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Will the Man-eaters of Tsavo come home?

Updated Friday, April 23rd 2010 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Ally Jamah

Visitors to a museum in the US read notes pasted on a glass screen then admire two figures of stuffed lions mounted on a background that is a poor imitation of the animals’ original habitat.

More than 100 years ago, the two lions roamed the wilderness of Tsavo in Kenya where they made a reputation as the two most dangerous wild canines ever to inhabit the African savannah plains.

These are the Man-eaters of Tsavo which, between them, devoured 134 Indian workers constructing the Kenya-Uganda Railway over a century ago.

Now, after 86 years on display in the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, the Government of Kenya says it is time the skulls and hides of the legendary beasts are returned home where their story is immortalised only in documents at the Railways Museum.

Descendants of the man-eating lions of Tsavo are not known to have conflict with humans.

"We will do our best to ensure the two lions are returned to Kenya. They are part of our history and national heritage. We will apply pressure even if it means talking to President Barack Obama to assist us," Minister for National Heritage, William ole Ntimama told Parliament last week.

But the managers of the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, have repeatedly rejected such demands in the past to return this piece of Kenyan heritage.

"The Tsavo lions are part of our permanent collection and a popular, educational exhibition. We have no plans to sell or otherwise de-accession them," said Nancy O’Shea, an official of the museum, through an e-mail to The Standard.

"The museum bought the remains of the lions legally from J.H. Patterson, the British rail engineer who shot them in 1898 and has no obligation to let them go," she wrote. The ‘man-eaters’ are displayed on the museum’s website as part of its special collection.

During a query in Parliament, Ntimama had indicated that the Chicago museum was willing to let go of the lions once they were compensated an amount of money that he did not specify, but O’Shea denied any such intentions.

Reign of terror

At the height of their horror escapades in 1898, the two lions became the most famous canines around the world, hitting news headlines in Europe and the US after launching a "reign of terror" for nine months.

The Tsavo railway station built near the rail bridge J.H. Patterson built in 1898. [PHOTOS: FILE/STANDARD]

Rail construction work ground to a halt after terrified Indian coolies, who formed the bulk of manual labour, started fleeing the campsite in droves, in fear of being the "next dinner" for the kings of the jungle. Members of the British House of Lords called for the construction of the railway to be halted due to the high number of casualties.

They marauding lions were finally shot dead by Patterson, a British ex-military engineer, who tracked them down for more than a month. He nearly gave up his stalking after the lions seemed to sense him waiting for them on a high platform he had built.

Night after night Patterson waited for the lions all night but they failed to turn up. Then they would strike on the nights he failed to waylay them and kill another rail worker. He finally managed to bring down the two beasts in two separate ambushes three weeks apart. The beasts were so huge they had to be carried by eight men.

Bwana devil

Several films have been made about them, including Bwana Devil (1952) and The Ghost and The Darkness (1997) which won an academy award in the same year. Patterson’s bestselling book, Man Eaters of Tsavo, chronicled their action in the bushes of Tsavo.

According to records, Patterson sold the lions’ remains to the Chicago museum for about Sh380,000 (US$5,000) when he lectured there.

If the Chicago museum finally accepts compensation, the amount to be paid will be calculated on the current rates and may run into millions of shillings. The museum may be reluctant to let go of the lions partly because they attract thousands of visitors each year, which means a tidy profit for the institution. The institution also make millions of shillings selling souvenir items like T-shirts and mugs emblazoned with the images of the legendary lions.

Last week, Ntimama was put to task in Parliament to explain when the "Man-eaters" would be returned to Kenya, but the Minister assured the House that the Government is working through the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to achieve that goal.

The Director-General of the National Museums of Kenya Dr Idle Farah said it would be many years before the "Man-eaters" are viewed in a Kenyan museum.

"We don’t want to get involved into any activism to get back the lions. We will follow the laid down official channels and procedures to the letter and that may take a bit of time," he said recently.