WASHINGTON – A US-based wild cat conservation organization said Friday it was astonished by photographs showing a wild lioness nursing a baby leopard at a conservation area in Tanzania.
The images show the 5-year-old lioness suckling a leopard cub estimated to be three weeks old, according to Panthera, which is devoted to the conservation of wild cats.
The organization said in a news release that same-species suckling and adoptions among wild cats and other wildlife have been documented before, but cross-species nursing among wild cats and all wildlife is highly unusual. They said it was the first evidence they had seen of a wild lioness nursing a leopard cub.
“This is a truly unique case,” said Luke Hunter, Panthera president and chief conservation officer. “I know of no other example of inter-species adoption or nursing like this among big cats in the wild.”
The lioness recently gave birth to her own cubs, making her “physiologically primed” to take care of baby cats, he said. The baby leopard is almost exactly the age of her own cubs and physically very similar to them.
Hunter said even though the mother lion was “awash with a ferocious maternal drive,” the reason she nursed the leopard was mystifying. He said it was possible she has lost her own cubs, and found the leopard cub in her bereaved state.
Even if Nosikitok continues to foster the cub, Hunter said, it is unlikely that the lioness’ pride will accept it and the odds of it reaching adulthood were not good.