Images show 'first evidence' of lioness nursing leopard cub

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A lioness with a leopard cub outside Ndutu Lodge in Tanzania.

Normally the two species would not get along because they're rivals in the food chain but this time round things were different.

While the arrangement is unusual, Hunter says there's nothing physiologically that should prevent the lion from raising the leopard. But because the lioness has a litter of cubs that are about the same age as the leopard, it's possible that her maternal instincts kicked in, prompting her to nurse the furry babe instead of kill it, Hunter said.

Although experts have documented big cats "adopting" orphaned cubs of the same species, Hunter said in a Panthera news release that he knows "of no other example of inter-species adoption or nursing like this among big cats in the wild".

Talking to the BBC, Dr. Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization that supports Kope Lion, called the incident was "truly unique". In captivity, predators may bond with other meat-eating species, but in the wild, the gloves are always off as they compete for prey.

Images show 'first evidence' of lioness nursing leopard cub
Images show 'first evidence' of lioness nursing leopard cub

"It's not something that I'm aware has ever happened before between large cats like this", Hunter said.

The photos were taken on Tuesday by a guest at the lodge Joop Van Der Linde.

"She would not be nursing the cub if she wasn't already awash with a ferocious maternal drive", he continued. On the very off-chance Nosikitok chose to adopt the spotted babe and managed to keep it alive long enough to take it home, her crew probably would not be so welcoming. Without help from his own mother, it's unlikely that the lion pride will accept him, even if Nosikitok does. "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 doesn't think the odds are in the leopard cub's favour, however. Leopards and lions diverged about 2.5 million years ago, but they still have similar milk and nursing periods, Hunter said.

Dr Hunter warned that the cub faces a serious survival challenge, and would likely be killed if discovered by the rest of the lion pride. For one, it's unclear where the leopard cub's mother was or whether she is alive. KopeLion's "lion scouts", who come from the Maasai community, work to avoid conflicts by warning local communities when prides are near, reinforcing the corrals that protect livestock and providing wound treatment when animals are attacked. Female lions go off on their own to give birth, but then return to the group when the cubs are around six to eight weeks of age.

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