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:




 The self-taught French artist Henri Rousseau was well known for his jungle paintings. In fact, it was his dreamlike jungles completed in the last decade of his life, filled with exotic creatures, animal violence, and fantastically luscious vegetation, which are considered to be the apotheosis of the artist’s style. Some of his jungles are peaceful, depicting monkeys playing with oranges or peaking out from enormous fronds. However, arguably his most popular images (and certainly his most senstational) are those of animal attacks, mostly painted from 1904 to 1910. In one painting a lion tears an antelope; in another a lion is eating a leopard. A tiger attacks a waterbuffalo; a leopard rears up against a black sillouette of man; a jaguar brings down a white horse, all admist the excess fertility of overblown flowers, colossal leaves, and hanging bananas.

rousseau-hungry lion.jpg

What makes Rousseau’s paintings particularly beguiling is that the artist never travelled to those distant geographies to witness tropical nature for himself. His paintings are aggregations, imaginative constructions drawn from the popular culture of tropicality that blossomed within turn-of-the-century Paris. In addition to postcards and photographs from French colonies, wild books of bloodthirsty beasts, adventure tales of heroic hunters, and popular scientific journals, Rousseau drew inspiration from the hot houses of exotic plants, the live animals, and zoological galleries of taxidermy at the Jardin des Plantes. As the “heady mixture of the real and the imagined filed down to a popular audience,” Nancy Ireson notes about Rousseau’s creative process, “the jungle started to become entertainment, the dangers of the unknown a source of excitement.” This is the atmosphere of Rousseau’s paintings. Filled with his era’s desire for the bewitching dangers of the colonial frontiers and his own strange dreams of exotic animal savagery and lush abundance, Rousseau created “tropical jungles for northern imaginations.”

Entitled “Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris,” a 2005 exhibition brought together fourty-eight paintings with an extensive selection of images and ephemera from turn of the century Paris, including a piece of theatrical taxidermy entitled “A Senegal Lion Devouring an Antelope.”


The scene is vicious: a lioness sinks her teeth into the neck of an antelope; a massive clawed paw ripping the dying creature’s face, dragging the beast to the ground. A dramatic scene that sufficiently exhilirated Rousseau’s imagination to replicated the terror in The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (1905). Certainly Rousseau enhanced the sentionalism by envisioned a potent setting for combat, adding a panorama of towering vegetal fertility and deep bloody gashes on the antelope’s haunches. A leopard and two birds lurk in the trees above, hoping to get a piece of the kill. Rousseau even transfigured the female lionness into the more potent symbol of a maned male lion. In short, a typical scene of the “savage exotic,” teeming with terror, fascination, and more than a dash of raw, primal energy. When Rousseau exhibited the painting at the 1905 Salon d'Automne, it was accompanied by the following caption: "The hungry lion throws itself upon the antelope, devours him; anxiously the panther awaits the moment that he too can claim his share. Birds of prey have torn a strip of flesh from the poor animal that is shedding a tear! The sun sets."

Alongside and supporting territorial acquisition and its political and economic advantages, imperialism maintained a complex of ideological attitudes towards what made Europe and Europeans so very different from various colonial geographies and their inhabitants. As Nancy Leys Stepan writes in Picturing Tropical Nature, “Representation of tropical nature was not a straightforward result of exploration, but rather the product of complicated Western European cultural conventions;” that is, the tropics were imaginative spaces as much as they were empirical geographies. By the middle of the nineteenth century, an established package of themes, metaphors, images, and analogies for conveying the uniqueness and strangeness of the tropical nature to European audiences, its otherness and difference from home and the familiar. The word “exotic” literally means “from the outside,” and European labelling of particular landscapes as exotic cemented a relationship between centre and fringe, between a cultural and racial heart and its tributary peripheries. As such, tropical imaginings shaped how the centre came to be characterised, and tropical nature, as Stepan continues, was “part of the formation of Europe’s identity as a place of temperateness, control, hard work and thriftiness as opposed to the humidity, heat, extravagance and superfluity of the Torrid zone.” Geographical variation in tropical imaginings surely existed (Africa was viewed as a dark place of disease whereas South America offered more lyrical images) yet the chief tropes of were pervasive: fertility, savagery, superabundance, all bound together with the romance of danger. Plants were more prodigious, more vast; beasts were bolder, lither, more dramatic. Life was rawer at the edges of the world. Death more vivid. Even the birds and blossoms were more brilliantly coloured.

And animals were certainly a tantalising ingredient in the western fashioning of the exotic. Large African predators in particular – lions, tigers, leopards – were metonymic of entire geographies, concentrating in animal form what made those distant landscapes so ferociously exciting, so exotic. Big cats just seemed to emanate the savagery, rawness, and magnificence that characterised the entire Dark Continent within the western imagination. The covers of popular journals were frequently splashed with animal attacks.  Adventure stories such as Phineus Taylor Barnum’s exotic romp The Wild Beasts, Birds and Reptiles of the World: The Story of their Capture (1888) introduced its thrilling tales by chapter titles such as “Attacked in Front and Rear,” “The Rhinoceros-Hunters,” “The King of the Jungle,” and simply “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!,” which suggests a hunter attacked by many beasts or the death of a particularly savage creature. Although most such images and stories revolved around killing wild animals, what is at issue in here is not so much the experience of the hunters themselves but the thrill such encounters produced in the stay-at-home readers: DANGER! without leaving the parlour.





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:


Jules Verreaux

The French naturalists Jules Verreaux was scientific director of the Maison Verreaux, the foremost supplier of natural history specimens in the world at the time. The company was founded by Pierre-Jacques Verreaux in 1800, and was resuscitated in 1834 by his three sons, Jules, Edouard, and Alexis. Jules was also associated with the Muséum National D'Histoire Naturelle, and undertook three major collecting trips for the museum: South Africa in 1818; Tasmania and Australia in 1842, reportedly returning home with some 115,000 items.

In 1862, Jules replaced Florent Prévost as assistant naturalist to the Muséum, mainly on his reputation as an expert on exotic birds. His experience as a field naturalist influenced his approach to taxidermy, and he was critical of taxidermists who did not endeavour to observe specimens in the wild as part of their practice. Verreaux is perhaps most famous for his theatrical taxidermy, particularly the sensational Arab Courier Attacked by Lions, which won the gold medal for excellence at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1869.


links: read more from South Pacific Taxidermy: