Lioness Spotted Nursing a Leopard Cub in Tanzania

It is the first time that a wild cat has been observed “adopting” another species—but the interaction may not have a happy end

Joop van der Linde/Ndutu Safari Lodge

Nothing warms the heart quite like unlikely friendships between members of two different species—just look at all these adorable animal buddies. Now, there may be one more to add to the list.

A very unusual instance of interspecies mingling was captured at the Ngorongoro conservation area in Tanzania. As Damian Carrington reports for the Guardian, a lioness was spotted nursing a leopard cub—creatures usually at odds with one another. It is the first time that a wild cat has been observed  “adopting” the infant of a another species.

Photos of the unprecedented interaction, which were snapped by a guest at the Ndutu Lodge in Ngorongoro, show the cub nuzzling up against the lioness as it drinks its fill. Known as Nosikitok, the five-year-old lioness is being monitored by the conservation group KopeLion, which seeks to prevent locals from hunting Ngorongoro’s lions. The cub is believed to be about three weeks old.

Just why these two creatures came together remains unclear. Nosikitok is known to have several cubs of her own similar in age to the leopard; Luke Hunter, president of the big cat conservation group Panthera, tells Carrington that the lioness is likely “awash with a ferocious maternal drive.” It is possible, he theorized, that Nosikitok’s babies died and she “found the leopard cub in her bereaved state.” The whereabouts of the leopard’s mother are not known.

While the cub lucked out with its new and willing supplier of nosh, its chances of survival are low, Jason Bittle reports for National Geographic. If Nosikitok’s maternal instincts override her natural impulse to kill the leopard, she will have to bring it back to her den—where her hungry cubs, if they are still alive, will be waiting. Even without little lions competeing for a drink, the leopord cub will have to contend with hyenas, wildfires, and other threats during the denning period. Only 40 percent of cubs in the Serengeti area survive their first year, according to Christopher Torchia of the Associated Press.

Then there is the matter of Nosikitok’s pride. “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,” Hunter told Carrington. “If the rest of the pride finds the cub, it is likely it would be killed.”

According to Torchia, Nosikitok was spotted one day after the photographs were taken, unaccompanied by cubs of any kind. Of course, everyone would like to believe that a happy ending awaits Nosikitok and the little leopard, which may have found one another in their hour of need. But alas, nature is a cruel, cruel mistress.

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