Image: Joop Van Der Linde/Ndutu Lodge

For the first time ever, a lioness has been spotted nursing a leopard cub in Tanzania.

Cross-species nursing in wildlife is extremely unique. The five-year-old lioness named Nosikitok by the people of Masaai is collared and monitored by KopeLion, a conservation NGO in Tanzania, with support from Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization. She was thought to have had a litter of her own in mid to late June.

The leopard cub is estimated to be about three weeks old, around the same age as the mother’s own young. It is uncertain what happened to the offspring or how the lioness and the leopard cub came to be together. These photos were taken by a guest at the Ndutu Lodge in the Ngorogoro Conservation Area, documenting one of the rarest events in wild cat history.

Image: Joop Van Der Linde/Ndutu Lodge

The President of Panthera Luke Hunter explained to the Washington Post, “This simply wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t suckling her own babies.” He indicates that intense maternal instincts were at play, and if they hadn’t been, she would have likely killed the cub.

Nosikitok’s pride and other nearby lions are protected by KopeLion’s team, which works to prevent lion hunting organized in retaliation for attacks on livestock. KopeLion’s “lion scouts” are members of the Masaai community and strive to retrieve displaced livestock, strengthen corrals and holding pens, and spread education about how lions are valuable to the community.

The unusual occurrence is truly remarkable — but the leopard cub’s future is uncertain.

Hunter explained to the Guardian, “It is very unlikely that the lioness’s pride will accept it. 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.”