Astonishing photos show a wild lioness suckling a leopard cub in a “truly unique case” in the African Serengeti.
A guest staying at a safari lodge in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area captured the images of a five-year-old lioness, known locally as ‘Nosikitok,’ nursing a three-week-old leopard.
Dr Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, a wild cat conservation organisation, said the behaviour was “mystifying”.
“I know of no other example of inter-species adoption or nursing like this among big cats in the wild,” he said.
“This lioness is known to have recently given birth to her own cubs, which is a critical factor. She is physiologically primed to take care of baby cats, and the little leopard fits the bill - it is almost exactly the age of her own cubs and physically very similar to them.
“She would not be nursing the cub if she wasn’t already awash with a ferocious maternal drive,” he added. “It is quite possible she has lost her own cubs, and found the leopard cub in her bereaved state when she would be particularly vulnerable.”
Dr Hunter believes the leopard may struggle to survive if it remains in the pride, explaining: “It is very unlikely that the lioness' pride will accept it.”
He added: “Lions have very rich, complicated social relationships in which they recognise individuals—by sight and by roars—and so they are very well equipped to distinguish their cubs from others. If the rest of the pride finds the cub, it is likely it would be killed.”
“Even its early exposure to lion society would not override the millions of years of evolution that has equipped the leopard to be a supreme solitary hunter.
“I am sure it would go its own way.”
Unusual animal friendships, in pictures
The collar was placed on Nosikitok by KopeLion, a Tanzanian conservation group supported by Panthera.