A unique wildlife interaction has been captured on camera for the first time: in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a lioness is breastfeeding a baby leopard.
It all started when Panthera President and Chief Conservation Officer Dr. Luke Hunter received some photos of the astonishing moment. The images show a 5-year-old lioness called ‘Nosikitok’ suckling what appears to be an abandoned leopard cub. He was stunned.
Same-species caring is not unprecedented in nature. Inter-species caring for wild cats is extremely rare, and between lions and leopards, it’s the first time something like this has been observed — despite the very strong maternal instincts of lionesses.
“This is a truly unique case,” Dr. Hunter said. “I know of no other example of inter-species adoption or nursing like this among big cats in the wild. 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 (which is typical of lionesses),” he continued. “Even so, there has never been another case like it, and why it has occurred now is mystifying. 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.” This wouldn’t have happened if the lioness didn’t have cubs of her own and the maternal instincts hadn’t kicked in.
However, despite this touching moment, the chances for the adorable little leopard are not looking too good. It’s not clear if his mother had abandoned him. In the best scenario, the little cub simply strayed away from his mother and would reunite with her soon. Without help from his own mother, it’s unlikely that the lion pride will accept him, even if Nosikitok does. Lions have very complex social relationships and signals, and if the leopard ventures into the pride, the other lions will likely recognize it as a stranger and kill it.
So the leopard would be best off with its mother, but if it somehow defies all odds and survives with the lions for at least a year (the minimum necessary period for a leopard to become independent), then it can make its own living. Hunter believes that even growing up in a lion pride won’t make the leopard act like a lion; as soon as he can make it on its own, he will return to its species’ habits.
“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,” he said. “I am sure it would go its own way.”