Nature’s Wonder: Lioness Observes the Delicate Moment of a Leopard Cub Nursing

Recent photographs from a Tanzanian wildlife reserve have captured a unique moment: a lioness nursing a leopard cub. This rare occurrence has left experts in awe and has sparked discussions among wildlife enthusiasts.

An incredibly rare sight: A 5-year-old lioness, fitted with a GPS collar so that researchers can track her, feeds a leopard cub in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania. Photo: Joop van der Linde/Ndutu Safari Lodge via AP

The photographs were taken by a guest at a lodge in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a United Nations World Heritage site, back in 2017. (Since then another instance of a lioness nursing a leopard cub has been observed, which you can readaout below)

Ingela Jansson, head of the KopeLion conservation group, told Associated Press that the lactating lion may have lost her own cubs and so was open to feeding the leopard cub. The leopard, meanwhile, appeared to have lost its mother.

“To observe a thing like this is very unusual,” Jansson remarked, jokingly describing the extraordinary instance of cross-species nursing as a case of “confusion at the supermarket” in which the lion “picked up the wrong kid.”

The lactating lion may have lost her own cubs. Photo: Joop van der Linde/Ndutu Safari Lodge via AP

Wild cats and other animals of the same species have been known to occasionally adopt and suckle cubs that aren’t their own, and some birds have also been observed feeding chicks of another species whose eggs were inadvertently laid in their nests. But this kind of cross-species nursing is extremely rare in the case of wild cats, according to a statement from Panthera, a wild cat conservation group based in New York.

“It’s really mysterious,” Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer of Panthera, said of the new images back then. According to him, it was unclear whether the leopard’s mother was still around and could retrieve the cub from “lioness day care,” which would have been the best possible outcome.

The unusual relationship lasted for about a day. Photo: Joop van der Linde/Ndutu Safari Lodge via AP

However, Hunter cautioned that “the natural odds are stacked against this little fellow,” which may have since been killed by other lions that recognized it was not one of their own. He added that even in normal circumstances, only 40 percent of lion cubs in the area, which is part of the Serengeti ecosystem, survive their first year.

And indeed, the lion was seen hanging out with other lions the next day, but without cubs of any kindaound.

This was the only sighting of a lioness feeding a leopard cub, or, in fact, any kind of non-lion cub, until last year an even more astounding discovery was made in Gir National Park in Gujarat, India, where a lioness adopted … well, another leopard cub. In this case, however, the unusual relationship lasted much longer, according to the New York Times.

The cub was about 2-month-old and had fuzzy ears and blue eyes – an adorable little fellow. The lioness spent weeks nursing and feeding him, treating him as if it was one of her own two sons, who were about the same age. Despite all the caring, however, the little leopard died some weeks later.

A lioness, her biological son, and an adopted leopard were spotted in Gir National Park in Gujarat, India, in a surprising discovery. It’s uncommon for lions and leopards in the park to get along, as they typically compete for space and food. A postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota who studies animal behavior, Stotra Chakrabarti, along with a conservation officer and a park ranger, documented the case in the ecology journal Ecosphere. The team observed the unusual family for six weeks, during which the lioness cared for the leopard cub as her own, sharing her food and nursing him. The cub’s new siblings also welcomed him, playing and even following him up trees. One photo captured the leopard cub playfully pouncing on the head of one of his adopted brothers, who was almost twice his size. Dr. Chakrabarti described the trio as “two big cubs and one tiny runt of the litter.”

The case is among three documented instances of interspecies adoption in the wild. Photo: Dheeraj Mittal

This “was surely the most ‘wow’ moment I’ve come across,” said Dr. Chakrabarti, who has been studying Gir’s lions for nearly seven years. His fellow researchers with an Asiatic lion conservation project in India, some who have been watching the big cats for decades, had “also not seen anything like this,” he pointed out.

Unlike their counterparts in Africa, Asiatic lions live in small, sex-segregated groups whereby lionesses often separate from the rest of the pride for a few months after giving birth and raise their offspring on their own. Had the makeshift family interacted more with other adult lions, the leopard could have been identified as an impostor, Dr. Chakrabarti noted.

During a period of six weeks, researchers observed a leopard cub living with lions. A photograph taken by Dheeraj Mittal documents this unique occurrence. However, the outcome was not what they had hoped for. The researchers discovered the leopard cub’s lifeless body near a watering hole. A field necropsy was subsequently conducted and determined that the leopard cub had died due to a femoral hernia that he had since birth. Despite the unfortunate outcome, Dr. Chakrabarti expressed a sense of curiosity as to how things may have developed as the leopard cub matured. “It would have been fantastic to see,” he remarked, “but it didn’t happen.”

 

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