Unfortunately this happy state of affairs did not
continue for long, and our work was soon interrupted in a
rude and startling manner. Two most voracious and
insatiable man-eating lions appeared upon the scene, and for over
nine months waged an intermittent warfare against the railway and
all those connected with it in the vicinity of Tsavo. This
culminated in a perfect reign of terror in December, 1898, when they
actually succeeded in bringing the railway works to a complete
standstill for about three weeks. At first they were not always
successful in their efforts to carry off a victim, but as time went
on they stopped at nothing and indeed braved any danger in order to
obtain their favourite food.
Their methods then became so uncanny, and their
man-stalking so well-timed and so certain of success, that the
workmen firmly believed that they were not real animals at all, but
devils in lions’ shape. Many a time the coolies solemnly assured me
that it was absolutely useless to attempt to shoot them. They were
quite convinced that the angry spirits of two departed native chiefs
had taken this form in order to protest against a railway being made
through their country, and by stopping its progress to avenge the
insult thus shown to them.
I had only been a few days at Tsavo when I first
heard that these brutes had been seen in the neighbourhood. Shortly
afterwards one or two coolies mysteriously disappeared, and I was
told that they had been carried off by night from their tents and
devoured by lions. At the time I did not credit this story, and was
more inclined to believe that the unfortunate men had been the
victims of foul play at the hands of some of their comrades. They
were, as it happened, very good workmen, and had each saved a fair
number of rupees, so I thought it quite likely that some scoundrels
from the gangs had murdered them for the sake of their money. This
suspicion, however, was very soon dispelled. About three weeks after
my arrival, I was roused one morning about daybreak and told that
one of my jemadars, a fine powerful Sikh named Ungan Singh, had been
seized in his tent during the night, and dragged off and eaten.
Naturally I lost no time in making an examination of
the place, and was soon convinced that the man had indeed been
carried off by a lion, as its "pug" marks were plainly visible in
the sand, while the furrows made by the heels of the victim showed
the direction in which he had been dragged away. Moreover, the
jemadar shared his tent with half a dozen other workmen, and one of
his bedfellows had actually witnessed the occurrence.
He graphically described how, at about midnight, the
lion suddenly put its head in at the open tent door and seized Ungan
Singh -- who happened to be nearest the opening -- by the throat.
The unfortunate fellow cried out "Choro" ("Let go"), and threw his
arms up round the lion’s neck. The next moment he was gone, and his
panic-stricken companions lay helpless, forced to listen to the
terrible struggle which took place outside. Poor Ungan Singh must
have died hard; but what chance had he? As a coolie gravely
remarked, "Was he not fighting with a lion?"
THE TENT FROM WHICH JEMADAR UNGAN
SINGH WAS CARRIED OFF
On hearing this dreadful story I at once set out to
try to track the animal, and was accompanied by Captain Haslem, who
happened to be staying at Tsavo at the time, and who, poor fellow,
himself met with a tragic fate very shortly afterwards. We found it
an easy matter to follow the route taken by the lion, as he appeared
to have stopped several times before beginning his meal. Pools of
blood marked these halting-places, where he doubtless indulged in
the man-eaters’ habit of licking the skin off so as to get at the
fresh blood. (I have been led to believe that this is their custom
from the appearance of two half-eaten bodies which I subsequently
rescued: the skin was gone in places, and the flesh looked dry, as
if it had been sucked.) 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 neighbourhood of the brutes. I little knew the trouble that was
in store for me, or how narrow were to be my own escapes from
sharing poor Ungan Singh’s fate.
That same night I sat up in a tree close to the late
jemadar’s tent, hoping that the lions would return to it for another
victim. I was followed to my perch by a few of the more terrified
coolies, who begged to be allowed to sit up in the tree with me; all
the other workmen remained in their tents, but no more doors were
left open. I had with me my .303 and a 12-bore shot gun, one barrel
loaded with ball and the other with slug. Shortly after settling
down to my vigil, my hopes of bagging one of the brutes were raised
by the sound of their ominous roaring coming closer and closer.
Presently this ceased, and quiet reigned for an hour or two, as
lions always talk their prey in complete silence. All at once,
however, we heard a great uproar and frenzied cries coming from
another camp about half a mile away; we knew then that the lions had
seized a victim there, and that we should see or hear nothing
further of them that night.
Next morning I found that one of the brutes had
broken into a tent at Railhead Camp -- whence we had heard the
commotion during the night -- and had made off with a poor wretch
who was lying there asleep. After a night’s rest, therefore, I took
up my position in a suitable tree near this tent. I did not at all
like the idea of walking the half-mile to the place after dark, but
all the same I felt fairly safe, as one of my men carried a bright
lamp close behind me. He in his turn was followed by another leading
a goat, which I tied under my tree in the hope that the lion might
be tempted to seize it instead of a coolie. A steady drizzle
commenced shortly after I had settled down to my night of watching,
and I was soon thoroughly chilled and wet. I stuck to my
uncomfortable post, however, hoping to get a shot, but I well
remember the feeling of impotent disappointment I experienced when
about midnight I heard screams and cries and a heart-rending shriek,
which told me that the man-eaters had again eluded me and had
claimed another victim elsewhere.
"MY OWN TENT WAS PITCHED
IN AN OPEN CLEARING."
At this time the various camps for the workmen were
very scattered, so that the lions had a range of some eight miles on
either side of Tsavo to work upon; and as their tactics seemed to be
to break into a different camp each night, it was most difficult to
forestall them. They almost appeared, too, to have an extraordinary
and uncanny faculty of finding out our plans beforehand, so that no
matter in how likely or how tempting a spot we lay in wait for them,
they invariably avoided that particular place and seized their
victim for the night from some other camp. Hunting them by day,
moreover, in such a dense wilderness as surrounded us, was an
exceedingly tiring and really foolhardy undertaking. In a thick
jungle of the kind round Tsavo the hunted animal has every chance
against the hunter, as however careful the latter may be, a dead
twig or something of the sort is sure to crackle just at the
critical moment and so give the alarm. Still I never gave up hope of
some day finding their lair, and accordingly continued to devote all
my spare time to crawling about through the undergrowth.
Many a time when attempting to force my way through
this bewildering tangle I had to be released by my gun-bearer from
the fast clutches of the "wait-a-bit"; and often with immense pains
I succeeded in tracing the lions to the river after they had seized
a victim, only to lose the trail from there onwards, owing to the
rocky nature of the ground which they seemed to be careful to choose
in retreating to their den.
At this early stage of the struggle, I am glad to
say, the lions were not always successful in their efforts to
capture a human being for their nightly meal, and one or two amusing
incidents occurred to relieve the tension from which our nerves were
beginning to suffer. On one occasion an enterprising bunniah (Indian
trader) was riding along on his donkey late one night, when suddenly
a lion sprang out on him knocking over both man and beast. The
donkey was badly wounded, and the lion was just about to seize the
trader, when in some way or other his claws became entangled in a
rope by which two empty oil tins were strung across the donkey’s
neck. The rattle and clatter made by these as he dragged them after
him gave him such a fright that he turned tail and bolted off into
the jungle, to the intense relief of the terrified bunniah, who
quickly made his way up the nearest tree and remained there,
shivering with fear, for the rest of the night.
Shortly after this episode, a Greek contractor named
Themistocles Pappadimitrini had an equally marvellous escape. He was
sleeping peacefully in his tent one night, when a lion broke in, and
seized and made off with the mattress on which he was lying. Though,
rudely awakened, the Greek was quite unhurt and suffered from
nothing worse than a bad fright. This same man, however, met with a
melancholy fate not long afterwards. He had been to the Kilima
N’jaro district to buy cattle, and on the return journey attempted
to take a short cut cross country to the railway, but perished
miserably of thirst on the way.
On another occasion fourteen coolies who slept
together in a large tent were one night awakened by a lion suddenly
jumping on to the tent and breaking through it. The brute landed
with one claw on a coolie’s shoulder, which was badly torn; but
instead of seizing the man himself, in his hurry he grabbed a large
bag of rice which happened to be lying in the tent, and made off
with it, dropping it in disgust some little distance away when he
realised his mistake.
These, however, were only the earlier efforts of the man-eaters.
Later on, as will be seen, nothing flurried or frightened them in
the least, and except as food they showed a complete contempt for
human beings. Having once marked down a victim, they would allow
nothing to deter them from securing him, whether he were protected
by a thick fence, or inside a closed tent, or sitting round a
brightly burning fire. Shots, shouting and firebrands they alike
held in derision.