For those who don’t understand big cat behavior – ourselves included – these pictures of a lioness nursing a baby leopard may just seem cute, but not that big of a deal otherwise. However, these recent photos show something that hasn’t been seen or photographed before in the wild.

When Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer of the global wild cat organization, viewed these pictures after receiving an email, he says, “my jaw just dropped.”

“It’s unprecedented,” Hunter said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.”

That’s because interspecies suckling among large carnivores hasn’t ever been recorded – not even in captive animals. Interspecies suckling has occurred in captivity, just not with big cats like this. Wild carnivores have been known to adopt orphaned cubs in rare instances, but those cubs have been of their own kind and related in many cases.

The photos were taken by a guest at the Ndutu Losge in the Ngorogoro Conservation Area. KopeLion, an organization that works to minimize conflicts between lions and local farmers works in the area, which is why the lioness is wearing a GPS collar.

This rare adoption likely has to do with maternal hormones coursing through the lioness after recently giving birth to her own cubs.

“She is absolutely awash with maternal hormones and that instinct to take care of her own babies,” says Hunter. “This simply wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t suckling her own babies.”

This would have been a much more grim interaction had the lioness not adopted the baby leopard because they would generally view it as competition and a threat to survival.

“Lions kind of go out of their way to get rid of them,” says Hunter in regards to other carnivores

Because of them going out of their way like that, it’s incredibly unlikely this cub will live for much more than a few weeks. After going off to give birth, a lioness will return to her pride with her cubs once they’ve reached about 8 weeks old. If the leopard is still alive and has been adopted by the lioness at that point it probably won’t fare so well once it meets the rest of the pride.

“That would be the most fascinating encounter to observe,” Hunter said. But, he added: “I would love for this to end nicely. But I think the challenges facing the little leopard cub are formidable.”

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