Back in 1898, two male, mane-less lions killed and ate nearly 140 railway workers along the Tsavo River in East Africa. Their skulls and pelts, which had been cut down to make rugs, were sold by the man who killed the man-eaters to Chicago's Field Museum where they are on permanent exhibit. Today, the National Museums of Kenya indicated that they would like the man-eaters back. VOA reports:
"'What we are saying is if anybody has got any artifacts that belong to Kenya, we would like to bring them back,' said (National Museums spokeswoman Connie) Mania. 'As we are doing the history of Kenya, we would like to show Kenyans that this is part of our heritage. As we rewrite Kenyan history in our own way, we would like to know what was available in Kenya at that time, and we are approaching different people who can give us the history which we may not even be aware of so we can tell where we have come from and where we are going as a country.'"
Repatriation of looted cultural artifacts is a serious topic deserving serious consideration. But I confess I find Kenya's interest in the Tsavo Man-eaters a bit odd, just as I find the fact that they are still displayed by the Field Museum odd. They aren't Ripley's, after all, and man-eating lions seem more in their line. They may be heroic examples of the taxidermist's art, but they are not especially superb specimens. Without their manes and with their somewhat emaciated forms they look like hell hounds rather than lions. Then again, as the Museum website points out, they may have turned to stalking railway workers because both domestic cattle and many antelope species had been decimated by an outbreak of Rinderpest. Perhaps Kenya hopes they will be a big draw at their newly renovated Museum. I wonder how they would choose to rewrite this episode in Kenya's history "in their own way?"
A formal request for repatriation has not yet been received by the Field Museum at the time of this writing, but 10 years ago the Seattle Post Intelligencer reported that there were plans among the Field Museum, the National Museums of Kenya and Kenya Wildlife Service to bring the lions back to Tsavo as the centerpiece of a new museum there. Back then, David Western, Director of the Wildlife Service, said;
"the Tsavo museum will house exhibits about lions and items from a cave that (lion-killer) Patterson dubbed the Lions' Den, because he found human bones there.
'We want to use the man-eaters as a lure to get more people interested in Tsavo," a 7,928-square-mile national park', Western said."
Apparently that plan fell through, so we'll have to await further developments and in the meantime you might go rent The Ghost and the Darkness, though you may never go back in the bush again.