In a possible audition for the next Disney blockbuster, a wild lioness has been spotted nursing a leopard cub.
The incredible scene played out in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania. The 5-year-old lioness was found feeding a leopard cub no older than a few weeks old, in what is the first-ever recording of such cross-species interaction. Unfortunately, the eventual outcome of such a pairing is unlikely to end well.
How this unlikely event came about is a little uncertain. The lioness is known to researchers as she is currently being radio-tracked by the conservation group KopeLion, who have named her Nosikitok. She recently had two cubs, but the team think they may have died, although they are unsure. By pure chance it seems, she came across the leopard cub, which looks the same age as her own cubs, and the mothering instinct seems to have kicked in.
“This is a truly unique case,” says Dr Luke Hunter, the President and Chief Conservation Officer of Panthera, which works to protect big cats around the world, in a statement. “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.”
The spectacle was captured on film by a guest at the Ndutu Safari Lodge, which operates in the Ngorongoro crater. Normally, lions and leopards don’t mix. In fact, lions are one of the biggest threats a leopard can face when out on the savanna, with adult lions frequently attacking and killing the more solitary hunters when given the chance.
With that in mind, it seems the fate of the small cub is not great. The researchers suspect that if the cub survives, it will probably not do well when introduced to the other members of the female’s pride. The two species have evolved side by side for millions of years as adversaries, and this is unlikely to change now. The team expect the other lions to kill the tiny cub.