Fifty feet away three male lions lay by the road. They didn’t appear to have a hair on their heads. Noting the color of their noses (leonine noses darken as they age, from pink to black), Craig estimated that they were six years old young adults. “This is wonderful!” he said, after staring at them for several moments. “This is what we came to see. They really are maneless.” Craig, a professor at the University of Minnesota, is arguably the leading expert on the majestic Serengeti lion, whose head is mantled in long, thick hair. He and Peyton West, a doctoral student who has been working with him in Tanzania, had never seen the Tsavo lions that live some 20 miles east of the Serengeti. The scientists had partly suspected that the maneless males were adolescents mistaken for adults by amateur observers. Now they knew better.
The Tsavo research expedition was mostly Peyton’s show. She had spent several years in Tanzania, compiling the data she needed to answer a question that ought to have been answered long ago: Why do lions have manes? It’s the only cat, wild or domestic, that displays such ornamentation. In Tsavo she was attacking the riddle from the opposite angle. Why do its lions not have manes? (Some “maneless” lions in Tsavo East do have partial manes, but they rarely attain the regal glory of the Serengeti Lions’.) Does environmental adaptation account for the trait? Are the lions of Tsavo, as some people believe, a distinct subspecies of their Serengeti cousins?
The Serengeti lions have been under continuous observation for more than 35 years, beginning with George Schaller’s pioneering work in the 1960s. But the lions in Tsavo, Kenya’s oldest and largest protected ecosystem, have hardly been studied. Consequently, legends have grown up around them. Not only do they look different, according to the myths, they behave differently, displaying greater cunning and aggressiveness. “Remember too,” Kenya: The Rough Guide warns, “Tsavo’s lions have a reputation of ferocity.” Their fearsome image became well-known in 1898, when two males stalled construction of what is now Kenya Railways by allegedly killing and eating 135 Indian and African labourers. A British Army officer in charge of building a railroad bridge over the Tsavo River, Lt. Col. J. H. Patterson, spent nine months pursuing the pair before he brought them to bay and killed them. Stuffed and mounted, they now glare at visitors to the Field Museum in Chicago. Patterson’s account of the leonine reign over terror, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, was an international best-seller when published in 1907. Still in print, the book has made Tsavo’s lions notorious. That annoys some scientists. “People don’t want to give up on mythology,” Dennis King told me one day. The zoologist has been working in Tsavo off and on for four years. “I am so sick of this man-eater business. Patterson made a helluva lot of money off that story, but Tsavo’s lions are no more likely to turn man-eater than lions from elsewhere.”
But tales of their savagery and wiliness don’t all come from sensationalist authors looking to make a buck. Tsavo lions are generally larger than lions elsewhere, enabling them to take down the predominant prey animal in Tsavo, the Cape Buffalo, one of the strongest, most aggressive animals of Earth. The buffalo don’t give up easily: They often kill or severely injure an attacking lion, and a wounded lion might be more likely to turn to cattle and humans for food.
And other prey is less abundant in Tsavo than in other traditional lion haunts. A hungry lion is more likely to attack humans. Safari guides and Kenya Wildlife Service rangers tell of lions attacking Land Rovers, raiding camps, stalking tourists. Tsavo is a tough neighbourhood, they say, and it breeds tougher lions.
But are they really together? And if so, is there any connection between their manelessness and their ferocity? An intriguing hypothesis was advanced two years ago by Gnoske and Peterhans: Tsavo lions may be similar to the unmanned cave lions of the Pleistocene. The Serengeti variety is among the most evolved of the species—the latest model, so to speak—while certain morphological differences in Tsavo lions (bigger bodies, smaller skulls, and maybe even lack of a mane) suggest that they are closer to the primitive ancestor of all lions. Craig and Peyton had serious doubts about this idea, but admitted that Tsavo lions pose a mystery to science.
The sentence which concludes the first paragraph, “Now they knew better”, implies that: