A lioness in Gujarat’s Gir National Park mothered a leopard cub for more than a month. A study has noted their short-lived bonding as a rare case of foster care between two competing feline species.
Elephant seals and sea lions are known to adopt orphans of their own kind. The animal kingdom has two reported cases of cross-species adoption in the wild — that of a young marmoset by a family of capuchin monkeys in South America and a melon-headed whale calf by a bottlenose dolphin.
But the lioness-leopard relationship in Gir, a semi-arid deciduous forest covering 1,800 sq km, has intrigued a quartet of conservationists and wildlife officials, who published their findings in Ecosphere , an open-access journal.
“Lions and leopards coexist but not in harmony, and there was this lioness rearing the leopard cub as her own to stimulate intriguing behavioural questions,” Stotra Chakrabarti, one of the four authors of the study told The Hindu from the University of Minnesota, U.S..
Mr. Chakrabarti is a post-doctoral research associate in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology in the university. His co-authors are Joseph K. Bump from the same university and officials Dheeraj Mittal and Shailesh B. Khambda of Gir (West) Division, Junagarh.
The researchers observed the relationship for 29 days, during which the leopard cub died on February 11, 2019. There were no external wounds on the carcass found near a waterhole, implying that the mother or any other lion did not kill it. An autopsy revealed the cub was suffering from congenital femoral hernia.
“We spotted an old female leopard in the location where we first detected the leopard cub with its foster lion family. Although we could not assess the lactating state of this leopardess, it is possible that she was the cub’s biological mother but had abandoned it,” Mr Chakrabarti said. Camera traps, he added, were deployed at a waterhole frequented by the lioness and her cubs. The detections spanned across 2.6 sq km, a relatively small area compared with an adult lioness’ home range of about 35 sq km.
The researchers found the lioness restricted her forays because she had young cubs that were less mobile, especially the leopard cub.
Maternal and hormonal instincts of the lioness, as a lactating mother who lost her first litter of two cubs, could have overridden her recognition or the lack thereof for an “unusually spotted cub”.
Her relationship with the leopard cub for qualified as a formal adoption, unlike a similar but one-day association reported from the Ngorongoro conservation area in Tanzania in 2017.