The Marozi or Spotted lion is variously claimed by zoologists and cryptozoologists to be a distinct race of lion adapted for a montane rather than savanna-dwelling existence, a rare natural hybrid of a leopard and lion, or an adult lion that retained its childhood spots. It is believed to have been smaller than a lion but slightly larger in size than a leopard and lacking any distinguishable mane. It has been reported in the wild and the skin of a specimen exists, but it has yet to be confirmed as either a separate species or subspecies. Belgian cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans proposed the specific name Panthera leo maculatus in 1955. Reported from East and Central Africa.
Smaller than a lion but larger than a leopard. Body length, 5 feet 10 inches. Tawny color. Covered with grayishbrown spots or rosettes on the back, sides, and legs. Spine is free of spots. Diameter of rosettes, 2–3 inches. Lionlike face. Male has a slight mane of side-whiskers. Retractile claws. Tail, 2 feet 9 inches.
Behavior: Usually travels in lion-lioness pairs or small prides. Will attack cattle.
Tracks: Catlike, in size between those of a leopard and those of a lion. Thinner than those of a young lion.
Distribution: Mount Kenya, the Aberdare Range, and the Mau Escarpment in Kenya; Ruwenzori Mountains, Uganda; Virunga Volcanos area, Rwanda; Ethiopia; Cameroon; Ubangi region, Central African Republic.
Naturalist A. Blayney Percival shot a Spotted lioness and her cubs in Kenya in 1924.
Game warden R. E. Dent saw four large, spotted cats in 1931 on Mount Kenya at an altitude of 10,000–11,000 feet. A few months later, his trappers in the Aberdare Range, Kenya, snared a cat that looked like a cross between a lion and a leopard, but they let it go.
In the 1930s, at an altitude of 10,000 feet, Michael Trent shot two small Spotted lions, a male and a female, that had raided his farm in the Aberdare Range, Kenya. He preserved the skins but not the skulls or skeletons.
In 1935, Kenneth Gandar Dower headed an expedition into the Kenya highlands to look for the Spotted lion, but all he managed to find were some unusual tracks at an elevation of 12,500 feet.
- Lion/leopard hybrid: Lions and leopards hybridized in captivity have very closely resembled the descriptions of the marozi in both size and coat pattern. However, while captive hybridization of big cats is well documented, no such event has ever been recorded in the wild. The two species are natural enemies and live different lifestyles, so the chance of a naturally occurring hybrid is very small.
- Genetic aberration: It is possible that the marozi was a result of a recessive gene that spread through a population of lions as a result of inbreeding. Big cats have been known to have their coats affected by recessive genes, as seen in black leopards (panthers), white tigers, white lions, and the king cheetah. A genetic mutation might result in the lion's juvenile spots being retained into adolescence or even into adulthood. This does not explain the smaller size of the marozi and its preferred habitat of elevated, wooded areas instead of the traditional savanna habitat of other lions. Interestingly, the Aberdare region is home to many endemic species and subspecies.
- Sub-adult lions: The smaller size, the presence of spots/rosettes and the insignificant manes on males could indicate sub-adult specimens, possibly ousted from their prides.
- New taxon: The marozi could have been a yet-undiscovered species or subspecies of lion. The answer to this largely depends on when, if ever, a closer inspection and DNA analysis is done on the skin of the Trent specimen.
While African natives have been familiar with the animal and Europeans have been reported seeing spotted lions since roughly 1904, the first documentable encounter by a European was in 1931 when Kenyan farmer Michael Trent shot and killed two individuals in the Aberdare Mountains region at an elevation of 10,000 feet (3,000 m). The unusual spotted markings on what seemed to be smallish adult lions prompted interest from the Nairobi Game Department; they were from pubescent lions and yet had prominent spots that are typical only of cubs.
Two years later, explorer Kenneth Gandar-Dower headed an expedition into the region in an attempt to capture or kill more specimens. He returned with only circumstantial evidence: three sets of tracks found at a similar elevation as Trent's lions (10,000–12,500 feet or 3,000–3,800 metres). They were believed to have been left by individuals that were tracking a herd of buffalo during a hunt, ruling out the possibility of the marozi being cubs. Dower also discovered that the natives had long differentiated the marozi from lions or leopards, which they referred to by different names. Aside from that, he found out that the marozi had also been called different names in other regions, such as "ntararago" in Uganda, "ikimizi" in Rwanda, and "abasambo" in Ethiopia. Notes on the marozi are included in The Spotted Lion by Kenneth Gandar Dower; On The Track of Unknown Animals by Bernard Heuvelmans and Mystery Cats of the World by Dr Karl Shuker. R.I. Pocock examined a skin and skull collected by Michael Trent, and discussed his findings in an appendix to Gandar Dower's book, but he could not reach definite conclusions on the limited evidence available.
There were other sightings around the same time:
- Four animals sighted by Game Warden Captain R.E.Dent in the Aberdare Mountain region at an elevation of 10,000 feet (3,000 m).
- A pair sighted on the Kinangop Plateau by G. Hamilton-Snowball at an elevation of 11,500 feet (3,500 m). They were shot at but escaped.