The Ghosts of Tsavo – Philip Caputo

They were called The Ghost and The Darkness, two adult male African lions, that haunted the scrub brush of the Tsavo River at the turn of the century.

In 1898, they killed more than 135 Indian and African railway workers, laboring to throw a bridge across the Tsavo River, before Lt. Col. John Patterson, in an epic and harrowing nine-month struggle, hunted the lions down and killed them.

Today the lion’s are stuffed and displayed in the Field Museum in Chicago, but the question of what spawned their behavior, what drove them to become that most feared of all animals ( to us anyway) – a maneater, remains unanswered and mainly unexamined by science.

In the Ghosts of Tsavo, Phil Caputo, author of A Rumor of War, Horn of Africa, and numerous other books, examines the Tsavo lions, looking at two separate lines of scientific research that are now attempting to explain supposed behavioral and physical differences (Tsavo lions are maneless – sometimes, very aggressive, and may be a subspecies of lion that was thought to have died out 8,000 years ago) between Tsavo lions and other African lions. Journeying into the field with the scientests, Caputo offers a welcome insight into the scientific methodology in studying these animals, and brings a raw, visceral sense of the dread, fear, strength and admiration that the lions can generate.

Tsavo, in case you are interested, means “place of slaughter”.

At times Caputo’s writing is, by turns, chillingly effective at making the reader aware of the power of the lion and why so many of us fear the dark beyond the fire, mixed with the more clinical approach of scientific study. There is an undercurrent of Caputo’s awareness of his own mortality ribboning through the story that makes the lions appear less of an animal, and more of a archetype of death, staring at you with yellowed, predatory eyes.

The book is generally engrossing but at times the abrupt shift in tone is disconcerting and uneven. As with most scientific studies, there is no real conclusive point to the lion study, or for that matter to the book. It is a good tale of a journey, but a final arrival at a destination would have also been nice.

For more about the Tsavo lions, read Col. Patterson’s Maneater’s of Tsavo for the definative account (and a rippin’ great adventure story to boot (if a trifle Victorian in tone)). You can also download it (and many other public domain texts) free from Project Gutenberg.

There are also two Hollywood interpretations of the story, one of which, The Ghost and The Darkness, starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, is now on DVD. Interestingly enough, they had to import the lions used in the filming from Canada, and, with the filmakers usual lack of attention to detail, they used two fully-maned males, rather then the sparsely maned Tsavo cats….

For those of you that can’t afford a flight to Africa, get a taste of the wilderness at Africam.

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