A wild lioness has been observed suckling a leopard cub in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area, in the first ever observed instance of such animal behavior. Although certain cats like lions have been observed taking in and nursing the young of others of their own species—usually kin of their relatives—this sighting of cross-species adoption is unprecedented.
“I have never seen anything like this,” says Luke Hunter, lion expert and president of Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization.
The photos were taken Tuesday by a guest at Ndutu Lodge in Tanzania. The leopard cub is estimated to be about three weeks old, and the lioness is 5; She bears a GPS collar and is monitored for scientific purposes by KopeLion, a Tanzanian conservation organization supported by Panthera. Known as “Nosikitok” in Maasai, the lioness gave birth to a litter of cubs in late June, and so the leopard is about the same age as her own young, Hunter explains.
It’s unknown how the leopard cub ended up with Nosikitok. But the lioness is “awash in maternal hormones,” and likely took the leopard cub to be one of her own, Hunter says. At the time of the photo, the cubs were stashed back at her den site.
What will become of this interspecies adoption? Since it’s an unprecedented sighting, nobody knows for sure. Hunter explains that even for lion cubs, early youth is difficult, and only half of these animals make it to one year of age. As lions grow out of being cubs, they go through a transitional period where they are recognized and taken in by the pride. But it seems unlikely that other lions wouldn’t recognize the leopard as being different, Hunter says.
He says he thinks the odds are against it making it to adulthood, but he’s holding out hope. “I’m speculating wildly, but if the cub make it to 12 to 14 months, my guess is that instinct would kick in and that it would go off on its own” and eventually seek out other leopards, Hunter says. He doesn’t think it would stay with the pride and live life as a lion.
As for how the leopard cub ended up with the lion, and whether it’s possible that its mother could take it back—that also is unknown. Hunter says it’s possible that one of the lions killed the leopard’s mother, as lions see leopards as competitors.
For now, though, the lion has taken the leopard to be one of its own, and “we’re excited to see what happens next,” Hunter says.