Photographers in Tanzania have captured photos a dramatic display of maternal instincts that’s so powerful wildlife experts are calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime event.” In the images, a wild lioness is nursing a 3-week-old leopard cub.
Interspecies suckling has been observed among captive animals, but carnivores, especially in the wild, are notorious for killing off members of any other species that might compete with them for food. On occasion, leopards and pumas have been known to adopt orphaned cubs of their own kind. But according to Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer of global wild cat organization Panthera, never before in history has anyone recorded an incident of interspecies suckling among large carnivores.
The photos of the lioness, known as Nosikitok, were taken on Tuesday by a guest at the Ndutu Lodge in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania. The fact that Nosikitok had given birth to three cubs of her own in late June, Hunter said, was the only reason this extraordinary interspecies mother-child relationship was possible.
“She is absolutely awash with maternal hormones and that instinct to take care of her own babies,” Hunter explained. “This simply wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t suckling her own babies.”
Unfortunately, this seemingly fuzzy story is unlikely to have a happy ending. Normally, said Hunter, “lions kind of go out of their way” to kill leopards and other predators. And while lionesses leave their prides in order to give birth, lionesses will normally return to the pride with their new cubs once they’re about 8 weeks old. Even assuming Nosikitok continues to care for the young leopard, the cub would likely be killed by other lions once Nosikitok returns to the pride.
“That would be the most fascinating encounter to observe,” Hunter admitted. “I would love for this to end nicely. But I think the challenges facing the little leopard cub are formidable.”
See the remarkable photos below.
Read the full story at The Washington Post.