Hunter said cross-species suckling is highly unusual in the wild, and the photos represent the first known case of a lioness nursing a leopard cub. The leopard cub is estimated to be about 3 weeks old, and the lioness is 5; She bears a Global Positioning System collar and is monitored for scientific purposes by KopeLion, a Tanzanian conservation organization supported by Panthera.
These lovely pictures are the first ever taken of a wild lioness nursing a cub from a different species - an extremely rare event.
Normally the two felines kill cubs of the other species to eliminate future competition for food and raise the chances that their own progeny will survive to adulthood. Considering she has cubs of her own, Hunter voiced concerns that her initial maternal instinct may wane enough for her to abandon the leopard cub.
As well as nursing her adopted baby, five-year-old mother Nosikitok has three small cubs of her own to feed who were born around June 28. "It is very unlikely that the lioness" pride will accept it", he said. But because the lioness has a litter of cubs that are about the same age as the leopard, it's possible that her maternal instincts kicked in, prompting her to nurse the furry babe instead of kill it, Hunter said.
"Cross-species nursing for wild cats, and other wildlife for that matter, is extremely unique", according to a statement from Panthera, a New York-based wild cat conservation group.
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It all started when Panthera President and Chief Conservation Officer Dr. Luke Hunter received some photos of the astonishing moment. Hunter said both lionesses and leopardesses produce similar milk and that their nursing period is nearly the same, so nothing prevents the lioness from raising a leopard cub, National Geographic reported. "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", Hunter told Carrington. "She's encountered this little cub, and she's treated it as her own".
KopeLion's scouts find and retrieve lost livestock, reinforce corrals, provide medical treatment for attacked livestock, and track lions, notifying locals when prides are near, and discouraging hunts. Hunter said that while his organization does not have pictures of the lion cubs, it is likely that the hungry cubs would be waiting for the lioness in the den.
Should the cub somehow survive to adulthood, would it behave more like a lion or a leopard? While female lions leave the group to give birth, after six to eight weeks they return to the pride with their cubs. Leopards and lions diverged about 2.5 million years ago, but they still have similar milk and nursing periods, Hunter said. "I am sure it would go its own way".
According to wildlife experts, this is the first time such inter-species bonding has ever been recorded.