The natural world has a knack for the unpredictable. Just when we think we have things figured out, some startling piece of evidence surfaces, like camera-trap footage of a genet playing rodeo on the back of a rhino, or a right whale hanging out with a pod of dolphins. In the latest case of interspecies abnormality, a baboon was spotted grooming and seemingly caring for a tiny lion cub. 

Video by Kurt Safaris (www.kurtsafari.com)

Safari guide Kurt Schultz filmed the rare sighting on Saturday (February 1, 2020) while on a drive near Skukuza rest camp in South Africa's Kruger National Park. As Shultz meandered his way along a gravel road that traverses the Nwatimhiri River south of Skukuza, he came across a restless troop of baboons. One of the primates was carrying something that drew attention from others in the group, so Shultz stuck around, eager to see how the action would play out. 

Eventually, the young baboon paused in the treetops for long enough that Shultz could get a decent view. Clutched in the primate's hands was a newborn lion cub, squirming with the innocence of infancy. The young baboon appeared to be grooming the lion, leaving Shultz baffled. "After 20 years of guiding this is the first time I have seen a baboon nurturing and caring for a young predator cub," he told Latest Sightings. He spent an hour photographing and filming the rare sight before a scheduled meeting dragged him away from the scene.

While it's tempting to weave Lion King-like tales of interspecies kinship, the grooming and nurturing in this case likely shadow a darker narrative – one in which the cub meets a grisly end. Baboons are omnivores and are known to regularly eat meat when available (sometimes with frightfully grim table manners). The primates are regularly targeted by lions and leopards, so it is unlikely that a baboon would show any kind of genuine affection towards a predator (no matter how tiny it is).

The baboon troop eventually disappeared into thick bush leaving the outcome of the unusual interaction undetermined, however, later reports received via the Latest Sightings app indicate that the cub did not make it. Whether or not the cat succumbed to its captor or simply fell victim to the circumstances is unclear. Sadly for the cub, the odds were always stacked against its survival: the cub mortality rate for lions in the Kruger Park is at least 50%.

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Image © Kurt Safari

Shortly after the photos and video were uploaded to Facebook and YouTube, comment streams were oversaturated with inevitable Lion King references. But among the gifs of Rafiki and Simba were several comments from those who felt that Schultz and the people present should have intervened to help the kidnapped cub. Kurt Safari Company explained their position in a Facebook comment: "As much as we realise it might be hard to watch and might be cruel, human interaction with wildlife in the Kruger National Park, or most wildlife reserves globally, is not something that happens."

Even if those present had intentions of aiding the cub, the rules of the park would not have permitted them to do so. Visitors to the Kruger Park are not allowed to exit their vehicles outside of demarcated areas and handling wildlife is against the regulations. Intervention could only have come from South African National Park (SANParks) rangers and, in instances such as this, it is very unlikely that officials would step in. It's common for almost all species to lose at least some of their young to predators, so this incident is simply a harsh reminder of the often-violent workings of the natural world.

Other commenters were curious about how the baboon managed to snatch the cub in the first place. It is more than likely that the troop stumbled across the young cat while its mother was out hunting. Shortly before giving birth, lionesses separate themselves from the pride and sneak off to a well-hidden lair. Cubs are born blind and helpless, so lionesses spend their early days of motherhood caring for their cubs on their own.

Suckling youngsters can be physically taxing and there will be times when mothers must temporarily abandon their cubs and go on the hunt, leaving the newborns vulnerable to predation. There are also reported instances of lionesses getting distracted and abandoning their cubs out of forgetfulness, or simply leaving them behind if there is not enough food to go around.

The splendour and beauty of the natural world is often balanced with savagery. Sadly, this little lion cub found itself on the worst end of the scale.

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Image © Kurt Safari

Images and video © Kurt Safari