A lioness (female lion) finds and takes care of an orphaned leopard cub (baby).
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[n] - noun, [p] - person, [v] - verb, [phv] - phrasal verb, [adj] - adjective, [exp] - expression
Well there are some incredible photos now doing the rounds online showing a leopard cub being nursed not by humans but by a lioness in the wild, in Tanzania. A rare perhaps even unprecedented event. Dr. Amy Dickman is a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford and has been studying big cats for 20 years. She gave her reaction to the photos to my colleague Dan Damon.
I thought it was incredible. I've never seen anything like that before. You know I would have thought it was completely impossible really if you had described it before. So to see it was quite amazing.
What's going on exactly? I mean that seems to be a perfectly normal except that the baby is the wrong colour.
Well exactly. It does seem as if the lion use it as one of her own cubs. Having seen just the photo, we don't know much about the back story, but I believe that lion is about five years old, and apparently she's had cubs at the end of June, so her cubs are about the same age as that leopard cub would be. So it's possible that she came across the leopard. It's possible that she killed the mother of the leopard cub because leopards and lions don't get on well. And then you know the maternal instinct and all the hormones that she's got going on at the moment may have compelled her then to kind of take care of the leopard cub and start suckling it. But it's incredibly unusual.
How do lionesses identify their offspring. Because if you think of sheep, you know, if you want to get a sheep to adopt a lamb that orphaned, you have to try and get the scent right don't you, and all of those things. Is that not operational in lions?
It definitely is, and that's usually part of them and obviously usually they would go off now have their own cubs in a little den. They'll bring them back to the pride at about six to eight weeks old. So after that year, they start to be brought up slightly more as a group, and lionesses will suckle each other's cubs. But even those cubs, they will know they will have the scent on them from this same pride you know their relatives, so it is incredibly unusual for lionesses to adopt a cub they've certainly never seen before and have one of a different species. So it's it is really unprecedented as far as I'm aware.
And what's the future for this leopard car because you know it's all very lovely and Rudyard Kipling, but surely eventually one of the pride is going to say, “Hang on, that's the wrong colour.”
Exactly. Unfortunately it does not look good. I mean it doesn't look good even for the lion cubs. Only about half of them make it to a year old. So it's an awful lot of mortality when they're very young. So even if it's an older lion cub that would be difficult, but to have a leopard cub there, I don't know at the moment whether her cubs are actually alive or not. So at some point if they are alive, she's got to bring them back bring the leopard cub back to the den. And then introduce them to the lion cubs, which obviously could not go well. And even if it got through that period with her lion cubs, or say her existing cubs have already died, at some point she will have to bring it back into the pride. And as you say, they're likely to recognize that it's not a lion. And they will have a much more normal lion leopard interaction which would be for the lions to try to kill the leopard. So it's incredibly unlikely to end well unfortunately. Although it will be fascinating to see what happens.
I suppose there is some hope here because this lion is wearing a GPS collar. We can see that from the pictures. He’s being observed by an organization out there, a conservation organization. So I suppose there's a possibility they might intervene.
There is some possibility of intervention. Generally in Tanzania in the national parks and wildlife areas, people don't intervene. It's very much seen as wild nature, and you know what happens in the wild should be part of the natural process. So there is relatively little intervention. And it would be very unusual to try to sort of facilitate this along because it's such an abnormal event. But yeah, we’ll all be watching with interest to see what happens. It is being monitored by Kopee lions. The project up in Goro Goro. So I think I'll be fascinated to see what the outcome is. And I think we all hope it's good, but unfortunately it doesn't look that likely, unfortunately, for the little leopard.
Doctor Amy Dickman there from the University of Oxford.