A leopard youngster is sucking on a lioness in photos taken from a Tanzanian wildlife reserve. Yes, you read that correctly. A visitor at a guesthouse in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a United Nations World Heritage site, took the photos in 2017. (Since then, another lioness has been sighted nursing a leopard pup, which you can read about below.)
According to Ingela Jansson, the president of the KopeLion conservation group, the nursing lion may have lost her own pups and was thus willing to feed the leopard youngster. Meanwhile, the leopard looked to have lost its mother.
“To see anything like this is really unique,” Jansson said, playfully comparing the extraordinary example of cross-species breastfeeding to “confusion at the supermarket” in which the lion “picked up the incorrect baby.” Wild cats and other animals of the same species have been recorded adopting and nursing cubs that are not their own, and certain birds have been spotted feeding chicks of another species whose eggs were unintentionally put in their nests. According to Panthera, a wild cat conservation organisation located in New York, this type of cross-species breastfeeding is highly unusual in wild cats.
“It’s incredibly mysterious,” Panthera’s president and chief conservation officer, Luke Hunter, said of the fresh photographs at the time. It was uncertain whether the leopard’s mother was still alive and could recover the cub from “lioness day care,” which would have been the greatest possible ending, according to him.
Hunter cautioned, however, that “the natural chances are set against this young boy,” who may have been m.ur.der.ed by other lions who identified it as not one of their own. Even under typical conditions, just 40% of lion cubs in the region, which is part of the Serengeti ecosystem, survive their first year.
The lion was observed hanging out with other lions the next day, but without any cubs.
This was the first sighting of a lioness nursing a leopard pup, or any sort of non-lion youngster, until this year, when a lioness adopted… well, another leopard cub, in Gir National Park in Gujarat, India. According to the New York Times, the odd relationship in this case lasted much longer.
The cub was around two months old, with furry ears and blue eyes — a cute little chap. The lioness nursed and fed him for weeks, treating him as if he were one of her two offspring, who were approximately the same age. Despite all of the love, the young leopard perished a few weeks later.
The remarkable discovery was made even more intriguing by the fact that the lions and leopards of Gir National Park do not generally get along. At all.
“They compete with each other” for space and food, according to Stotra Chakrabarti, a postdoctoral researcher who studies animal behavior at the University of Minnesota. “They are always at odds.”
Dr. Chakrabarti and colleagues published a case study in the ecology journal Ecosphere. A conservation officer and a park ranger were among the writers who first noticed the unique family in late December 2018, hanging together near a recently sla.ug.ht.ered nilgai antelope.
The crew would spend the next six weeks watching the mother lion, her two cubs, and the leopard explore Gir National Park. “The lioness took care of him like one of her own,” Dr. Chakrabarti added, nursing him and sharing the meat from her hunts.
The splotchy little fellow’s new siblings were equally kind, playing with him and even following him up trees. In one shot, the leopard cub is seen pouncing on the head of one of his adopted brothers, who is over twice his size and apparently a good sport. Dr. Chakrabarti described it as “two huge cubs and one little runt of the litter.”
Dr. Chakrabarti, who has been researching Gir’s lions for over seven years, described this as “perhaps the greatest ‘wow’ moment I’ve come across.” His colleagues from an Asiatic lion conservation initiative in India, some of whom had been studying the huge animals for decades, had “also not seen anything like this,” he said.
Asiatic lions, unlike their African counterparts, live in tiny, s.e.x-segregated groups, with lionesses frequently separating from the rest of the pride for a few months after giving birth and raising their pups on their own. Dr. Chakrabarti believes the leopard may have been discovered as an imposter if the makeshift family had interacted more with other adult lions.
But they would never know what would have occurred in such a circumstance because the leopard cub’s carcass was discovered by a drinking hole after roughly 6 weeks. A field necropsy revealed that he had most likely di.ed as a result of a femoral hernia that he had had since birth.