Spotted lions – mystery cat?

On 28 August 1939, the Coventry Evening Telegraph reported: “There has for many years been a legend in East Africa that spotted lions exist there”. The rumours of the existence of spotted lions filtered through from Africa from about 1903. The local inhabitants referred to this mystery cat as the Marozi. Lions are well known for having light buff to dark brown unpatterned coats.

The existence of spotted lions appears to be beyond doubt because of photographs and skins taken from spotted lions that were shot (with rifles not cameras ?). There is hard evidence but it seems to me that all the evidence is historical.

Today, if you search for ‘spotted lions’ on the Internet using Google it does not find articles about spotted lions being sighted in East Africa or above elevations of 10,000 feet in forests. They don’t seem to exist today.

Sarah Hartwell ( provides the most detail discussion on spotted lions and it is an historical account. It’s as if spotted lions did exist at one time; perhaps at high altitudes in forests as an adaptation to that habitat. Or because by some freak of nature, they were subadults with spotted fur because lion cubs are spotted or rosetted for camouflage.

It is possible that the sightings were of young lions who had not lost their spots or rosettes in the usual way. The photograph immediately below this text shows a young lioness, captive in, perhaps, London Zoo, showing spots on her legs.

Young lioness with legs covered with spotted fur
Young lioness with legs covered with spotted fur. Picture in the public domain from My thanks to Sarah Hartwell.

The title contains the phrase “mystery cat”. That is a reference to the fact that nobody quite got to the bottom of why they exist. It seems clear that they were not or are not a subspecies of lion or even a separate species.

Perhaps the best suggestion is that they are a rare forest race of lions living at altitude for a long time which allowed them to evolve a coat which provided them with better camouflage in that habitat. I’m referring to the dappled light of forests. The theory is reasonable but there appears to be no hard evidence for it.

The zoologist, Dr. Desmond Morris, decided that “the animal must continue to be looked upon as a local mutant rather than as a whole new subspecies”. For me, this is an oblique reference to perhaps the king cheetah, which is a standard cheetah but with a coat in which the spots are larger as they merge.

In any case, other wild cat species sometimes have quite a wide variety of similar but different coats. A classic example of this is the African golden cat.

In the early 1930s two adult spotted lions were shot near a farm in the Aberdares and the heavily spotted skins proved beyond doubt that such animals did exist. At the time they thought they were just “genetic freaks”.

One photograph on this page is of a spotted male line from the Aberdare Mountain range.

A young explorer and big-game hunter called Kenneth Dower was fascinated with the spotted lions of Africa and set off late in 1930s to discover what he believed to be a new species. He failed in that objective but wrote a book on his adventures called The Spotted Lion published by Heinemann, London in 1937.

He examined the skins referred to and stated:

“They appear to belong to lions two or three years old – the male had a whiskery mane – and yet the cub spots with which almost every lion is born showed no signs of fading. Certain freak lions do keep their spots to an advanced age, but not in a degree comparable with these rosettes which were distributed not only on the legs and flanks, but right up to the spine itself.”

He was convinced in 1933 that a separate species of spotted lion existed. His book attracted a lot of attention and brought more evidence of the existence of these mystery cats to light. However, a person with knowledge of the local people in the area concerned, BV Richardson, said that they sometimes exaggerated in an attempt to please their masters. This is a reference to sightings by local people which may have provided inaccurate evidence.

Despite Mr Dower’s feelings about spotted lions being another species or subspecies, taxonomically the experts never classified this mystery cat as a subspecies. If it were to be classified as such it might be designated Leo marozi or Leo leo marozi reflecting the native name for it.

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Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.
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