Striking new photos from Tanzania showing a wild lioness nursing a leopard cub document such an occurrence for first time, according to big cat experts.
“It’s unprecedented,” Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer of wild cat conservation group Panthera, told National Geographic. “We never see this in the wild.”
Although experts have documented big cats “adopting” orphaned cubs of the same species, Hunter said in a Panthera news release that he knows “of no other example of inter-species adoption or nursing like this among big cats in the wild.”
The mother pictured is a 5-year-old lioness named Nosikitok, living in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area, while the leopard cub is estimated to be just a few weeks old. Panthera released the photos after a visitor to the area snapped them and sent them to the nonprofit.
It’s not clear how Nosikitok and leopard, whose mother has not be seen, got together.
The lioness recently had cubs of her own, but she may have lost them somehow, Ingela Jansson of KopeLion ― the conservation nonprofit that monitors lions in the conservation area ― told The Associated Press.
Jansson joked that it could have been like a case of “confusion at the supermarket” where the lioness “picked up the wrong kid.”
However the two cats came into contact, Nosikitok is in a maternal position to care for the young cub.
“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,” Hunter said in Panthera’s news release.
But while the photo may seem like a heartwarming example of interspecies parenting, the little cub’s future is uncertain.
The mortality rate for young lion cubs is about 50 percent, because of threats like wildfires and hyenas ― dangers that the young leopard must also face.
On top of that, the other lions are unlikely to take kindly to the spotted interloper.
“It is very unlikely that the lioness’ pride will accept it,” Hunter said in the release. “Lions have very rich, complicated social relationships in which they recognize 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.”
If the leopard does somehow manage to survive long enough without its mother’s help — typically the cubs need care for about 12 to 18 months — the feline will probably set out on its own.
Leopards are typically solitary animals, and “early exposure to lion society” would likely not override that instinct toward independence, Hunter said.
But the best-case scenario is that the leopard somehow reunites with its own mother or an adoptive leopard mom. The BBC reports that there is a female leopard nearby who likely has cubs.
Good luck out there, little buddy.