Erythristic or Mistery
Lion cubs are spotted or rosetted for camouflage. They normally lose their spots when they reach adulthood. There are numerous sightings of spotted lions and a number have been shot and the pelts displayed. Young adult lions often have markings which are clearly visible in certain light and some retain strong markings. There is also the less likely explanation that the spotted lions are leopons - lion x leopard hybrids. These have been bred in captivity although the leopard is much smaller than the lioness. There are African legends of naturally occurring leopons and there has been one report of a solitary lioness accepting a leopard as a mate and producing hybrid cubs. In the wild, this would only occur where a lioness is unable to find a male of her own species. The spotted lion, where there is good contract between the spot colour and the background, probably represents a natural variation.
The first observations of spotted lions (marozi, Panthera leo maculatus) by westerners were made by Colonel Richard Meinertzhagan in 1903 when he described darker lions with rosette-like markings in the Kenyan mountains. According to F G Alexander in Harmsworth Natural History (1910), at least 6 African races of lion were recognised at that time. The Senegal race was noted for its sparse mane; the Somali race was noted for its greyish tone and the "Masai lion (F l masaica) of German East Africa, is characterised by the presence of chocolate spots in the female, and, to a less degree, in the male, as well as by the slenderness and pointed form of the tail tuft." In 1924, big game authority and naturalist Captain A Blayney Percival killed a spotted lioness and her cubs. The lioness was described as being no less spotted than her cubs. In 1931, Kenyan game warden Captain RE Dent observed four lions at a height of just under 11,000 ft; the lions were darker and smaller than normal lions. His native attendants later told him that they had trapped a spotted lion in the Aberdare Mountains, but had not preserved its skin. An Irish adventurer and author of the book "Nomad" (1934), C.J. McGuinness, wrote that Carl Hagenbeck (animal collector for Hamburg Tierpark) had himself sighted a spotted lion. There were also reports of a spotted lion being trapped and killed around 1931. The main evidence comes from skins obtained in 1931 when Michael Trent, a farmer in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya, shot two small lions, one male and one female, at an elevation of around 10,000 feet. Trent had them mounted as trophies and they later caught the attention of the Game Department. The skins were examined by Game Department officials in Nairobi who noted that the lions were of pubescent age (approx 3 years old) and should have lost the juvenile spotting.
In his safari book "The Spotted Lion" (1937), the 26 year old African adventurer Kenneth Gandar Dower wrote: "Mine was not a promising situation when I found myself stranded in Nairobi. My only assets were a love of Rider Haggard and a vague half-knowledge of what I wished to do. I wanted to see big game in their natural surroundings, to take their photographs, and, once that was done, to fit myself to go alone into the great forests. I wanted to discover and to explore. Yet I could not speak Swahili. I had no fiends in Kenya. I had scarcely taken a still photograph (that had come out) or fired a rifle (except upon a range). My riding was limited to ten lessons, taken seventeen years previously when I was nine, on a horse which would barely canter. My shy suggestions of the possibilities of new animals brought only rather scornful jokes about the Naivasha Sea Serpent and the Nandi Bear. [...] This opportunity, given so undeservedly to a novice, who three months ago had never been to Africa or really ridden a horse or fired a rifle at a living thing, was almost too great a responsibility to bear. I felt small. Even with Raymond's help, how could I hope to find this rare animal, the very existence of which had for so long been unsuspected, in 2000 square miles of wilderness, through which we could hardly travel, to find it and track it down, and shoot it, or photograph it and capture it alive?"
Dower was accompanied by the sceptical Raymond Hook. Dower's book "The Spotted Lion" is about their expeditions in general, not just the search for the marozi. Despite Hook's scepticism, he was hopeful of finding - and shooting - spotted lions. They found spoor and tracks they believed came from a pair (male and female) of marozi. The larger track was larger that leopard tracks, but smaller than those of a lion. The animals appeared to be stalking a buffalo and were therefore adults. At an elevation of 12,500 feet, lion tracks were found and were believed to be those of spotted lions due to the location. A Kenyan guide, Ali, described his meeting with a pair of marozi to Kenneth Gandar Dower two weeks previously. The animals, a male and female, were playing in the sun and were smaller and more slightly built than a lion, but were mottled all over with a sparse mane. At one point they missed seeing a spotted lion, apparently arriving a day too late.
Dower's spotted lion became well known and after his account in 1935, the hunting journal "The Field" carried occasional accounts of spotted lions. In 1935, it printed a letter and photo by Andrew Fowle, regarding a normal-sized lion aged two years but still possessing distinct spotting. Towards the end of 1937 a letter appeared by BV Richardson, who had made contact with settlers and natives in the area explored by Dower; Richardson had never heard any of these people speak of spotted lions. He remarked that the natives sometimes exaggerated in an attempt to please their masters. In 1948, G Hamilton-Snowball recalls learning of the marozi prior to Dower's 1935 expedition. He may even have spotted a pair of these animals at an elevation of 11,500 feet along the Kinangop Plateau. In spring 1923, while crossing the Aberdares on foot across the Kinangop at a height of 11,500 ft, he observed a pair of strange cats approximately 200 yards. In the poor light he first thought they were "two very tawny and washed out looking leopards". When he turned to his bearer for his rifle, he overheard them say "marozi". Before he could shoot either of the animals, they had turned away, bounding to safety within the nearby forest belt. His attendants told him that lions did not ascend to such mountainous heights but affirmed that marozis lived at that altitude. He wrote of his account in 1948 and added that the pugmarks were those of a lion, not of a leopard, and that the animals were mottled and fawn-coloured. Hamilton-Snowball's native guides identified the beasts as marozi.
In 1948, JRT Pollard Pollard wrote (in The Field) that Hook believed the spotted lion (as a species) to be largely mythical and instead suggested that the existence of a small race of lions, possibly driven into the mountainous forests by European settlers, would not be impossible. Hook felt that there was insufficient evidence to support a fully fledged spotted race. However, Pollard believed an unknown felid was possible. He recalled that Powys Cobb of Elementeita (an expert on African big game) had chased an unusual cat trespassing on his farm, near the Mau Forest’s edge. Cobb had described it as intermediate in size between a lion and leopard and it had left behind spoor resembling that of a small lion. On the other hand, G Flett suggested that Cobb had been deceived by dappled shadows into believing he had seen a spotted lion. Flett's scepticism was based firmly on personal experience - he had twice seen "spotted lions" in Kenya, only to discover it to be an optical illusion.In 1950, The Field published a full-page discourse by Major W. Robert Foran. Foran was sceptical of the existence of a race of spotted lions and favoured the idea that some individuals of the modestly sized and sparsel-maned Somali (Panthera leo somalica) had somehow wandered into the Aberdares region of Kenya. He suggested that the lions had included some aberrant spotted individuals and concluded by stating that he would await further developments in order to solve the spotted lion riddle conclusively. There were no further developments. Some marozi reports trickled in during the MauMau's invasion of the Aberdares in 1952, but apart from that, interest waned until comparatively recently when the science of crytozoology became acceptable.
The skin, and possible skull, of one of the two spotted lions shot by Michael Trent in 1931 is held at the Natural History Museum in London. RI Pocock of the Natural History Museum in London examined the specimens prior to 1937 and made the following report: "It is a male, measuring approximately: - head and body 5ft. 10½ in., tail, without terminal hairs of the tuft, 2 ft. 9 in., making a total of about 8 ft. 8 in. This is of course small for adult East African lions, of which the dressed skins may surpass 10 ft. over all. From its size I guessed it to be about three years old, a year or more short of full size. There is nothing particularly noticeable in its mane, which is small and, except on the cheeks, consists of a mixture of tawny, grey and black hairs, the longest up to about 5 in. in length. … the peculiarity of the skin lies in the distinctness of the pattern of spots, consisting of large "jaguarine" rosettes arranged in obliquely vertical lines and extending over the flanks, shoulders and thighs up to the darker spinal area where they disappear. They are irregular in size and shape, the largest measuring 85 by 45 or 65 by 65 mm. In diameter. Their general hue is pale greyish-brown, with slightly darkened centres, but at the periphery they are thrown into relief by the paler tint of the spaces between them. On the pale cream-buff belly, the solid richer buff spots stand out tolerably clearly. The legs are covered with solid spots, more distinct than the rosettes of the flanks, and on the hind legs they are more scattered and a deeper, more smoky grey tint than on the fore legs. The skulls of the pair of spotted lions secured by Mr. Trent were not preserved when the animals were skinned; but a skull presumed to belong to one of them, with all the teeth and the lower jaw missing, was subsequently picked up near the spot and submitted to me with the skin. It is a young skull with all the sutures open, showing it had not attained full size and may well be the estimated age of the skin. It is not sufficiently developed to be sexed with certainty … The skull in question may prove to be that of a slightly dwarfed lion with the teeth and skull reduced to about the size of those of an ordinary lioness."
Although the skin and skull have been re-examined since, there is little to add to Pocock's report. DNA studies might cast more light on the enigma. Current knowledge suggest that the marozi (or "Aberdares Spotted Lion") is a small, sparsely maned lion intermediate in size between a lion and a leopard. Unlike the pride-living lion, it travels in male-female pairs, although a foursome has been reported, possibly being a pair with sub-adult offspring. Similar spotted lions have been reported in other parts of Africa. Modern tourist information refers to the Aberdares lions as being more hairy and spotted than plains lions.
Spotted lions have captured public imagination so much that they have been artificially created: leopons in Japan, jaglions in Germany and the "Congolese Spotted Lion" exhibited in London in 1908. The Congolese Spotted Lion was the result of a female jaguar/leopard hybrid that had been mated to a lion in a Chicago zoo.