African Lion-Oryx Friendship a Jungle Surprise

By Jennifer Wanjiru

NAIROBI, Kenya, January 15, 2002 (ENS) - The story of a lioness that adopted a baby oryx in the northern Kenya's Samburu Wildlife Sanctuary and protected it for 15 days before another lion ate it, continues to perplex wildlife scientists.

An oryx is an antelope with long, straight horns, normally prey for lions. A week after the protected baby oryx was eaten, scientists are still questioning how such an unusual relationship could ever have been formed.

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An oryx in Samburu Wildlife Sanctuary (Photos courtesy John Sullivan)
"A full explanation to the odd couple is unlikely to ever be revealed, as scientists should need more information on the history of the lioness and the young oryx," says Ditte Lisbjerg, an animal behavior scientist who works with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Nairobi.

Visitors to the Samburu Game Reserve were at first lost for words when they saw the lioness roaming the expansive jungle in the company of a Beisa oryx calf.

A team of journalists dispatched to the reserve to document the drama captured it on video and film.

"It is one of those stories you have to see to believe. It looked like a movie," says Mugumo Munene, the Kenyan journalist who broke the story.

"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," says Munene.

On the sixteenth day of their friendship, as the lioness was taking water, another lion that had been stalking the calf snatched it and took off.

"It was the end of an incredible eighth wonder of the world," says Herman Mwasaghua, an employee of nearby Serena Tourist lodge, and one of the first people to spot the unusual pair.

Kenyan scientists are unable to explain what could have happened to enable the two animals to strike up a relationship, stepping out of their species dictated roles as predator and prey.

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Lioness in Samburu Wildlife Sanctuary
"It is understandable, or rather human, to see the alliance of the lioness and the oryx calf as friendship, but there is certainly no room for friendship of this sort in the wildness. Never," says Lisbjerg.

"A partial explanation to the phenomenon could be that the oryx calf never fled the lioness. Thus her hunting behavior was never initialized. Under some circumstances, the predator needs the prey to flee, before the hunting instincts, chase and kill, are evoked," says Lisberg.

"And because this did not happen there is a possibility that the lion started treating the oryx as a friend," says Richard Maingi, a postgraduate student at Moi University's Wildlife Conservation Unit.

Kenyan nature expert Vincent Kapeen has another explanation. "I think the lioness spared the calf after its mother fled because all animals have a special instinct to care for the young. Perhaps it is because the baby oryx has the same brown color as a lion cub, but what is baffling is why the relationship lasted for so long."

Before the other lion finally waylaid it, Samburu County Council game rangers ruled out separating the two, preferring to let nature take its course.

"Everyone wanted to see how far that relationship would go," says Elid Sanapaei, a game ranger.

While lions are carnivores and commonly prey on browsers like antelopes, water bucks and zebras in this reserve, oryxes are herbivores that spend most of their time dodging predators like leopards and lions.

"When they first met, the two looked starved, but eventually they started going on with their separate feeding habits. The lion would kill and eat as the oryx lay around or browsed," says Sanapaei.

"We followed the pair for two days and saw the lioness lie down to rest in the hot afternoon sun and the oryx curl up casually beside it," said journalist Munene.

Certainly, it was a jungle surprise.