July 14 (UPI) -- A wild cat conservation group shared photos of a wild lioness nursing a leopard cub in the first known instance of such an inter-species relationship.
Panthera, a global conservation organization dedicated to big cats, shared photos snapped by Joop Van Der Linde, a recent guest at the Ndutu Lodge in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and shared with the group by KopeLion, a Tanzanian conservation charity that tracks lions in the region.
Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer of Panthera, said the photos depict a 5-year-old female lion known as Nosikitok nursing a leopard cub believed to be about 3 weeks old.
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.
"This is a truly unique case," Hunter said. "I know of no other example of inter-species adoption or nursing like this among big cats in the wild. This lioness is known to have recently given birth to her own cubs, which is a critical factor. She is physiologically primed to take care of baby cats, and the little leopard fits the bill -- it is almost exactly the age of her own cubs and physically very similar to them.
"She would not be nursing the cub if she wasn't already awash with a ferocious maternal drive [which is typical of lionesses]," he said. "Even so, there has never been another case like it, and why it has occurred now is mystifying. It is quite possible she has lost her own cubs, and found the leopard cub in her bereaved state when she would be particularly vulnerable."
Hunter said the leopard cub is unlikely to find acceptance from the lioness' peers.
"It is very unlikely that the lioness' pride will accept it," he said. "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 said the leopard would likely revert to normal behavior for its species if it manages to survive long enough to become self-sufficient.
"Even its early exposure to lion society would not override the millions of years of evolution that has equipped the leopard to be a supreme solitary hunter," he said. "I am sure it would go its own way."