Among the Elephants Blog

The amazing story of the Lioness and her baby Oryx
January 1, 2002
by Saba Douglas-Hamilton



My sister Dudu and I were lucky enough to be the only ones to film the complete documentary of the extraordinary and unlikely tale about the strange love a lioness had for an Oryx calf which she adopted within its first week of life.

The odd pair was first reported on the 21st Dec 2001 by a driver from Larsen's lodge, Samburu who told us that the calf had still had its umbilical cord when he first saw it. We encountered the lioness and calf for the first time after they had been together for about two weeks. Both were thin, but in surprisingly good health. It was reported that the lioness had not hunted once since her adoption of the Oryx.

Her shoulder blades were sharp like knives under skin and she was beginning to starve. We only saw her attempt to hunt once - she tried to stalk a warthog, but quickly gave up and trotted after the calf. It was hard to tell which was going to die first... the lioness or the calf. It seems that she was fully aware that it was not a lion cub, as she did not try to hunt for it. In fact the rangers and drivers reported that the baby had been returning to its Oryx mother to suckle, and we witnessed it approaching Oryx on several occasions and being greeted by them.

The lioness would allow the baby to spend some time with the Oryx watching intently and with great concern from a distance. But if the calf wandered too far she would start to follow, whereupon the adult Oryx would catch sight of her in the bushes and run for its life. The baby Oryx would follow the adult, and the lioness using every predator tactic would give chase and eventually catch up with the calf. Oryx-cub and lioness would rejoin, the lioness rubbing her head gently down its body... the Oryx, gangly-legged, nibbling softly on the lioness' ear. We do not think that the calf could have survived if it had not been suckling from its Oryx mother. The lioness had absolutely no signs of having been pregnant, neither having perhaps lost cubs nor lactating.

No teats were visible which would suggest that she had never been pregnant. We estimated her age to be about 2-3 years old. Being an arid zone animals, the calf would need rich milk from its mother... we saw it nibbling on plants but nothing substantial enough.What was so interesting about the relationship was that the Oryx calf was the leader. As if it were an autistic child the lioness was unable to communicate with it, and she had no choice but to follow dotingly wherever it went. Being a night creature she was desperate to sleep during the day but the calf would wander off and she was forced to follow, becoming thin for "love"... "nimekonda kwa mpenzi", a saying often repeated by lovesick Swahili fishermen!Local Kenyans from the lodges and around the park arrived in droves to see for themselves a legend in the making.

Tourists, sun burnt and dehydrated, were moved beyond comparison. Everyone wanted to do something to help. The warden of Samburu reserve was receiving pressure from every quarter to feed her to keep her alive.Some Kenyans felt that "mungu amefika" god has arrived, or that "dunia ataisha" the world is coming to an end. Even as a scientist my mind kept wandering off into biblical parody - and the lamb shall lay down with the lion. Strangest of all is that both animals seemed totally aware of the disparity - that they were different species and ultimately opposite.The Samburu nomadic pastoralists from Giltimany on the edge of the reserve, however, were relatively unsurprised by the adoption as they had had a similar experience.

In 1999 a 3 yr old child had wandered into the bush and been found in amongst a pride of lions playing with the cubs like dogs. Greatly concerned for its safety the warriors watched from a distance until the child fell asleep and the lions walked away. They told us many of their legends that were of a similar nature.On the last day, the lioness and calf paced down to the riverfront and drank deeply. We were relieved for the lioness, as it was the first time we had seen her drink in 4 days. The Oryx came and passed right by us in the car whilst the lioness slunk out of sight and then reappeared around a bush in front of us, flopping in the shade.

We filmed their tender interaction, the look of peace and love on the lioness' face as her baby came and touched noses then disappeared around the bush. Little did we know that this was its last moment. Hot in the midday sun we prepared to move the car into a different angle just at the moment the calf was leapt upon by a stray male lion that had ambushed them both. We filmed the entire tragic interaction as the lioness watched her calf-cub being suffocated, helpless and terrified, for the first time regarding us as allies, lying close to the car for protection, tensed, turning around to look at us with seemingly pleading eyes. The lion nibbled and licked the calf, trying to break the skin on its stomach.

That rough lion tongue that had been so familiar and comforting, those huge teeth that were once gentle, now the weapons used to end its life. Raspberry lipped lion, turns its head to stare at us. Savage nature. The lioness was desperate but too terrified to come close.The next day we followed up on both the lioness and the lion. Both were alone, although we saw their tracks walking together (imagine if she has cubs shortly having come into estrus after he killed the calf), and we found her on an impala kill hidden deep in a bush. She was very nervous, but had become a predator again.

It was reported that in the afternoon of her calf's death she had killed and eaten a baby warthog, and the impala that we found her eating had been a cheetah kill that she had stolen. As far as we know this was the first time she had eaten since her strange obsession.Saba and Dudu Douglas-Hamilton The lioness and 'her' baby Oryx relax in Samburu National Reserve Both were thin but in surprisingly good health it was reported that the baby Oryx had been returning to its Oryx mother to suckle Being a night creature the lioness was desperate to sleep during the day but the calf would wander off and she was forced to follow the odd pair take a nap unfortunately this strange but happy relationship ended tragically when a male lion killed and ate the Oryx calf!