19 November 2008

Lioness mothering antelopes


A few years ago I followed the story of a lioness, apparently childless or cubless, who kept adopting baby antelopes. I was fascinated. On the surface, the story is cute, but unfortunately doesn't end well, which isn't really surprising. What it does show is this lioness's drive to mother.

In 2002 on a game reserve in Kenya, a lioness adopted an oryx calf. Usually lions eat oryx calves. But this lioness protected the calf from other predators and lay down with it, the calf apparently "curled up under the belly of its adoptive mother". I remember thinking when I first read about it, oh, it was an orphan. But, no. The lioness "chased away the oryx's natural mother". When I realized that, I thought, uh-oh. Because not matter how good its intentions, I just don't think a lioness is as well equipped to mother a baby oryx as a mother oryx is, even if the lioness sometimes allowed the calf to nurse before reasserting her relationship.

Said relationship lasted a fortnight before a lion stalked the pair, killed the calf while the lioness was sleeping, and then ate it. The lioness was apparently very angry and "went around the lion about 10 times roaring".

Three months later she was on her third adoption. The second adoption failed because the oryx (and the lioness who did not hunt during this time) was becoming malnourished and the wardens removed the calf from the lioness and placed it in a zoo. The third adoption was a 3-day old calf. The poor calf's mother kept hovering around trying to presumably reach her baby while the lioness was fiercely protective of the calf, not letting humans near them.

Well, the lioness became a tourist attraction, which must have been a bit intrusive for her and the calf, being surrounded by vans and tourists. They even named her Kamuniak, meaning "blessed one".

By the fifth adoption, one animal behaviorist describes the lioness as having a mental disorder. After rescuing three of the oryx calves from the lioness, the wardens decided to let nature take its course. So the fifth adopted calf died of starvation. Clearly the lioness had figured out how to protect her "babies" from other lions—she didn't hunt while in mother-mode—but not how to feed them.

After the fifth calf starved, the lioness…well, she ate it. And there doesn't seem to have been more adoptions since. At least they didn't reach the international news. Perhaps that put an end to her adoptions. She hasn't been seen since 2004.

There is a wikipedia page for Kamuniak. There are also some video clips of the dysfunctional relationships. It's an unusual story, I think. Some people hold it up as heartwarming, but I actually find it more sad than anything. I mean, what a life for the calf! There is some suggestion that the lioness did not have a pride and this may have played a role in her adoptions.

Jorrie Spencer
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