The British Empire faced many adversaries during its reign but none as curious as a pair of man-eating lions that threatened its expansion into Africa.

The lions claimed more than 130 lives during a nine-month reign of terror that stopped construction of a rail road that would eventually stretch from Mombassa on the eastern coast to Lake Victoria in Uganda.

The British saw the Kenya-Uganda Railroad as an important trading route as well as an antidote to the slave trade where human portage of goods was still commonplace.

It was the latest in a series of calamities to beset the ill fated ‘lunatic line’, a 1000km railroad that critics derided as going from ‘nowhere to absolutely nowhere.’

Questions were raised in Parliament as news of the latest setback emerged.

Politicians demanded action from the safety of their padded benches and the dangerous task of stopping the man-eaters fell on the shoulders of an army engineer called John Henry Patterson.

Labourers had began disappearing soon after Patterson’s arrival in 1898 to oversee the construction of a bridge over the River Tsavo in Kenya.

Victims were snatched within earshot of colleagues and dragged from communal tents while they slept. Half eaten remains were soon discovered in the surrounding bush along with the tracks of two large male cats.

The lions, increasingly emboldened by their success, even began crawling through thorn barricades used to protect the campsites at night.

Rumour spread that the cats were evils spirits and Patterson received angry deputations demanding action. Labourers refused to leave camp and work on the bridge faltered.

However, the lions continued to confound Patterson’s best efforts, despite his experience of hunting tigers during military service in India.

He set various traps and spent numerous all-night vigils perched in trees in an effort to ambush the predators

Finally, he tracked and shot the first lion nine months after the first killing was reported.

He hit it in the hindquarters but it vanished into the surrounding brush.

Patterson began tracking his adversary only to realise that the hunter had become the hunted and the lion had begun circling him. It disappeared again and a relived Patterson retreated to camp.

He later recalled in his memoirs, The Lions of Tsavo, that it was one of the longest days of his life. It was not until dawn the next day that he found the lion’s now lifeless body.

It measured more than nine feet in length and eight men were needed to carry the body back to a camp of cheering workers.

The second lion was killed three weeks later but only after Patterson shot it five times.

He later claimed it died gnawing on a fallen tree branch in its frustration to reach its tormenter.

There were various suggestions why the lions had turned man-eaters.

These included the practice of cremation among the largely Indian workforce where the cats could have gained a taste for human flesh by feeding on unburnt remains, discarded bodies left by passing slave traders and an outbreak of rinderpest that killed the big cats natural food source.

Patterson had the lions skinned and they remained trophy rugs in his home until he sold them to the Museum of Chicago where they remain a popular exhibit.

There have been several films capturing Patterson’s exploits including The Wind and the Darkness starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer who played Patterson.

DNA testing of the lions’ remains has since revealed the number of victims was nearer 30.

John Patterson died in America in 1947.

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