Why would a wild lioness nurse a leopard cub?

July 14, 2017, 2:18 p.m.

In what observers have described as a "surge of maternal confusion," a lioness in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area was spotted nursing a 3-week-old leopard cub. The lioness, known as Nosikitok, was photographed by a guest at Ndutu Safari Lodge in Tanzania.

"A WORLD FIRST," read a post on the Lodge's Facebook page, accompanying the image. "The news has stunned the Lion world, and made world headlines. Nosikitok, in KiMaa means colostrum, a mother's first milk. It seems very fitting in this case."

No one has figured out how the lion and the leopard came in contact, but it's definitely an unusual pairing.

“It’s unprecedented,” Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer for Panthera, a global wild cat nonprofit, tells National Geographic. “We never see this in the wild.”

Nosikitok has her own cubs, which are about the same age as the leopard cub and that could explain why her maternal instincts kicked in with this little spotted stranger.

Although the lioness was welcoming in this moment, the rest of her pride might not be so receptive. National Geographic points out that if she returned to her pride with a little leopard in tow, they might kill him on sight.

Fortunately, it doesn't look like that will be an issue. According to the lodge, the leopard cub had likely just stopped by for a one-time meal — although where the leopard cub or its mother are now is not known.

"It seems it was a one-off incident as Nosikitok is back off wandering far and wide, and the baby leopard hasn't been seen again. There is a female leopard known to be living in this area, so there is a small chance it was reunited with it's mother."

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