Ministry of Tourism Licence No. MTL/3/1634


Ecotourism Kenya

Ecotourism Kenya





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Animal Magnetism


When something similar happens on an arid plain in Kenya, it grabs attention, too. Here, rather than human and pig, the species involved are lion - just to remind everyone, a lion is a large, predatory cat which stalks, attacks, slays and feasts on the still-warm body of its prey - and oryx, a kind of antelope, which normally ends up the victim in the predator-prey relationship. The question is this: how many people think that the lion is suffering from serious mental illness, and how many, soaked from the cradle in a Disneyfied miasma of stories of animals loving and helping each other across species boundaries, drunk on cartoon fantasies of Bambi and the Lion King and Mowgli dancing with that loveable lunk Balou the bear, how many think: hey, predator-prey love - that's the way to go?

The story of Larsens the lioness and her strung-out litter of baby oryxes began last Christmas in Kenya's Samburu national park when wardens saw that the big cat had picked up a small, hoofed, herbivorous companion, and was mothering it. The relationship lasted just long enough for the story to blaze through the newsrooms of the world before a male lion came along and ate oryx number one. The male was described in the western media as having a more "traditional" diet than Larsens, as if the lioness was blazing a trail towards some kind of liberated, vegetarian modernity among lions.

Oryx number two was adopted on St Valentine's day. The calf failed to thrive on lion's milk and was removed to a place of safety by wardens for fear it would die of hunger.

On the eve of Good Friday, Larsens confirmed her status as a serial adopter by picking up baby oryx number three. The animal is still with her, although judging by its experiences over the past few days, it must be traumatised. After dark on Easter Monday, Larsens showed that she had a traditional diet after all by jumping on and tearing to pieces an eranuk, a kind of gazelle, which had been unwise enough to graze nearby. After stuffing herself with bloody hunks of meat, Larsens snuggled back up to her adoptee as if nothing had happened. Yesterday, the oryx's real mother dared to come close enough to Larsens for her baby to join her and suckle. Larsens gave chase: as Simon Leirana, the chief warden at Samburu described it, mother oryx and child ran for three kilometres, with the lioness in pursuit, before Larsens was able to separate them and regain custody of the little antelope. Oprah, eat your heart out.

The oryx is common throughout Northern Kenya, a large browsing antelope with distinctive long pointed horns. Lions in Samburu prey on Oryx, often ambushing them in the thick riverine bush around the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro. Newborn calves are particular vulnerable, as they are easily separated form the herd and killed.

As pictures began to appear, the Reserve Warden, Rangers and naturalists were baffled. The lioness had separated the calf from the herd, and seemingly adopted the young animal as her own cub. For the next 15 days, visitors to the reserve watched in disbelief as the unlikely pair roamed through the bush at the foot of the beautiful Koitogor Hills.

The lioness, later named Kamuniak (Blessed One) by Rangers, spent her days protecting the calf, chasing off hyenas, jackals and other predators. She treated the calf as she would a lion cub, lying in the grass with the young oryx at her side.

Incredibly, she allowed the calf to return to its mother to take milk, before again taking the infant into her care.

Guests at nearby Safari Lodges and Camps returned with unbelievable photos and video of this miraculous relationship, as their guides struggled to explain what they had seen.

The most common explanation was that the lion had mistaken the tawny coloured calf for a juvenile lion during a hunt, and was acting through misguided maternal instincts.

"The park's game viewing activities have become more garnished by this," says Herman Mwasagua, manager of the $250-a-night Serena Lodge in Samburu. "When anybody comes here, they say: 'We hear there's this lioness with an oryx...'"

Most of the park's regular clientele, he says, are realists when it comes to nature. They expect to see animals tearing each other pieces. In fact, they want to put it on DVD. But there is a strange, significant minority who are troubled by carnivorousness in the flesh. "The majority like to see a kill. They appreciate it. But there's a percentage who close their eyes and say: 'It's cruel.' But it's the rule of the jungle. It's a prey and predator relationship. It's natural."

The story took a new twist as a male lion began following the pair, tracking the calf. Experts were unsure whether the lion regarded the oryx as prey or as the lioness' cub. Either way, the calf was in great danger, as a male lion will always kill the cubs of a lone lioness straying into his territory. The lion was larger and more powerful than the lioness, and she was unable to protect the calf. Inevitably nature took its course, bringing the unique relationship to an end.

The story was dismissed as a freak occurrence, albeit an unusual and touching story that would become a source of local legend.

Then, just two weeks later on Valentine's Day, the story took a new incredible turn. After the death of the calf, Kamuniak began tracking and following herds of oryx. She finally managed to ambush an oryx cow and separate her from her calf.

As witnesses watched in disbelief, the miraculous "once in a lifetime" events began to repeat themselves, as the lioness protectively led the calf into the bush.

She continued to care for and protect the calf for several days. Perhaps having learnt from her previous experience, she appeared to be avoiding contact with other lions. Unlike the other calf, this young oryx was completely separated from its mother, and began starving. Even Kamuniak herself was unable to hunt as she remained standing watch over her adopted "cub".

For visitors to Samburu, this has been a unique opportunity to witness one of nature's miracles first hand. The Samburu Game Reserve is a beautiful tract of pure wilderness in Northern Kenya. Homeland of the Samburu people, this is an area of stunning beauty, where the waters of Ewaso Nyiro River bring life to an arid landscape populated to large herds of big game.

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