Who Were the Man-Eaters of Tsavo?
One of the encounters Alexandra mentions is the incident with the “Man-eaters of Tsavo.” Spencer is quick to retort that he was five years old when that happened. While something of a throwaway line, the Tsavo encounter was an actual historical event to which ’s African storyline bears a striking resemblance.
The Tsavo in question is a river in Kenya, around which the strange and significant events of the story unfolded. In 1898, the British started building a railroad line intended to link Uganda to the Indian Ocean at the port of Mombasa in Kenya, which at the time was the capital of British East Africa. As a part of this railroad line, they needed to build a bridge over the river Tsavo for the trains to cross over. The workers themselves were mostly Indian and African, but the leader of the construction project was a British officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson.
Only shortly after Patterson joined the project, however, a pair of lions started stalking the construction camps and creating a stir among the workers. These lions were distinctive for a number of reasons: first of all, they were both male lions, unaccompanied by any females. This is somewhat unusual, as a pride of lions tends to have very few males (if more than one in the first place) and the males are outnumbered by females. Nonetheless, the pair of male lions worked in tandem. Secondly, despite the common association, these lions were not the shaggy-maned Mufasa type, but were maneless. And thirdly — and most importantly — they had an uncanny thirst for human prey.
For nine months, these lions prowled among the workers’ camps by night and had an eerie ability to cooperate with each other and avoid detection. They dragged workers from their tents at night; at first, they seemingly worked as a tag team: one attacking while the other prowled around, keeping watch. With time, though, they became more bold and brazen, attacking at the same time and virtually every night. As part of this uncanny tendency as well, the lions were utterly undeterred by any attempts to trap them or keep them out. Fences, fires, and thorn-spiked enclosures were built to fend them off; the lions crawled through and under or simply jumped over them. Patterson himself tried on multiple occasions to trap and kill them, but they again proved strangely immune to his schemes. Patterson finally shot one of the lions, but it escaped. Soon, however, it returned and started tracking Patterson himself even as he was attempting to kill it. He did finally succeed, shooting it from an observation platform he had constructed.
The second lion proved even more difficult to deal with. Like the first lion, the second Patterson shot from his platform; it escaped. Nearly two weeks later, it too started stalking Patterson himself, and he shot it twice more; it escaped again. The following day, he hit it with three shots; yet again, he failed to kill it. Taking a different rifle, he shot the lion , finally killing it. According to Patterson’s own account, the last lion was trying to reach him in a tree even as he shot it the last time. (In case you were wondering, it is unclear whether Patterson attempted to enlist Kyle Reese and/or crush the lion with a hydraulic press.)
The coda on the true story is itself an interesting tale; if you happen to live in or pass through the Chicago area, the two lions are on display in the Field Museum; In terms of Patterson’s story, he wrote an account of his adventures entitled , which is part of the Easter egg reference by Alexandra in the TV series, and has been adapted into a film multiple times. Perhaps the most famous of these is the 1996 Val Kilmer/ Michael Douglas film written by William Goldman, .
The numbers have been disputed, but Patterson himself judged that the lions had killed more than 100 people by the time he finally dealt with them. Estimates derived from scientific studies of the lions’ remains judge that the pair had at least 35 victims. In terms of ’s story, it seems likely, especially given the reference, that Spencer’s character is at least partly based on Patterson, who dealt with the lions and also enjoyed a somewhat legendary reputation afterward.
However, the “Man-eaters of Tsavo” story seems to have provided inspiration for part of the plot, as well. From Episode 1 to 2, Spencer had to deal with an unexpected pair of leopards, and in Episode 3, he too was trapped in a tree fending off a lion that was leaping up at him, trying to reach him until the very end. Whether the Patterson story will have more impact on Spencer and is unclear, but there is an interesting if terrifying true story behind the events in Africa at the beginning of the series.