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Lion Adopts 6 Oryx Calves: In Lion Country Kenya

Wonders in the world come in all shape and sizes. In Kenya, East Africa on December 2002, the world woke up to the most unimaginable news.

The Blessed Lioness among African Lions
A 2-3 year old lioness ‘Kamunyak’ had adopted a Fledgling young Oryx calf. The news was treated with a lot of skepticism since an Oryx is a type of antelope upon which lions usually prey. Experts were at a loss to explain the big cat's affection towards the calves. The lioness, nicknamed Kamunyak, or The Blessed One, by locals, had protected her adopted young from danger and had allowed them to nurse from their biological mothers.

The Hungry Lion King
According to wildlife experts in Kenya, believe the lioness might have been unable to conceive her own cub and had ''unfulfilled maternal instincts. "Unfortunately the union was short lived and the 1st calf’s life was snubbed out by a hungry male King Lion. This happened when Kamunyak had gone to drink water from a river. The African Lion is known for being overly aggressive of cubs/calves sired by other males… let alone one from an Oryx.

Lioness adoption history
Three years have passed and astonishingly Kamunyak, (the lioness’ Samburu name), had in total adopted six Oryx calves. The sequence of her adoptions are as follows:
• Dec - Jan 2002 1st Adoption: 16 days – calf eaten by male lion;
• Feb 2002 2nd Adoption: 2-3 days – calf rescued by Kenya Wildlife Service(KWS);
• Apr 2002 3rd Adoption: 2 days – calf rescued by mother, lioness injured;
• May 2002 4th Adoption: 24 hrs – calf abandoned, rescued by mother;
• Sept 2002 5th Adoption: 2 days – calf starves to death, and when dead is eaten by the lioness (lions sometimes eat their own cubs when they die).
• Jan 2003 6th Adoption: 24 hours – calf escapes back to its mother, shortly after there were reports of a battle between Kamunyak and other females.

Lioness age
It is thought that Kamunyak may be around 7 years old now. She was estimated to be about 2 to 3 years old when she adopted her first Oryx calf, so she was still an adolescent. Kamunyak was most often alone. She seemed to move in the same territory as a pride of 7 lions, which is in the heart of Samburu National Reserve, and is possibly one of the better feeding grounds for Samburu African lions. When she adopted Oryx calves she moved in a very small area and when she was alone she sometimes disappeared for months. She has not been seen since February 2004. If she shares the same territory as the pride of 7 African Lions, could she possibly have had a history with the pride in whose territory she resided?.
It is believed that in the past Kamunyak had a sister. However her solitary life could be a result of being kicked out of a pride. Perhaps her pride became too large and sub-groups split off to form new lion prides. Perhaps she was cast out as a single lioness and had to fend for herself, in between warring territorial prides, as a vagrant nomadic female, eking out an existence on the periphery.

Kamunyak had been seen hunting warthogs and other small prey. During the first adoption when she remained with the Oryx for 16 days, she kept a 24 hour vigil over the Oryx. Despite being very thin and hungry, when she caught sight of prey she refused to let the Oryx out of her sight.

In February 2003 she was seen in a big fight with two females who are thought to come from the same territory. She was skulking around the edge of a giraffe carcass that the pride of 7 lions had been feeding on. There are several theories that have been proposed to explain this extra ordinary behavior of the female African lion.

1) The question has been raised whether this could have begun on a hunt with an unusually long game of cat and mouse, where after 24 hours she bonded with the calf. Sub-adults have been known to play with mongooses and other small species over a short period of time. However three weeks suggests that the cat and mouse game turned into something else. However, now on her 6th adoption, it seems that the lioness actively goes in search of Oryx calves to kidnap.

2) The Samburu people suggested Kamunyak is barren. However this seems unlikely considering that her body is responding to an overactive maternal drive. Plus she was so young and it is very difficult to tell whether a female is barren.

3) She could have a serious hormonal imbalance, which is triggering this abnormal behavior with another species. There have been records of lioness with huge cysts on their ovaries that affect their behavior, but perhaps not to this degree.

4) According to a scientist who has studied elephant reproduction, phantom pregnancies are quite common in feline species. It could be compared to domestic dogs that have phantom pregnancies and start lactating. If a lioness’ rank affects their endocrinology perhaps a phantom pregnancy is a possible explanation.

5) Kamunyak only adopted Oryx calves. Like all cats, lions have acute vision primed especially to pick up on movement. But they do not seem to be very good at individual recognition from a distance, and rely primarily on their sense of smell at close quarters to identify one another. Oryx calves are remarkably similar in colour to the tawny coat of an African lion, and it is possible that once the lioness had locked onto the smell of “cub” in the calf then it’s lack of a feline physique ceased to matter.

6) The park rangers suggested that she found the calf shortly after it was born and the smell of the amniotic sack on the calf’s body triggered some kind of maternal response.

The fact is that we will never really be sure by in the middle of the Kenyan game reserve, a young female African Lion decided to start adopting Oryx calves. And not just one, but six different calves at different days and for increasingly longer durations. Sometimes even to her expense as she could not effectively hunt so as to keep guard; a fact that emaciated her to a point of near death.

Where to see the cast Today
Samburu, one of the calves rescued by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) was taken to an orphanage in Nairobi. The Oryx is now a fully grown male. In September 2006 he had a fight with another orphaned antelope and one of his long horns broke. The KWS were quick to administer veterinary aid and he is now fine but will have to do with a single horn. The operation on the wound was recorded on tape as most of his life in the orphanage probably for visitor education on their Kenyan tour. He has continually attracted a lot of tourists in the Nairobi National Park –Orphanage on their Kenyan Tour. He continues in good health. Kamunyak, the Lioness has not been seen for over 2 years now and all we can guess is that she got her groove back.

Kenya Tour

The Nairobi National park is the only park within a city in Africa and possibly the world over. It is extremely popular with business and holiday visitors on their Kenyan tour or safari vacation. Getting there can be arranged from your transfer hotel in Nairobi before or after your interior Kenyan safari.

Samburu National Park is to the 400km North East of Nairobi and is usually included in wildlife safari itineraries over 3 days long. Accommodation in the reserve is available as tented camps, safari lodges and ground camping. You might just be lucky enough to meet Kamunyak. To plan your own self-made safari vacation, visit

About the Author: Robert is a tour consultant in Kenya and has planned business and vacation safaris for over 10,000 tourists in the East African region. He is a tour operation- major and involved in National tourism policy development in Kenya.

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