A guest staying at Ndutu Lodge in Tanzania had the wonderful experience of watching a three-week-old leopard being nursed by a wild lioness, known locally as Nosikitok, who is collared and monitored by KopeLion, a local NGO.
The photos they took were sent to Dr Luke Hunter, Panthera’s president and chief conservation officer, who was astonished by them.
“This is a truly unique case,” said Hunter. “I know of no other example of inter-species adoption or nursing like this among big cats in the wild.”
Same-species suckling and adoptions has been seen in wild cats, including the first ever adoption of a wild puma kitten, which was captured on camera by Panthera.
It is thought that the lioness is nursing the leopard cub due to a strong maternal instinct, having recently given birth to her own cubs.
“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,” said Hunter.
Another explanation for this bizarre behaviour is that Nosikitok may have lost her own cubs.
It is unclear what has happened to the leopard’s mother. If she is still around there is a chance the cub could be reunited with her. This would be the best possible outcome for the youngster.
Main image: The lodge's guest photographed the first evidence of inter-species nursing. © Joop Van Der Linde/Ndutu Lodge