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Beaty Biodiversity Museum

The Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia is a newly open research centre and museum focusing on all thing natural and all things naturally diverse.
Read more about the museum here +

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Tsavo Lions

Perhaps you already know the story of the Tsavo Lions? The event were commemorated a century later in the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas. Animal attack movies are a cinematic staple, a well-worn genre that requires only the most basic of storylines to raise heartbeats: the primal fascinated terror of man-eaters does the rest. But unlike Jaws, Anaconda, Lake Placcid, or even the Hitchcock classic The Birds, The Ghost and the Darkness was based on a series of real and very deadly lion attacks during the building of the Kenya-Uganda Railway in early 1898. The details were recounted by chief engineer Lt. Colonel John Henry Patterson, employed to build a bridge in 1924.

“I fully expected to encounter many trials and hardships while engaged in building the railway through an inhospitable and savage territory. I anticipated engineering difficulties, perils from sunstroke and fevers, a possible scarcity of food and water, - but never for a moment did I realize that the African wilderness held in its mysterious recesses two prowling demons who looked upon myself and my workmen as a sort of manna sent down from Heaven for their special delectation. All other difficulties were as nothing compared to the terrible toll of human sacrifice exacted nightly by these savage monsters who made Tsavo their headquarters and gave to that district an evil repute which lasts to this day.”

 In early 1898, the railhead had reached the Tsavo River, located about one hundred and thirty miles west of Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. Patterson had only just arrived to start work on the bridge when workmen began “mysteriously” disappearing. At first Patterson dismissed the workmen’s stories of devouring lions. But then he had the grisly opportunity to witness the carnage of a Sikh named Ungan Singh, who had been seized during the night, dragged away by the neck, and eaten. Patterson tracked the lion from the furrows made from the victim’s heel to the spot where the lion had devoured Singh: “Here a dreadful spectacle presented itself. The ground all about was covered in blood, morsels of flesh, and the larger bones, but the head was left intact, save for a couple of holes made by the lion’s tusks. It was the most gruesome sight I had ever seen.” Dreadful indeed.


Over the next nine months, the death toll continued to rise, over thirty workers were killed. The lions attacked at night, dragging their victims from their sleeping tents and hauling them through the fences of thorns erected in the hopes of protecting the camp. The lions’ methods, Patterson writes, “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.” After months of unsuccessful stakeouts and endless sleepless nights, Patterson finally shot and killed both lions. The first was shot as it stalked Patterson in near pitch darkness of the Africa night. The second only succumbed after six shots.

Patterson had both lions skinned to use as floor rugs. Two decades later the skins were purchased by the Field Museum in Chicago for $5000, but the skins were worn and the way the skins had been cut (not to mention bullet holes) made the process of mounted difficult and the lions appear far smaller than they were in actual life. They are still on display at the Museum.

More information on the Tsavo Lions is available on the Field Museum's site:



Bullock's Deadly Battle

Even in a taxidermied state, exotic beasts and birds incited imaginings of the living creature, its behaviors, the look of its native geographic, and – with dangerous beasts – the titillating fear of its savagery. On display at Bullock's Museum in the early nineteenth century was a cabinet featuring a Bengal tiger locked in a deadly battle with a boa constrictor, two creatures of near mythical menace, surrounded by luxuriant artificial foliage to intensify the “natural” aura of the scene. In the museum’s catalogue, Bullock made sure to describe the combat as luridly as possible:

Bullock's tiger is still on display at the Rossendale
Museum in Lancashire, England.  Go +
"The Royal Tiger (F. Tigrina). This is represented expiring in one of those dreadful combats which take place betwixt this powerful and sanguinary destroyed of the human species, and the immense serpent of India, called the Boa Constrictor, in whose enormous folds its unavailing strength is nearly exhausted, and its bones crushed and broken by the strength and eights of its tremendous adversary.”

Big snakes and big cats obviously excited visitors’ sense of the drama and death on colonial frontiers.  Viewers couldn't help but be impressed.


Arab Courier Attacked by Lions

image: from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. photographer: Melinda McNaugher


Created by the French taxidermist Jules Verreaux, "Arab Courier Attacked by Lions" won on the gold medal for excellence at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1869. Verreaux fashioned the lions and the camel from metal frameworks wrapped with excelsior or straw, over which the animal skins were stretched. Although some or all of the original skulls and teeth were used, facial details were cast in plaster. The human figure was constructed of steel rods wrapped in horsehair or excelsior and covered with a knitted cotton fabric. The face and hands are painted plaster casts. The tableau's label accentuates the lurid drama of the piece:

The Jaws of Death Action that cries for sound – a vibrating roar from the big cat mingled with the bellowing groans of the terror-stricken Dromadary. The one-ball flintstock, lying with ramrod twisted and useless across the slain lioness, has done its work. One thin blade remains to stand off the finality of the charge – a charge with the swiftness of death in it.

The piece was purchased with the entire Verreaux collection by the American Museum of Natural History in 1869. It was subsequently exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, and later acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh in 1899, where it is still on display. In addition to exemplifying a genre of taxidermy which has fallen out of favour, especially by sober natural history museums, Arab Courier has also acquired a further significance in the intervening years. The Barbary lion is now extinct: the last survivors were shot in Morocco in the 1920s. Verreaux's two specimens and several animals in the Leiden Musem are all that remain of the species today.

link: read more from the Carnegie Natural History Museum's website: