Looks like the Real Big Cat Moms of Tanzania stick together.
According to The Washington Post, KopeLion was given photos of a lioness nursing a leopard cub out in the wild of the Serengeti. If this seems unusual, that’s because it is. In fact, it’s unheard of.
“It’s unprecedented,” Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer at Panthera, told the paper. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
A big cat expert, Hunter has seen interspecies suckling in captive animals and knows of a few cases in which wild leopards and pumas have adopted an orphaned cub of their own species, but this is first time he or any one else has seen something like this.
These photos mark the first record of any large carnivore nursing another species out of captivity.
The photographer behind these staggering shots was a lucky guest staying at Ndutu Lodge in the Ngorogoro Conservation Area.
KopeLion works in this region, with help from Panthera, monitoring wild animals to prevent conflicts between big cats, who sometimes like to snack on livestock, and the local farmers who don’t like having their property eaten. Part of the monitoring process involves outfitting wild lions with GPS collars, which is why this surrogate leopard mom is wearing one.
Thanks to this technology, KopeLion knows the nursing lioness is Nosikitok, a big cat who gave birth to three cubs of her own in June. Lucky for the leopard cub, who appears to be 3 weeks old, this means Nosikitok is overwhelmed with maternal hormones at the moment, making her much more open to alternative babies.
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Normally, according to Hunter, the lioness would kill the little leopard, viewing the cute cub as soon-to-be competition.
“Lions kind of go out of their way to get rid of them,” Hunter added.
Behind this sweet moment, though, there are several upsetting unknowns. Researchers are unsure why Nosikitok was away from her own cubs during this feeding and worry her three babies may have already fallen victim to predators, starvation or some other evil. Her collar continues to show her spending time away from the den where she is keeping her cubs.
As for the little leopard, it’s unclear where its own mom has gone. If, by some Disney movie miracle, the lioness decides to adopt the leopard into her pack, there is a strong chance the rest of the pride would violently reject the newcomer.
Here’s hoping this is just the start of something good.