Some things just don’t go together: orange juice and toothpaste, a fork and a power outlet, a full glass of red wine and a pristine white couch. It’s just the way of life. And this is no different in the animal kingdom. You don’t often see rival species hanging out together over a cup of coffee.
Which is why experts at India’s Gir National Park were concerned when they saw a fierce lioness approaching a baby leopard. Holding their collective breath, they could only watch as the mama cat made a move they couldn’t really explain.
Dr. Stotra Chakrabarti, an animal behaviorist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota, has spent the last seven years or so studying Gir National Park’s lion population. It was all business as usual, until one particular lioness stood out from the rest.
Stotra Chakrabarti / ResearchGate
See, over the course of his studies, Dr. Chakrabarti got used to watching the lions constantly compete with the leopards for space and food, despite the fact that the park spans 545 square miles.
But in 2019, Dr. Chakrabarti noticed something peculiar about one lioness’ intentions regarding a blue-eyed baby leopard. She approached the baby in a rather gentle way. Was she sneaking up on the little one?
What began as a mere interest soon became an interspecies adoption, as the lioness’ maternal instincts kicked in once she was around the fuzzy, two-month-old leopard cub. This contradicted seven years of research — and got Dr. Chakrabarti thinking.
He expected that the odd curiosity would be short-lived, as a lioness in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area was once seen nursing a leopard cub, but the miraculous encounter only lasted about a day. They just weren’t meant to be family.
But the lioness at Gir National Park spent weeks protecting and nursing the leopard cub, even feeding him fresh meat from her hunt. Absolutely fascinated, Dr. Chakrabarti wondered what the long-term effects would be on the leopard.
Well, the lioness’s two cubs showed the leopard baby the same love and affection as well. The siblings were seen playing together, with the two lion cubs, who were about twice the size of the leopard, even following the spotty adoptee up trees.
Adorably, a photo shows the brave little leopard pouncing on the head of one of his new, larger, golden-hued brothers, who sweetly played along with the leopard cub’s shenanigans. The good sport clearly knew the role of a big brother and the annoyances that come with it!
“It looked like two big cubs and one tiny runt of the litter,” Dr. Stotra Chakrabarti stated of the inter-species siblings. The doctor and his fellow researchers were still in awe of the improbable wild cat family. Surely, this would change the very makeup of the leopard.
Jessica Wade / The World-Herald
Dr. Chakrabarti stated that the bizarre affiliation “was surely the most ‘wow’ moment I’ve come across.” His fellow researchers, some of whom have observed the wild cats for decades, were astounded too and admitted they had “also not seen anything like this.”
Though you’ve likely seen cute animal friendship stories dispersed throughout the world of Facebook, it’s almost unheard of for known wild competitors to bond so easily. But perhaps it was their feline similarities that brought them together.
Dr. Chakrabarti explained that both big cat species’ social behaviors are quite similar in the early stages of life, such as the way they play, meow, and beg for milk. As they age, their traits diverge, of course.
Considering Asiatic lion mamas often separate from their pride for a few months to raise their newborn cubs alone, acting as tough single mothers, it makes sense that this particular Asiatic lioness was so welcoming to the leopard cub.
If the rest of the pride, which is made up of uber-protective adult lions, were around to witness the leopard cub cuddling up to the lioness, they may have viewed the spotty outcast as an “impostor,” Stotra explained.
Ken and Michelle Dyball
But that theory was never tested, and sadly it never will be; after approximately 45 days spent under the care of his adoptive lioness mother, the leopard cub was found lifeless by a watering hole.
Paul A. Selvaggio
According to a field necropsy, the little leopard likely passed due to a femoral hernia he was born with. The researchers were heartbroken (as you probably are) over the fact that they’d never know how his life would’ve panned out among the lions.
“It would have been fantastic to see, when the leopard cub grew up, how things would be. But it didn’t happen,” said a somber Dr. Stotra. He was bummed from a scientific opportunistic standpoint, but was also undoubtedly emotionally attached to the unlikely feline family.
@StotraChakraba2 / Twitter
This heartwarming, one-in-a-million adoption story mimics certain qualities of past interspecies adoption instances in nature. Believe it or not, a group of capuchin monkeys completely embraced an infant marmoset in 2004!
Let’s not forget the family of bottlenose dolphins that fostered a baby melon-headed whale in 2014. So, how are these stories connected? Dr. Patrícia Izar, an associate professor at Brazil’s University of São Paulo, stated that all three incidents involved a lactating mother taking in a lonely baby.
Jack’s Diving Locker
Considering hormonal changes caused by new motherhood are quite powerful, they “might facilitate bonding with an extraneous infant,” explained Patrícia. Nature and biology continue to amaze and bewilder us, just when we thought we had it all figured out.
With the feline case specifically, it wasn’t too difficult to imagine the cat camaraderie helping the leopard cub seamlessly meld with the lion clan. Both species are from the felidae family! It’s not as easy to understand interspecies relationship when they are completely different.
In 2016, Nandi the rhinoceros came into the world. She couldn’t have asked for a better life. She tore across the South African savanna with her mother, who protected her as she grew bigger and stronger. But one surprise threw her childhood off the rails.
One day, the two rhinoceroses noticed a vehicle approaching them from the distance. Neither had made contact with humans before, so they didn’t even think to run. That put them in more danger than they ever realized.
The car was full of bloodthirsty poachers, greedily searching for rhino horns to sell on the black market. The unsuspecting targets, Nandi and her mom, turned to face the hunters just as they opened fire.
Nandi fled just in time, though her mother didn’t survive. Just a few months old, the rhino had to survive in the middle of the harsh South African summer. She struggled to find food in the arid fields and could only hope she didn’t run into any predators.
Twitter / South Africa Tourism
After all, if the young rhinoceros stumbled into a pack of hyenas or lions, she wouldn’t have a prayer in defending herself — even if she returned to full strength. Nandi needed to find shelter or protection, and fast.
Becoming weaker and weaker by the day, it seemed like just a matter of time before another animal — or the elements — picked her off. A couple of weeks later, a strange creature did indeed spot Nandi.
This time, fortunately, the animals watching Nandi weren’t predators. They were humans! And unlike the rhino’s last encounter, these people were not armed with weapons, but with medical supplies and food.
Sacred Lifestyle Magazine
They were a group of wildlife conservationists, led by a young woman named Jamie Traynor. Known as “The Rhinoceros Whisperer,” she immediately recognized that Nandi was malnourished. Jamie couldn’t just leave her there in the wilderness.
YouTube / StoryTrender
She and her team whisked Nandi back to their sanctuary, a place they called The Rhino Orphanage. While Nandi had a healthy appetite, food alone wasn’t restoring her vigor. She clearly required medical intervention.
The Orphanage’s doctor determined that Nandi had, in desperation, eaten sand out on the savanna. After studying the damage to her intestine, he took her into surgery to repair her digestive system.
Following her procedure, the rhinoceros looked frailer than ever. She slowly convalesced, wrapped up in bandages and medical tubing, but Jamie rarely left her side those few weeks.
One Green Planet
As the scars healed, Nandi began drinking more and more milk. That was a very good sign, since she was developing at the proper rate. Jamie could hardly wait to show Nandi the rest of the preserve.
Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation
Before long, the young conservationist had Nandi back up and running. The rhino was bounding about the African terrain with an energy she hadn’t had since her mother was alive.
YouTube / Paul Oxton
Nandi really seemed to bond with Jamie, too. She saw the human as a parental figure, even as Nandi surpassed the size of any human. But before long, the rhino formed an even more unlikely relationship.
Instagram / Jamie Traynor
While taking a drink of water one morning, Nandi noticed an unfamiliar reflection appear next to her. It was a ginger cat, totally unafraid of the hulking animal next to him! Jamie watched the two from a distance, so glad that Nandi finally met Mewie.
Mewie was a tomcat that Jamie and her colleagues had also rescued. The feline showed a curious penchant for befriending animals of all species — even the horse and parrot who also lived at The Rhino Orphanage.
Still, Mewie decided that Nandi would be her best friend of all. The mismatched pair went on walks every day — at least until the cat tuckered out — followed by long naps in the shade.
The Rhino Orphanage / Jaime Traynor
The Rhino Orphanage proved to be the perfect spot for Nandi to blossom into adulthood. By the spring of 2018, when Jamie and her team saw she was healthy and full-grown, they decided it was time for a change.
YouTube / Helping Rhinos
Nandi had to learn to survive in the wild before she lost her ability to adapt. With a tear in her eye, Jamie rolled back a section of the fence and set Nandi and another rhino named Storm back into the Savanna.
Though it was a difficult choice, Jamie could still keep tabs on Nandi’s progress thanks to an ankle tracker. Every time she came across the rhino thriving on her own, she knew all her hard work was worthwhile.
Thanks to heroes like Jamie, animals across the planet are coming back from the brink of death. Ellie the elephant, for instance, was just two weeks old, when a rescue team found her alone and afraid at the Bonamanzi Game Reserve in Hluhluwe, South Africa.
Elephants are naturally social creatures, but Ellie had been rejected by his herd. To make matters worse, it looked like the young elephant was also desperately ill. The rescue team quickly took Ellie to Thula Thula, a game reserve in Zululand, to be treated.
Ellie’s future didn’t look good. Veterinarians at the reserve diagnosed him with an infected umbilical hernia, a condition that is almost always fatal. The area around his belly button was essentially an open wound where the infection ran rampant.
Being shunned at any age can have devastating effects on an elephant, but being shunned while still an infant could destroy Ellie mentally and emotionally, even if he was healthy. The rescue team suspected the herd had shunned him because of his illness.
The rescuers treated Ellie’s dangerous medical condition and then tried to reunite him with his family. But try as they might, the herd was done with the little guy. Instead, the team decided to rear him themselves in the Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage.
Then, the team faced another dilemma: the calf rejected all of his milk and formula! Eventually they came up with a combination of boiled rice, vital minerals, and coconut oil that finally seemed to tempt his palate enough…
The special dish worked! Soon, Ellie was gobbling it down along with the milk he needed for nourishment. His health was finally back on track, but it would take a lot more to help him recover from the trauma of being abandoned.
Ellie seemed perpetually lonely and sad even though he had a team of humans caring for him. “He wasn’t showing much interest in doing anything. He was very lethargic, very disinterested,” said Karen Trendle, a rehabilitation and crisis response expert.
That’s when the rescue team decided to try something wild. On the game reserve lived a German Shepherd named Duma. The retired police dog was known for his love of all creatures, so the team decided to take a chance and see what would happen if Duma was introduced to Ellie…
No one was sure how either animal would react once they were introduced. However, just moments after they met, it was clear that a serious friendship was on the rise. Duma was delighted with his new friend, and Ellie seemed social and happy for the first time!
It was as if meeting the dog brought Ellie back to life! For the first time, the young calf was expressing interest in something, and it was clear from Duma’s reaction that the feeling was totally mutual.
Before Ellie met Duma, the rescue team was worried about the little elephant’s future. They planned to introduce him to another herd or to have him start a herd of his own with other orphans, but they weren’t sure Ellie would survive, let alone thrive. Now, they finally had hope… but would it last?
With every month that passed, Ellie grew happier and more confident thanks to his burgeoning friendship with Duma the dog. It seemed that Ellie was out of the woods and that a happy future could exist for this young elephant. But, sadly, fate had other plans…
Just when it seemed that Ellie was out of the woods, the worst thing imaginable happened: the tiny elephant relapsed, collapsing in the enclosure where he slept. The rescuers responded the only way they could—they treated him with IV fluids and waited.
Tragically, just five months after Ellie seemed to recover, he passed away from a septic infection that caused the failure of all of his organs. The team was absolutely bereft to lose their little friend who came so far…
“It is with deep sadness and so many tears that we bring the devastating news that Ellie passed away gently shortly before midnight on Tuesday evening,” the team announced on their Facebook page. The entire community joined them in their grief.
Ellie’s brief life contained several hardships between his abandonment and his illness, but he also experienced great love and friendship in his time at the reserve. Duma the dog transformed Ellie’s life—and that wasn’t something that would be forgotten!
Tough times were not over for those who worked and lived on the game reserve. Just months after Ellie died, poachers invaded the land and killed a baby rhino while maiming other rhinos for their horns.
The staff at the reserve had to make a very tough decision, and they ultimately decided to close the game reserve. They opened a new one elsewhere, but its location remained a secret so as to better protect the animals who lived there.
While this story does not have the happy ending that you might wish it had, it’s important to remember that Ellie’s remaining time on Earth was pretty special—and it was all thanks to his unlikely friendship with Duma the dog! You can see how they played here…