PICS: Incredible first! Wild lion nursing leopard cub

(Photo:  Joop van der Linde, Ndutu Lodge)
(Photo: Joop van der Linde, Ndutu Lodge)
Joop van der Linde

Cape Town - We've seen some harrowing news about lions in South Africa over the last few weeks, from a group of escaped Kruger Lions that had to be shot to the controversial lion bones quota approved by the Department of Environmental Affairs. 

And then something like this happens. Images showing what is believed to be the first-ever evidence of a wild lioness nursing a leopard cub have been shared by Ndutu Lodge - remarkable and highly unusual according to the experts.  

The images were taken on Tuesday 11 July by Joop van der Linde, a guest in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area, showing a 5-year-old lioness ‘Nosikitok,’ suckling a leopard cub estimated to be just 3-weeks-old.

Conservation experts Panthera received the images KopeLion, with Panthera President and Chief Conservation Officer Dr Luke Hunter saying the astonishing content is "the first-ever evidence of a wild lioness nursing a leopard cub.

Hunter says same-species suckling and adoptions for wild cats and other wildlife have been documented before, like  first ever wild puma kitten adoption - but cross-species nursing for wild cats—and all wildlife is rare. 

"This is a truly unique case. I know of no other example of inter-species adoption or nursing like this among big cats in the wild," says Hunter.

With the lioness having recently given birth to her own cubs, the odds appear in the favour of this little leopard cub and critical to why it has happened  in the first place with Hunter highlighting Nosikitok "is awash with a ferocious maternal drive - which is typical of lionesses”.

But it remains baffling nonetheless with speculation that she has in fact lost her own cubs - however the likelihood that Nosikitok will continue to foster the cub is slim - especially when it comes to pride acceptance says Hunter.

“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. If the rest of the pride finds the cub, it is likely it would be killed," he says.

"If the cub defied the odds and became independent—usually around 12-18 months for leopards— Hunter strongly suspects it would revert to behaving as a leopard.

Panthera says Nosikitok is currently collared and monitored by KopeLion, a Tanzanian conservation NGO supported by Panthera.

"Her survival—and that of other lions in the region—is no doubt due to the efforts carried out by KopeLion's team, who last year prevented 26 lion hunts, including those targeting the Masek pride, to which Nosikitok belongs. These hunts are orchestrated to prevent or in retaliation for attacks on livestock, the top threat facing Ngorongoro's lions."
"Hailing from the Maasai community, KopeLion's 'Lion Scouts' mitigate conflict and serve as ambassadors for the species—finding and retrieving lost livestock, reinforcing corrals attacked by predators, providing wound treatment when livestock is attacked, monitoring lions and notifying local communities when prides are near, discouraging hunts, and reinforcing why lions are beneficial to local communities."

Learn more about KopeLion and Panthera’s work to conserve Africa’s last remaining 20,000 wild lions.

What to read next on Traveller24:

UPDATE: Kruger escapes probed as shot lion carcasses to be used for research

#ShockWildlifeTruths: Will SA's estimated 7 000 canned lions all end up this way?

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