African Lioness Adopts Another Oryx, Seeks a Third

By Jennifer Wanjiru

SAMBURU GAME RESERVE, Kenya, February 21, 2002 (ENS) - The lioness that attracted international attention in January after it adopted an oryx calf in Kenya's Samburu Game Reserve is back in the news. This week the lioness adopted another baby oryx.


An oryx in Samburu Game Reserve (Photo courtesy Eric Hocking)
An oryx is an antelope with long, straight horns, a species that is normally preyed upon by lions.

The lioness, nicknamed Kamuniak which means The Blessed One in Samburu language, protected her first oryx calf from other predators for 17 days before it was eaten by another lion. Now the second adoptee has been taken away from the lioness by wildlife officials.

"It was either that or leave it to die. It was too weak and would not have survived another day without being fed," said senior Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) warden, Julius Kimani, who led the operations. "We will try and return it to its mother but we fear she might reject it," said Kimani.

Game wardens tranquillized the frail Beisa oryx calf as it dozed under an acacia tree when the lioness went to hunt. The calf, dubbed Valentine, was taken first to Lewa Downs, a private game sanctuary near Nanyuki on the slopes of Mount Kenya. But yesterday, the oryx calf was flown by private plane to Nairobi and driven to the Animal Orphanage at the Nairobi National Park.

But that has not deterred the lioness. After the second calf was taken away, she began following a herd of oryx at the game reserve at the 104 square kilometer Samburu Game Reserve, some 343 kilometers (213 miles) northeast of Nairobi.

"We do not know why it has adopted a strange liking for baby oryx. We would like researchers to tell us. Right now it is following a new herd," says Kimani.


A lioness in Samaburu Game Reserve (Photo courtesy Saferide Safaris)
There is worry that the lion may starve to death if it continues to put more time into protecting adopted oryx rather than hunting.

A Kenyan photographer famous for his big cat exploits, Jonathan Scott, says the lioness was foregoing hunting to protect the oryx and was certain to get weaker as a result.

"I have watched this lion ever since, and I have a feeling that she already needs human intervention to sustain her situation," he said. "In fact, her place in the wild is now questionable."

Scott says Kenya Wildlife Service veterinary doctor should examine the lion in order to determine her physical health. "If her behavior does not change, she may need to be moved out of the wild for her own sake", says Scott.

According to Daphne Sheldrick, who runs a world famous program rehabilitating orphaned wildlife in Nairobi, the relationship is strange, "These creatures are simply not compatible, and the situation should be allowed to play itself out until the lioness learns to stop adopting oryx," she said.

The lioness first made headlines in early January, when, to the surprise of Kenya's wildlife experts, she adopted her first oryx calf. For 17 days, she starved while the baby antelope made regular visits to its lactating mother.

At one point, the lioness scared off a family of cheetahs that tried to kill the calf. But inevitably, the oryx was eventually killed by another passing lion.

Before the second calf was taken away, a local tourist hotel manager, Kioko Musyoki said he saw the lioness carry the calf away and also put the calf's head inside its mouth. "The baby just stands there, flapping its ears, while the lioness stands guard over it. It hadn't moved more than five metres from it all day," observed Musyoki.


Samburu Game Reserve is 325 kilometers (201 miles) north of Nairobi. (Photo courtesy Bush Trucker Tours)
Although it is not clear how the second calf and its true mother were separated, wildlife wardens this time mounted a 24 hour guard to make sure no predators took the calf away from its adopted lion mother. "The wardens were kept busy throughout the night, and at one time, they had to scare away a pride of lions that were prowling too close to the sleeping duo," said Kimani.

The Samburu National Park Chief Warden Simon Leirana said they had to save the calf because, "It had become too weak to stand. It had not fed for two days, and plans had already been made to capture and bring the calf's mother closer."

"But when we saw the condition it was in, we decided to take it," Kimani said. "The fact that the lioness had gone hunting was an opportunity we did not want to miss."

Wildlife experts have offered a range of scientific explanations, with most attributing the adoption to unfulfilled maternal instincts.

Belinda Otieno, a wildlife researcher, says that the lioness "may be unable to conceive her own cub, and has taken to satisfying her natural instincts through another species."

But there is still no explanation on why she is so fond of the oryx, nor why she turned to a prey species instead of adopting a lion cub.

Ditte Dahl Lisbjerg, an animal behavior scientist who works with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Nairobi says, "Scientists need more information on the history of the lioness to understand its behavior."

Visitors to the northern Kenya game reserve were at a loss for words when they saw the lioness roaming the expansive jungle in the company of an oryx calf.

"At first it looked like a movie and is one of those stories you have to see to believe," says Kenyan journalist Mugumo Munene.

"The lioness was at times walking watchfully behind the calf, and we witnessed as it frightened off a leopard which had been stalking the calf," said the journalist. "At other times the two could just take a nap and lay together side by side."

Now a team of wildlife experts is in Samburu to begin studies on the unusual lioness while she hunts for another oryx to adopt.