Truly unique' mother lioness nurses leopard cub

A leopard cub is seen suckling on a lioness in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Tanzania in this handout

Photographs of a lioness nursing a leopard cub are being circulated worldwide. The cub had in turn lost its mother, who may have been killed by the lioness, as the two species regard one another as competition.

A leopard cub nurses from a lioness known as Nosikitok in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Luke Hunter, who is the president of big cat conservation group Panthera, said Nosikitok's behaviour could be explained by the recent births of her own litter three weeks ago. But it seems unlikely that other lions wouldn't recognize the leopard as being different, Hunter says.

"She is physiologically primed to take care of baby cats, and the little leopard fits the bill - it is nearly exactly the age of her own cubs and physically very similar to them".

A statement from conservation group Panthera, which is based in NY, added: 'Cross-species nursing for wild cats, and other wildlife for that matter, is extremely unique'.

KopeLion works with Panthera, so representatives from the organization emailed the "genuinely unique" photos to the nonprofit to spread the news, Hunter told Live Science.

But he did warn there could be a sad ending to the story because "the natural odds are stacked against this little fellow". The leopard cub is nearly exactly the age as her cubs and physically very similar.

In captivity, predators occasionally bond with other meat-eating species, but have nearly never done so in the wild as they compete for prey.

"This is all speculation, and I'm hoping for the best", says Hunter, "but I think the challenges to this little fellow surviving are really huge". Given that its species are solitary hunters, it would likely leave the pride and survive.

The lioness wears a Global Positioning System collar allowing researchers to track her. Ms Jansson said she believed she may have lost her cubs and, in a brief moment of vulnerability, allowed the baby leopard to feed.

The photos were taken Tuesday by a guest at Ndutu Lodge in Tanzania.

The lion cubs may not accept the leopard cub, and even if they did, the latter would have many more challenges to face. It is unknown what happened to the leopard cub. Her survival-and that of other lions in the region-is no doubt due to the efforts carried out by KopeLion's team, who past year prevented 26 lion hunts, including those targeting the Masek pride, to which Nosikitok belongs. The Maasai no longer hunt lions to prove their manhood, but in retaliation and to prevent attacks on livestock. "I'm speculating wildly, but if the cub make it to 12 to 14 months, my guess is that instinct would kick in and that it would go off on its own" and eventually seek out other leopards, Hunter says.

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