An unexpected bit of thievery was witnessed in Kruger National Park, South Africa, on February 1 after a baboon made off with a lion cub. Sadly, the Lion King this was not, though.
Amazingly, Kurt Schultz, director of tour operator Kurt Safari, managed to capture the whole spectacle on camera in a series of photos showing the young male baboon grabbing the cub before hot-tailing it up a tree and beginning to groom it “as if it were a baby baboon.”
Schultz had been out in the park one early morning when he came across a troop of baboons that appeared to be behaving excitedly. Another vehicle group also watching the baboons mentioned a possible lion cub sighting amongst the throng, and after waiting patiently, one appeared that did indeed have a lion cub in its arms.
At first, it was assumed the cub was dead, Schultz explained in a statement emailed to IFLScience, but when the baboon crossed the road, climbed a marula tree, and started grooming it, it became obvious the cub was alive.
Baboons are members of the largest primate family, Old World monkeys, and are both large and strong. They are also territorial and can be aggressive: It’s not unusual for baboons to kill the young of much larger animals like big cats or babies within their own troop. But this behavior was unusual.
"In 20 years of guiding southern and east Africa, and being in the Kruger for close on 20 years, I have witnessed baboons viciously killing leopard cubs and have heard of baboons killing lion cubs but have never seen the care and attention given to a lion cub in this manner," Schultz said in the statement.
Like all primates, baboons indulge in social grooming, though the reasons vary among the species. “Male baboons do a lot of grooming but the care given to this lion cub was the same care given by a female baboon to one of her own young,” according to Schultz.
It’s unlikely this was a pleasant experience for the cub though.
“The cub seemed very exhausted and although uninjured to the naked eye, there might have been internal damage to the cub,” Schultz said. “Baboons are really strong animals and when they were all excited and fighting over the baby in the beginning, it could have been injured internally.”
Though the age of the cub is not known, the area the encounter happened is known as somewhere lion and cheetah moms hide their newborn cubs amongst the hills and boulders while they go off to hunt. The cub would have been scared, dehydrated, and possibly hurt, with very little chance of being rescued by its family. Although preyed upon by leopards, baboons’ formidable canine teeth, which at 5 centimeters long are longer than lions', means they are equally capable of tearing adult leopards apart.
Distressing as it may have been to witness a stolen cub, documenting this behavior offers a rare glimpse into wild animal behavior. Schultz admitted he wished the cub could grow up and live a wild, free life, but it was very unlikely the animal survived. Later reports suggest the cub did indeed die.
"Nature has its own ways, we cannot get involved and we need to keep Kruger simple and wild," he said.
Though it's fairly common for animals in captivity to form unlikely friendships, in the wild it's pretty unusual (although these BFFs apparently didn't get the memo), so be wary of adorable anthropomorphic narratives. Away from the cameras, it usually doesn't end well.