Bruce D. Patterson, et al., “Livestock Predation by Lions (Panthera leo) and Other Carnivores on Ranches Neighboring Tsavo National Parks, Kenya,” Biological Conservation 119:4 (2004), 507-516.

Bruce D. Patterson, “On the Nature and Significance of Variability in Lions (Panthera leo),” Evolutionary Biology 34:1-2 (2007), 55-60.

Bruce D. Patterson, Ellis J. Neiburger, Samuel M. Kasiki, “Tooth Breakage and Dental Disease as Causes of Carnivore-Human Conflicts,” Journal of Mammalogy 84:1 (Feb. 28, 2003), 190–196.

Roland W. Kays and Bruce D. Patterson, “Mane Variation in African Lions and Its Social Correlates,” Canadian Journal of Zoology 80:3 (March 2002), 471.

Larisa R.G. DeSantis and Bruce D. Patterson, “Dietary Behaviour of Man-Eating Lions as Revealed by Dental Microwear Textures,” Scientific Reports 7:1 (2017), 904.

Ellis J. Neiburger and Bruce D. Patterson, “The Man-Eaters With Bad Teeth,” New York State Dental Journal 66:10 (2000), 26.

“The Tale Teeth Tell About Legendary Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo,” Laboratory Equipment, April 19, 2017.

Alba Tomasula y Garcia, “The Lions of Tsavo: Man-Made Man-Eaters,” Western Humanities Review 68:1 (Winter 2014), 195-200.

Paul Raffaele, “Man-Eaters of Tsavo,” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2010.

Jason Bittel, “Why Man-Eating Lions Prey on People — New Evidence,” National Geographic, April 19, 2017.

Mindy Weisberger, “What Drove Tsavo Lions to Eat People? Century-Old Mystery Solved,” Live Science, April 19, 2017.

David Salisbury, “The Tale Teeth Tell About the Legendary Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo,” Vanderbilt University, April 19, 2017.

Can Buckley, “Irishman’s Account of Man-Eating Lions, ‘the Ghost’ and ‘the Darkness,’ in Africa,” Irish Examiner, April 29, 2017.

Ed Yong, “How Many People Did the Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo Actually Eat?” Discover, Nov. 2, 2009.

Gemma Tarlach, “Infamous Man-Eaters of Tsavo Ate Like Zoo Animals,” Discover, April 19, 2017.

Jennifer McNulty, “Legendary ‘Man-Eating’ Lions of Tsavo Likely Ate About 35 People — Not 135, Say Scientists,” UCSC Newscenter, Nov. 1, 2009.

Hannah Osborne, “Infamous Man-Eating Tsavo Lions Were Apparently Suffering From Toothache,” Newsweek, April 19, 2017.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Restored by a taxidermist, the lions are currently on display in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Listener mail:

“Sweden’s Jobs Agency to Lay Off 4,500 Staff,” The Local Sweden, Jan. 30, 2019.

Greg Myre, “Gas Lines Evoke Memories of Oil Crises in the 1970s,” The Picture Show, National Public Radio, Nov. 10, 2012.

Wikipedia, “Odd–Even Rationing” (accessed Feb. 23, 2019).

Wikipedia, “1973 Oil Crisis” (accessed Feb. 23, 2019).

Wikipedia, “1979 Oil Crisis” (accessed Feb. 23, 2019).

Carl Bialik, “Fuel Rationing Is Hard to Gauge,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16, 2012.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Mat Spedding, based on an item he heard on the podcast No Such Thing As a Fish. Here are three corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!