Scientists could not have been more surprised to see a five-year-old lioness nursing a young leopard cub in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area just days ago. Typically the lion-leopard relationship goes more like: lion tries to kill leopard, leopard runs away or climbs high into tree. KopeLion, the Tanzanian conservation nonprofit that has been tracking the female lion, named, Nosikitok, by radio-collar has reported that she has several lion cubs of approximately the same age, which is why her motherly instincts may have taken over with the leopard cub.
"It's unprecedented," says Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer for Panthera. "We never see this in the wild." Nevertheless, Hunter says that physiologically it could work, as both lions and leopards produce similar milk and nurse for uniform time periods. However, he's hesitant to be so confident, knowing the reality ahead of the little leopard will be harsh. Surviving the den period and later being accepted into the lion pride will not be easy feats. "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 immense."