Man-eater, the very word strikes fear in the hearts of many. The term is used to refer to an animal that attacks or kills humans. Animals involved in these attacks range from sharks to wolves and crocodiles to big cats. Of human deaths by big cats, many have been caused by lions in particular. What drives a lion to kill humans? Lack of prey is the main factor behind this occurrence. When lions cannot find food, they are forced to search over many miles. Becoming desperate, they will often turn to livestock or humans for survival. Human activity is responsible for declining prey populations. With humans infringing on lion territory, lions are running out of places to go. Humans are also an easier prey to catch which is appealing to older or sick lions. Some scientists claim that once a predator tastes human blood, they will develop a preference for it and begin to seek out people as prey. This theory could explain why some animals are repeat offenders. Below are some of the most vicious man-eating lions in history.
Most Dreaded Man-Eating Lions
Man-eaters of Njombe
Between 1932 and 1947, the people of southern Tanzania lived under fear of being attacked by lions. One pride (a group of lions) of 15 lions was especially violent, earning them the name of “Man-eaters of Njombe”. These lions were triggered by the British colonial government’s efforts to control an outbreak of rinderpest virus. In order to stop the virus that was killing local livestock, the government began killing off wild animals like zebra, wildebeest, and antelope. Consequently, lions began to starve and search for alternative prey. The Njombe pride was clever, moving through the night and killing during the day which is opposite of typical lion behavior. Before they were exterminated by the British game warden, the Njombe pride claimed the lives of approximately 1,500 victims.
The Tsavo man-eaters have been immortalized on the silver screen and have villainized their descendants, the Tsavo lion. This lion species travels in smaller pride, and the males are easily recognized by their lack of a mane. In 1898, 2 of them had their sights set on a railroad crew along the Tsavo River in Kenya. They have been blamed for the death of 140 workers. One of the possible explanations for this behavior is that the lions got a taste for human blood after scavenging on the corpses of workers. Many of these men were slaves and not given a proper burial thus leaving their bodies exposed to the lions. This opportunity motivated their preference for human prey, and the lions continued attacking the living. The men were so scared that the majority left the job. The chief engineer finally visited the project site and killed the two lions. Recent estimates suggest the two were responsible for a significantly lower victim count.
Chiengi Charlie, also known as the White Lion due to his light color, terrorized present-day Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) in 1909. His strange appearance, white-like with only half a tail, led villagers to revere him as one might revere a legend. He moved among villages preying on the inhabitants and eventually joining forces with two other lions. Rumors have it that Chiengi Charlie even killed a servant who had been sent to hunt him down. He managed to elude villagers for a year and during that time devoured 90 people. He was eventually shot.
Osama, the Arabic word for lion, killed over 50 people from 2002 to 2004 in Rufiji, Tanzania. When he was shot in 2004, he was only 3 ½ years old. His young age has led some scientists to believe that Osama learned to hunt for people from his mother. Others claim he singled out humans because of a large abscess on one of his molars, human flesh being more tender than other animals.
Lion of Mfuwe
In 1991, the Lion of Mfuwe killed an estimated six people in the Luangwa River Valley of Zambia. A man from California in the US was visiting on safari at the time and reportedly waited in a hunting blind for nearly three weeks before getting the opportunity to shoot the lion. Villagers claim that the lion was so fearless that he sauntered through the middle of the town carrying the laundry basket of one of his casualties. His size was enormous, nearly 10 feet in length, and today, his body can be found at the Field Museum in Chicago.
These man-eating lions will live on as the subjects of oral stories passed on by inhabitants of the villages where these creatures once preyed. They will serve as lessons for small children, a reminder to pay close attention to their surroundings and watch out for lions. Their deaths are not in vain, and everybody can learn a lesson from their stories. Human interference is often the root cause of these killings. When ravaged by hunger and pushed to desperation, big cats can and will turn to humans for food.