Cross-species altruism: A leopard takes in a baboon

19 03 2007

The latest issue of National Geographic arrived at my doorstep today, and besides a wonderful (although sad) article about how we’re denuding the oceans of life, towards the back is a striking collection of photos featuring Leopards in the Okovango Delta, Botswana. This particular article follows a mother and her cub, and while this is interesting in of itself, there was something else that was particularly striking in the article. One night the young leopard killed a mother baboon, leaving the baboon’s baby an orphan. Rather than kill the baby as well, the young leopard (according to the article) moved the baby over to a tree, licked the young baboon, and snuggled up to it in sleep. Unfortunately, the baby died (most probably of cold) and the young leopard proceeded to eat the mother, but nonetheless this amount of care given between predator and prey is astonishing. What I’m about to say next is highly anthropomorphic and I don’t consider it to be the same at all, but it almost reminds me of young girls playing with their dollies, practicing to be a mother themselves. Indeed, National Geographic has captured similar behavior on film in their documentary Predators at War in which a leopard happens across an orphaned lion cub and seems to contemplate caring for the youngster. Unfortunately for the cub, she realizes she cannot care for the little one and the baby becomes prey of spotted hyenas, but once again this cross-species altruism for young is quite interesting. I’m not about to simply chalk it up to “maternal instinct” or the argument that babies are just so overwhelmingly cute that you can’t help but take care of them, but I do wonder as to how often this sort of phenomena occurs and why it occurs at all.



4 responses

19 03 2007
Sarda Sahney

I am quite curious about interspecies bonding though I don’t know how much research has been done on it. Clearly, close relationships have been observed in domestic environments such as bonding between cats and dogs. Also, about a month ago there was some stir about two orphaned Sumatran tiger cubs and a pair of orangutan babies who after living together for a few weeks are virtually inseparable. Sorry I don’t have the original article anymore.

19 03 2007
Chris Harrison

I swear I saw a video of this somewhere online. I will do some searching and send the link to you if I can find it.

12 08 2008

It’s easy to write something off as “maternal instinct,” but we have to remember that it is also “maternal instinct” to abort fetal offspring (e.g., deer) under food resource stress. I think we tend to allocate all of our culturally-derived expectations for motherhood to this convenient term. However, to get at what’s really going on in the leopard-baboon case, we need to unpack not only our culturally-laden assumptions about motherhood, but also our Darwinian assumptions about how the “natural” world is organized. In my opinion, we emphasize competition and predator-prey relations at the expense of explanations that can probably accommodate seemingly contradictory evidence. This story is just the tip of the iceberg!

23 08 2010
Angela Manus

Just found a video that may interest you. It’s on Facebook. It contains a portion of this story, I believe. This is the link:!/video/video.php?v=104938162877284

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