Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa by Philip Caputo

National Geographic Books 2002  276 pp. 27.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


In Ghosts of Tsavo, award-winning journalist and novelist Philip Caputo observes, “To walk unarmed in the lion’s kingdom demands a submission not unlike the submission required of us in the presence of the divine, and it graces those who walk there with a humility that is not humiliation.”   His account takes us along on an engaging journey to the desolate Tsavo region of Kenya, in between the coastal town of Mombassa and the capitol, Nairobi, with a side trip to the Field Museum in Chicago.

If the title and subject matter of this book sound familiar, they should.  This book echoes British Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson’s famous 1907 account, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, the basis for the “Hollywood fantasies” B’wana Devil (1951) and The Ghost and the Darkness (1996).  The book, still in print after 95 years, recounts Patterson’s search for two lions who had “killed and ate some 135 Indian and African laborers building a railroad bridge over the Tsavo River, in what was then British East Africa, later the Republic of Kenya.”  The hunt lasted nine months, “a saga without equal in the annals of big-game hunting.”

At 58, Caputo has returned to the site of Patterson’s triumph, armed not with a rifle but with a camera.  Accompanying lion experts on two separate trips, he seeks to answer two questions.  First, are lions really man-eaters or do they turn to human flesh owing to an ecological imbalance in their feeding habits?  The record of human-lion encounters is impressive.  For example, “Between 1932 and 1947, in a 150 square-mile area of southern Tanzania, lions killed and ate an estimated 1,500 human beings.”

The second question is a bit more arcane.  The lions of the Tsavo region are predominately lacking in manes, unlike the classically maned lions of the Serengeti.  Do maneless lions constitute a genetic group independent of the maned African lions or are there environmental explanations for their condition?

These two questions, while admittedly not the most engaging for a popular audience, provide the motive for, but not the substance of, Caputo’s account.  His story is of an intelligent, informed, affable tourist who tags along with the scientists, eager to photograph wildlife, but even more interested in encountering them outside the protected confines of the ubiquitous Land Rover. 

Caputo, traveling through M.M.B.A.—“miles and miles of bloody Africa,” observes lions aplenty, along with other wildlife, both human and animal.  We learn, for example, that the lion is not the most dangerous of African creatures, since the hippopotamus kills more people in Africa than any other animal.  However, “Standing outside waiting for [a cab] at ten at night in downtown Nairobi may be the most dangerous thing [my travel companion] Peyton and I have done on this trip.”

He also observes the depredations of poaching and how attempts at animal conservation sometimes hurt more than they help.  He notes the powerful economic incentives to destroy animals.  Consider, for example, elephant ivory. 

Caputo estimates that the gross profit for selling the ivory from two elephants can equal over a million dollars, “in a part of the world where the average annual income wouldn’t cover an American family’s monthly grocery bill.”

He notes, “If Thoreau was right, that in wildness do we find our salvation, then I guess we are damned.  All we can do is mourn the lost wonder and wildness of the world, and fight rear-guard actions to save what’s left from ourselves.  It isn’t the free market that’s at fault, or socialism or industrialism or any other ism; there are too many of us.”

Caputo is no tree-hugger, however, and endorses hunting as superior to photography.  “Even afoot, observing game is passive.  The photographer is still in the audience, while the hunter is a full participant in the dance of predator and prey, and that’s an experience of altogether different quality.”

No maulings occur.  Before he leaves Africa, Caputo does have a near-death experience, but his arises not from an attack by an enraged and hungry animal, but an inadvertent overdose of malaria medication.

This armchair trip through contemporary Kenya is a reminder of how little true wilderness remains.  “Tsavo, vast and austere, has been spared because it’s unsuitable for agriculture or any other kind of human development.  In the future, it could become one of the lion’s last refuges.”