The legend of the Tsavo man-eaters holds that two lions killed and devoured 135 workers constructing a bridge in Kenya in 1898. Now scientists are suggesting that the story is just that: a legend. Their findings, published in the latest issue of the Journal of East African Natural History, indicate that the animals most likely killed fewer than 30 men. Moreover, they argue that the Tsavo lions were not aberrant, but that their actions were instead a function of changing environmental conditions.

Julian Kerbis Peterhas and Thomas Gnoske of the Field Museum in Chicago examined historical accounts, game department records, and unpublished correspondence of John Patterson (who eventually killed the lions) and analyzed the skulls and skins of the man-eaters, which are housed at the Field Museum (see image). Patterson's journal entries from the time of the attack, often referred to as "the reign of terror," note the deaths of 28 Indian workers. Earlier fatalities could increase the toll to 31, but later reports of 135 deaths seem unlikely, the researchers say. "The distorted version, perpetuated by Hollywood and popular treatments, fall more into the category of myth rather than fact," Gnoske notes. "Promoting such fiction can actually have a negative impact on serious conservation efforts focused on preserving lions in the wild."

Peterhas and Gnoske posit that the man-eaters' motives have been distorted over the years as well. Although two crazed lions terrorizing a railway crew out of the blue makes for a more dramatic story, the scientists point out that man-eating "was well established in the vicinity of the railway bridge well before these infamous lions appeared, and continued well after their demise." In fact, humans may have encouraged the habit because caravans passing through the region often abandoned sick, injured or dead members, thereby supplying an easy source of food to the local lions. In addition, a sharp decrease in the number of buffalo (the lions' typical quarry) owing to an outbreak of rinderpest between 1891 and 1893 most likely drove them to human prey. "Given the circumstances there in the 1890s, instead of asking how so many humans could have been dispatched," Gnoske says, "we wonder why there weren't more."