Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Lioness and the Oryx Calf

Today I saw an AMAZING programme on Animal Planet (increasingly, the only channel I watch): an African lioness named Karmaniak (this is what it sounded like) adopted a one-month-old oryx calf in a complete reversal of any previously-witnessed behavior on the part of either lion or oryx. The relationship lasted 16 long days, during which people came from near and far to witness the spectacle -- zoologists were unable to explain the phenom, except to assume that the lioness was traumatized in some way -- she had no pride of her own, and was apparently alone in the world, an unnatural condition for her species. Neither the calf nor she could eat -- the calf had not yet been weaned, and Karmaniak did not like leaving the calf for long enough to hunt for food.

They were both collapsing from starvation when another lion, a male, coolly walked up, grabbed the calf, killed and ate it. Karmaniak watched helplessly from a distance, then went to grieve over the spot of the kill. She was, however, freed to kill some food for herself, so she survived. Subsequently -- and I guess this is the most amazing point -- she went on to adopt another FIVE oryx calves!! One after the other, until finally she herself vanished from sight. Not all the calves suffered a sad fate: one of them returned to its mother, two others escaped quickly and one died of starvation.

The local people believed that the lioness was a manifestation of the divine, a sign from above. The whole incident was for me one more example of something that, in fiction, would be considered entirely and ridiculously improbable.

After watching the programme and discussing it with a friend, I wondered if Karmaniak's behavior could be similar to that of humans who cling to stuffed toys for comfort -- maybe the calf fulfilled the lioness' need to be part of a big friendly clan, surrounded by sisters and aunts and other younger lions. The oryx was a little over a month old, and its coat was a similar colour to Karmaniak's.

The film was made by SABA DOUGLAS-HAMILTON and was aired originally by the BBC, I think. The version I saw was called "The Heart of a Lioness", but the Google link to S.D-Hamilton showed a different name.