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A world first: Photos of wild lioness nursing a leopard cub

In a world first, a wild lioness has been spotted nursing a leopard cub in Tanzania – a highly unique and unusual occurrence for big cats and cross-species adoption.

The unique scene was captured by Joop Van Der Linde, a guest at Ndutu Safari Lodge in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The photographs show the five-year-old lioness, ‘Nosikitok’ – who recently gave birth to a litter of cubs – suckling a leopard cub estimated to be just three weeks old.

wild lioness nursing leopard cub, Tanzania

©Joop Van Der Linde/Ndutu Lodge/KopeLion/Panthera

‘Nosikitok’ is currently collared and monitored by Kope Lion, a Tanzanian conservation NGO supported by Panthera – a global wild cat conservation organisation.

wild lioness nursing leopard cub, Tanzania

©Joop Van Der Linde/Ndutu Lodge/KopeLion/Panthera

“This is a truly unique case,” said Panthera President and Chief Conservation Officer, Dr. Luke Hunter. “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.”

wild lioness nursing leopard cub, Tanzania

©Joop Van Der Linde/Ndutu Lodge/KopeLion/Panthera

How the leopard cub ended up with ‘Nosikitok’ is uncertain. Hunter goes on to say that “she would not be nursing the cub if she wasn’t already awash with a ferocious maternal drive”, and would probably have killed the leopard cub if it wasn’t for her maternal instincts and having cubs of her own.

wild lioness nursing leopard cub, Tanzania

©Joop Van Der Linde/Ndutu Lodge/KopeLion/Panthera

As to the future of the leopard cub, Hunter points out that “it is very unlikely that the lioness’ pride will accept it”, as the lions would recognise it as a predator and not one of their own, and “if the rest of the pride finds the cub, it is likely it would be killed”.

In the meantime, the leopard has found solace with its substitute mother, and Hunter is optimistic that it will “go its own way”, but we will have to just wait as to what will happen next.

3 week old leopard cub, Tanzania

©Joop Van Der Linde/Ndutu Lodge/KopeLion/Panthera

About PantheraPanthera is the only organisation in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their ecosystems. Representing the most comprehensive effort of its kind, Panthera partners with local and international NGOs, scientific institutions, local communities, governments around the globe, and citizens who want to help ensure a future for wild cats.

Africa Geographic Editorial

We're the Africa Geographic editorial team – a diverse set of editors, designers and social media natives, all united by our passion for this addictive continent.

  • Tania D

    If only it could make itself look a bit less spotty, even for a little while!

  • Peter Apps

    Latest news is that the leopard cub has disappeared.

    • Mike D

      Very sad but probably inevitable if it’s mother had disappeared or rejected it. Amazing footage though

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