In a first of its kind, a photograph of a wild lioness nursing a leopard cub has been captured on camera in Tanzania on Tuesday.
Joop Van Der Linde, a guest at Ndutu Safari Lodge in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area, spotted the pair. The picture shows a five-year-old lioness breastfeeding the three-week-old leopard cub, BBC reported.
The lioness called Nosikitok is one of the cats being tracked with radio collars by the NGO Kope Lion. Talking to the BBC, Dr. Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization that supports Kope Lion, called the incident was “truly unique.”
“It's not something that I'm aware has ever happened before between large cats like this," Hunter said.
Hunter said that while there are cases where lionesses adopt other lion cubs, this one was unique. "I know of no other case -- between any large cat, for that matter -- where the species has adopted or nursed the cub of another species," Hunter said.
He said that the lioness has cubs of the same age as the leopard cub, who is between two to three weeks old. However, most lionesses normally kill leopard babies if they come across them.
The lioness was about a kilometer from her den where her own cubs were.
However, if that happens, the leopard would have to go through many challenges. Hunter said that while his organization does not have pictures of the lion cubs, it is likely that the hungry cubs would be waiting for the lioness in the den.
Lion cubs face threats from hyenas and wildfires and their mortality rate in the first year is about 50 percent.
The whereabouts of the leopard cub’s mother are unknown. Hunter said both lionesses and leopardesses produce similar milk and that their nursing period is almost the same, so nothing prevents the lioness from raising a leopard cub, National Geographic reported.
The lion cubs may not accept the leopard cub, and even if they did, the latter would have many more challenges to face.
Moreover, the leopard cub needs to be accepted by the lion pride. While female lions leave the group to give birth, after six to eight weeks they return to the pride with their cubs. It is unlikely that the other lions would accept the leopard cub as part of their group, and most likely would kill it.
“So the odds are against this poor little thing even if it becomes part of her litter, just because the litter itself might not survive the den period,” Hunter said.
If the leopard cub is left alone to survive, things will be equally difficult for it. Normally, leopard cubs remain with their mother for 12 to 14 weeks after their birth. Some orphans are known to survive for seven to eight months on their own.