Heart of a Lioness

Expert feedback on Kamunyak’s story:


Heart of a Lioness


Letters from experts commenting on Kamunyak’s story:

Letter from Lion Expert Dr. Craig Packer,  Distinguished McKnight Univeristy Professsor of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour, University of Minnesota.

“My best guess is that she is just a subadult and subadults can get into some pretty weird routines (some become obsessed with tyres and start chewing on every LandRover they see; others get obsessed with canvas tents and like to twang the guy ropes) — but they eventually outgrow it.  I’d bet that she gives this up by the time she’s 3.5 – 4 yrs old.  Presumably she did go beyond the calf-as-toy syndrome — so it seems ok to say that her behavior became maternal.  But it is still important to me that she was (and is) still just a youngster; she’s like a big kid who’s grown too attached to her dolly.  If the oryx are seasonal breeders, I’d guess she’ll have outgrown this by next year, but if there is a steady trickle of calves, I would strongly urge that she be kept under continuous surveillance and be watched during the night next time.  I would guess for sure that she’ll stop this when she has her first litter!  Thanks again for keeping me up on this story; please let me know what happens next!!”

some months later

“… After watching the videos, I can’t help but wonder if she is severely depressed.  I don’t usually think of animals as being depressed, but I have seen mother chimps and baboons that are obviously depressed after the death of their infants — and they carry around the stinking little carcass for a few days.  But this usually passes after a week at the most. The reason I say this about your lion is that she is so obsessive-compulsive in looking after the oryx calf.  If she was to be that attentive to her own cubs, they would starve, too.  If it was me, and no one had any emotional stake in this animal as some sort of miracle, I would be tempted to talk to a vet who knew something about depression in domestic cats… it would make this a very interesting clinical study if she was viewed as mentally ill, and someone found an effective treatment.

By the way, I suddenly recalled a story I heard many years ago (in the 1970s) about a hippo that rescued an impala from a crocodile and then tried to give the impala mouth-to-mouth resuscitation….  This was filmed and people swore it was in the BBC archives some where — that would certainly make a nice addition!!”

Dr. Craig Packer,
Distinguished McKnight Univeristy Professsor of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour, University of Minnesota.

“I’m very glad that you watched the Miracle Lioness tape and am most interested in your comments.  Yes the footage is of her with the first calf only.  Since then she’s adopted another 5 oryx calves but none of the adoptions lasted longer than 2-3 days max.  Towards the end they rarely lasted 24 hours, and she would abandon them in the night.

We don’t really know anything about Kamunyak’s history. It’s the normal thing of hearsay – anyone who sees a single lioness thinks it’s her!  It’s possible that she was born in 1999/2000, and may be an ex-member of a pride of seven (Koitogor pride) who live in the same area.  Certainly, that is where we have always found her.  We’ve seen her with a male lion once, the day after the first oryx was killed, but we’ve never seen her in friendly association with other lions.   A reliable report in February 2003 saw her being chased off by the Koitogor pride – quite an aggressive encounter making it clear that she was not welcome in their territory.  They chased her across the river and into the territory of a neighbouring pride.  A year previously she was sighted looking badly roughed up – we assumed from a lion attack.  But most of the time in between adoptions she’s gone MIA.  This is largely because no-one really knows how to identify her, but local guides think that she was one of 3 cubs born in 1999/2000.

We’ve been looking for her solidly for the last 8 months searching the length and breadth of her previous territory, and have not come across her  – my guess is that post-rains she followed the prey when they dispersed.  Also thick vegetation has made it very difficult to spot lions when they’re lying down.

We are hoping that we’ll find her pregnant or with cubs.  Finding her at all and the termination of this strange behaviour would be a great relief to all of us, her included.

I am most interested that you think she’s depressed, and this is a feeling you picked up whilst the oryx was still alive… do you think this is a result of her isolation?  It struck me that her enforced solitude (being ousted from a pride for whatever reason) would have exacerbated her obsession with the calf.  Under normal circumstances – being a social cat within a pride – she would be restrained by lion social “etiquette”.   Firstly, her pride mates would eat the baby – but also there would be a norm – a sounding board, adults, siblings and pride males who would cuff her back into line.   It made me think of the delinquent elephants in Pilansberg, cull orphans, who rampaged around killing rhino.  The problem was neatly solved by the introduction of an adult bull whose musth domination stopped the delinquency overnight.

IF we find her, we’re discussing the possibility with Laurence Frank of radio collaring her.   I’m most intrigued to see what on earth she’s doing in between the oryx-love-sessions.

“The connection with the fact of her being solitary would again be suggestive of depression.  I have studied a number of solitaries in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, and it is a miserable life for them.  They can be very jumpy since they are extremely vulnerable to attack by larger groups of neighbors.  It is certainly a logical possibility that your lioness is also suffering somewhat from a lack of social molding, as you suggest, but on the other hand there are plenty of solitary cat species who never get that kind of molding. I think that it is possible that she lost her companions in a particularly nasty or unexpected way, so she could have been very depressed by the time she showed up in Samburu.  Whether she had a traumatic life-story or not, she sounds like she’s been getting somewhat better lately — only keeping the calves for short periods.  The most interesting thing now will be to see what happens when she finally gives birth.  I hope you do manage to put a collar on her; she is certainly a fascinating individual.  More mental than miracle, but interesting nonetheless!”

Letter from Lion Expert Dr. Laurence Frank, Director Laikipia Predator Project, Mpala Research Centre.  University of Berkeley, CA

“I am afraid that I have no real insights into what was going on.  My first assumption, which you largely deflated, was that she had just lost her own  litter and was transferring her maternal needs onto the first available baby.  I still wonder if she could have had a very late miscarriage, or lost a newborn litter, so that there was no sign of suckling?   I am not sure to what degree  pregnancy causes the nipples to enlarge before a female nurses cubs; they do in hyenas, but I am not sure about lions.   In any event, it does seem that she was in a highly maternal state, possibly through some sort of hormonal dysfunction involving oxytocin and/or prolactin.   However, I would have thought that those would induce something like lactation (although in the absence of suckling, nipple development might not occur).  I had never heard tales of lions looking after human children, but those suggest that this is not unprecedented behavior (on the other hand, a number of cultures, particularly India,  have wolf-children stories that have never been verified with any sort of evidence).

And later

“Unfortunately, we have not yet written anything up on the Laikipia lion population, though a paper is in the works.  The Kalahari work has not been published yet, either.  What we see here is that most groups are comprised of 1-3 females and young, without permanent male companions.  The males seem to move among these female groups.

This pattern – super-prides of semi social lions who spend long periods alone – has been described for a trophy hunted population in Zambia, where it was thought to be an aberration due to loss of pride males.  However, as this pattern begins to crop up elsewhere, some of us are beginning to think that it may be the Serengeti lions that are unusual, in forming prides large enough to be worth males’ constant attention.  I think that, although we know a great deal about Serengeti ecology generally, it is a mistake to see Serengeti as the “true” Africa against which everything else is measured.  It has been very well-studied, because it is relatively easy to work there compared to bush country, but the very openness and abundant ungulates that make it easy to work in also make it rather unique, and perhaps far from ideal for some species.  The inability of wild dogs to survive there, the very poor reproductive performance of cheetahs compared to bush land, are other examples of this.”

Letter from Oryx Expert Dr. Mark Stanley Price

Thanks so much for getting in touch.  The whole incident with the oryx and lion is certainy bizarre. I’ve read carefuly all you sent, which added quite a bit of detail to what I had already heard/seen.  Some points:

1/    why was the lioness alone anyway?  Do we know for sure that she was young?  Had she ever bred herself?  Even though you say that she had been asociating with a sister, it begs the questions (1) why did the sister push off while the other was with
the oryx, and (2) why were two female lionesses on their own?

2/    I agree entirely that the calf could not have survive beyond a few days without suckling; thus, it must have been returning to its herd and mother

3/    the photo shows the calf with erupted horns: it happens very young in oryx, but I would not think they are evident at less than 3 weeks old

4/    in the Mara in the 70’s I saw and photographed a similar situaton: a fully adult, full-maned lion was resting under a tree, with a topi calf of similar age lying draped over his paws; the latter was sitting up and looking alert and not in the least afraid!  I assumed that the calf had probably become separated from mother rather than the latter had been eaten but who knows, I guess

5/    I suspect that a calf of this size is not normally seen as prey by a lion if conditions are reasonably good: I would not say the same for a leopard which will eat a beast of any size it can handle.

6/    I am very struck by the similarity in colouring of the calves (both oryx and topi) to a lion, in a way that the adults are different (obviously the calves are cryptic like lions need to be).  I do wonder whether the colouration does not lend itself to lions making such mistakes or alliances.  It might well be that if a calf survives its first 24 hours with a young pre-breeding lioness, then there is a fairly firm bonding,

7/    Overall, I think there is something odd about the behaviour of both calf and liones.  It is easier to understand how the calf might have been imprinted on the lioness but realised that its mother produced milk.  The behaviour of the lioness is harder to understand –  but she is the one still alive.  I think it would be well worth keeping an eye on the lioness, and seeing whom she associates with, how and what she hunts, and her future reproductive record and success.  On the other hand, doing this might yield no insights!

Not sure if any of this helps.  It may be just one of Africa’s continuing mysteries, which we are fortunate to see but can never understand!
Date: Wed Jan 23, 2002  10:33:11  AM Etc/GMT
Subject: RE: “A Strange Fable” 19 Jan 2002

In regard to the story/photograph of the lioness which ‘adopted’ a young
‘oryx’ (Jan 19th), a similar story appears at pages 224-230 of The
African Safari by P. Jay Fetner, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1987. A
sequence of photographs appears in which a young gazelle, disoriented
and separated from its mother, approaches a lioness. The lioness, which
had recently eaten, treated the gazelle as she might have treated a cub
– even carrying it about by the nape of the neck. When the gazelle ran
off, the lioness knocked its legs out from under it but cushioned its
fall with her paw. The story ended when a group of tourists drove the
lioness off and ‘rescued’ the gazelle. Fetner does not locate the
incident specifically, but from the context it was probably in the Masai
Mara in Kenya.

Ed Couzens
University of Natal
South Africa

4 thoughts on “Heart of a Lioness

  1. I am an Early Childhood Education and Care worker and am extremely interested in what we might be able to learn from the animal kingdom (yes, as we are in fact a part of) in terms of child rearing and meeting our mammalian needs. I am currently reading up on Bowlby’s theory of attachment and the attachment system and behaviours in mammals .. needing to be part of a group (or ‘family’, ‘pride’, ‘herd’ etc). I am wondering if – under the influence of the mammalian brain – being separated from a ‘family’ triggered the lone lionesses instinct to ‘bond with’ another mammal and try to recreate her own ‘sense of pride’. I’d love to hear from someone who is conversant both with the psyche of mammals such as lions and mammals such as humans!!

    • Yes I’m sure that played a role. She was very young and solitary. We think her family might have been poisoned by herders. Her attachment to the oryx was likely triggered by her need for her pride and her immaturity.

  2. Hi there – I am just wondering what happened to Kamunyak – is she still alive? Has she perhaps found a pride to join or had her own cubs yet? Is she still in fact managed to keep alive. It is such a bitter sweet story and I really think it was something in her makeup of being alone and no pride support. Poor girl, I hope she has coped.

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