Earlier this week, a remarkable scene played out at Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area. An orphaned leopard cub, desperate for a meal, approached a lioness who happened to be lactating. It’s a rare—and extremely precious—example of cross-species nursing in the wild.
A guest staying at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area snapped these photos and shared them with Panthera, an organization devoted to big cat conservation. The pics were taken on Tuesday, and they show a five-year-old lioness nursing a leopard cub estimated to be just three weeks old. Incredibly, the lioness, named Nosikitok, seemed to be okay with the tiny interloper.
“This is a truly unique case,” noted Luke Hunter, the president of Panthera, at the organization’s blog. “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.”
Hunter says Nosikitok, who’s wearing a GPS collar for tracking purposes, wouldn’t be nursing the cub if she “wasn’t already awash with a ferocious maternal drive,” which he says is typical of lionesses.
“Even so, there has never been another case like it, and why it has occurred now is mystifying. It is quite possible she has lost her own cubs, and found the leopard cub in her bereaved state when she would be particularly vulnerable,” he wrote.
It seems like a match made in heaven, except that it probably isn’t. The leopard cub’s future prospects look bleak, according to Hunter. “The natural odds are stacked against this little fellow,” he told AP, saying the cub will likely be killed by other lions who don’t recognize it as one of their own. And in fact, the cub was nowhere to be seen the day after the pictures were taken.
Cross-species nursing among mammals is rare, but it does happen. Examples include sperm whales who adopted a deformed dolphin, a dog who nursed a baby squirrel, apes who treat cats like babies, and a domestic cat that adopted a trio of bobcat kittens.
“In order for the [cross-species] relationship to be sustained, I believe both parties will need to benefit in some way,” said Jill Goldman, an applied animal behaviorist, in an interview with National Geographic. “How we define benefit is another matter. Social companionship in some cases may actually be enough of a benefit so long as it is not outweighed by competition [or] threat.”
In this case, an orphaned cub being accepted by a potentially grieving lioness, it sure seems possible there’s some “mutual benefit” going on.