Dr. Hunter has received new information about this story. Nosikitok is back with her pride and showing no signs of lactation.
"Sadly, this confirms our suspicion that she has lost her own litter," Dr. Hunter said. "We likely won't ever know what happened to Nosi's young cubs, but only around 40% of lions survive their first year in the Serengeti region, mainly due to infanticide by unrelated male lions, predation by other carnivores, and sometimes starvation.
"Life is hard in the African bush," he continued, "even for its top carnivore."
The timing of Nosikitok's loss coincides with her nursing of the leopard cub and helps explain her exceptional behavior.
"She would have experienced the lioness equivalent of grieving and was probably searching for her own litter when she came upon the baby leopard," Dr. Hunter said. "Her fierce maternal drive compelled her to care for a completely foreign kitten."
The leopard cub still has not been spotted, he said: "I hope that its mother was still in the area. Even after its brief encounter with the lioness, the cub would almost certainly be accepted back by its own mum. The next chapter of this unique story may yet unfold."
Original Story: July 13, 2017
Earlier this week, Panthera President and Chief Conservation Officer Dr. Luke Hunter received photos from our partners at KopeLion with some astonishing content: the first-ever evidence of a wild lioness nursing a leopard cub.
Taken on Tuesday by a Ndutu Lodge guest in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the images show a 5-year-old lioness, known locally as ‘Nosikitok,’ suckling a leopard cub estimated to be just 3 weeks old.
Same-species suckling and adoptions for wild cats and other wildlife have been documented before, including the first ever wild puma kitten adoption captured on camera by Panthera. But cross-species nursing for wild cats—and all wildlife—is highly unusual. “This is a truly unique case,” Dr. 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 continued. “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.”
Even if Nosikitok continues to foster the cub, Dr. Hunter said, the obstacles to its survival would be formidable.
“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.”
But if the cub defied the odds and became independent—usually around 12-18 months for leopards—Dr. Hunter strongly suspects it would revert to behaving as a leopard.
"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.”
Nosikitok is currently collared and monitored by KopeLion, a Tanzanian conservation NGO supported by Panthera. Her survival—and that of other lions in the region—is no doubt due to the efforts carried out by KopeLion's team, who last year prevented 26 lion hunts, including those targeting the Masek pride, to which Nosikitok belongs. These hunts are orchestrated to prevent or in retaliation for attacks on livestock, the top threat facing Ngorongoro's lions.
Hailing from the Maasai community, KopeLion's 'Lion Scouts' mitigate conflict and serve as ambassadors for the species—finding and retrieving lost livestock, reinforcing corrals attacked by predators, providing wound treatment when livestock is attacked, monitoring lions and notifying local communities when prides are near, discouraging hunts, and reinforcing why lions are beneficial to local communities.