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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Kamunyak, the Blessed One - The Lioness who adopts Oryx calves

Lioness Kamunyak with an
adopted Oryx calf.
This documentary had actually been published a long time ago, dating back as far as 2002. This documentary will serve its purpose to anybody who wish to know more about this unusual lioness.

The unique lioness was named "Kamunyak" or the "Blessed One."  She's the kind of lioness who adopts Oryx calves for some unknown reason. The news was treated with a lot of skepticism since an Oryx is a type of antelope upon which lions would normally prey. Experts were at a loss to explain the big cat's affection towards the calves. But the said lioness has been protecting her adopted young from danger and had allowed them to be nursed by their biological mothers.

Kamunyak resides in Samburu Game Reserve, Kenya.

The Heart of the Lioness

1st Adoption

The first adoption was the longest and became the first documentary of Kamunyak. The lioness had been suppressing her hunger just to guard the Oryx calf from predators. It was said that she had been guarding the Oryx 24 hrs. There was worry that the lioness may starve to death if it continues to put more time into protecting adopted oryx rather than hunting.

A Kenyan photographer famous for his big cat exploits, Jonathan Scott, says the lioness was foregoing hunting to protect the oryx and was certain to get weaker as a result.

"I have watched the lion ever since, and I have a feeling that she already needs human intervention to sustain her situation," he said. "In fact, her place in the wild is now questionable."

Scott says Kenya Wildlife Service veterinary doctor should examine the lioness in order to determine her physical health. "If her behavior does not change, she may need to be moved out of the wild for own sake," says Scott.

According to Daphne Sheldrick, who runs a world famous program rehabilitating orphaned wildlife in Nairobi, the relationship is strange, "These creatures are simply not compatible, and the situation should be allowed to play itself out until the lioness learns to stop adopting oryx," she said.

The lioness first made headlines in early January, when, to the surprise of Kenya's wildlife experts, she adopted her first oryx calf. For 17 days, she starved while the baby antelope made regular visits to its lactating mother.

At one point, the lioness scared off a family of cheetahs that tried to kill the calf. Unfortunately, the union was short lived and the 1st calf's life was snubbed out by a hungry male King Lion while 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.

Kamunyak was devastated, but this did not stop her from adopting another Oryx.

2nd Adoption

On the second adoption, the second adoptee has been taken away from the lioness by wildlife officials.

"It was either that or leave it to die. It was too weak and would not have survived another day without being fed," said senior Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) warden, Julius Kimani, who led the operations. "We will try and return it to its mother but we fear she might reject it," said Kimani.

Although it is not clear how the second calf and its true mother were separated, wildlife wardens this time mounted a 24 hour guard to make sure no predators took the calf away from its adopted lion mother. "The wardens were kept busy throughout the night, and at one time, they had to scare away a pride of lions that were prowling too close to the sleeping duo," said Kimani.

Game wardens tranquilized the frail Beisa oryx calf as it dozed under an acacia tree when the lioness went to hunt. The calf, dubbed Valentine, was taken first to Lewa Downs, a private game sanctuary near Nanyuki on the slopes of Mount Kenya. Later on, the oryx calf was flown by private plane to Nairobi and driven to the Animal Orphanage at the Nairobi National Park.

However, that has not deterred the lioness. After the second calf was taken away, she began following a herd of oryx at the 104 square kilometer Samburu Game Reserve, some 343 kilometers (213 miles) northeast of Nairobi.

"We do not know why it has adopted a strange liking for baby oryx. We would like researchers to tell us. Right now, it is following a new herd," says Kimani.

Before the second calf was taken away, a local tourist hotel manager, Kioko Musyoki said he saw the lioness carry the calf away and also put the calf's head inside its mouth. "The baby just stands there, flapping its ears, while the lioness stands guard over it. It hadn't moved more than five meters from it all day," observed Musyoki.

3rd Adoption

The 3rd adopted oryx was named "Easter," because she adopted it over the Easter weekend.

Her third, managed to stay in good health. Kamunyak repeatedly allowed the calf to return to its natural mother and feed, before taking the calf back into her care.

During the period of this most recent adoption, visitors to the reserve had plenty of opportunities to watch this most unusual natural drama unfold. At one stage, Kamunyak fought and held off a pride of 8 lions who were stalking her adopted offspring.

The relationship ended, however, when she again allowed the calf to return to its mother. The entire herd fled, taking the calf with it. Kamunyak tried to chase them and recover her calf, but failed.

4th Adoption

The fourth adoption was same as with the third. The mother of the oryx was able to rescue the oryx at a later stage.

After Kamunyak's last adoption ended with the calf returning to the herd, it seemed that she lost interest in becoming a surrogate mother, and she stopped following the herds.

5th Adoption

On Monday 7/10/02, Rangers were surprised to find her with her fifth adoptive "cub," a tottering 5 day old Oryx calf, and the story has once again made headlines.

Tourists and journalists were tracking down the unlikely duo, and experts are ascertaining whether she is again allowing the calf to return to its herd to feed.

Kamunyak herself is clearly undisturbed by all of this attention, and is busy playing the role of devoted- if unconventional- parent.

However, the fifth adoption also ended in a failure. The oryx starved to death, and when it was dead, it was eaten up by the lioness (lioness do this when their young ones die).

6th Adoption

The sixth calf manage to escape the lioness and return to its mother. It was reported that there was a battle between Kamunyak and the mother Oryx.


Wildlife experts have offered a range pf scientific explanations, with most attributing the adoption to unfulfilled maternal instincts.

Belinda Otieno, a wildlife researcher, says that the lioness "may be unable to conceive her own cub, and has taken to satisfying her natural instincts through another species."

But there is still no explanation on why she is so fond of the oryx, nor why she turned to a prey species instead of adopting a lion cub.

Ditte Dahl Lisbjerg, an animal behavior scientist who works with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Nairobi says, "Scientists need more information on the history of the lioness to understand its behavior."

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 extraordinary behavior of the female African lion.

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. But now on her 6th adoption, it seems that the lioness actively goes in search of Oryx calves to kidnap.

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.

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.

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.

Kamunyak only adopted Oryx calved. 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 color 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.

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 duration. 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.

Kamunyak's Adoption History

Dec - Jan 2002 1st Adoption: lasted for 16 days – calf was eaten by a male lion prowling near the river where the two drank.

Feb 14, 2002  2nd Adoption: Calf was named "Valentine," it lasted for 2-3 days – calf was rescued by Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS).

Apr 2002 3rd Adoption: Calf was named "Easter," it lasted for 2 days – calf was rescued by its biological mother, and this incident had left the lioness injured.

May 2002 4th Adoption: lasted only for 24 hrs – calf was abandoned by Kamunyak and was rescued by its biological mother at a later stage.

Sept 2002 5th Adoption: lasted for 2 days – calf starved to death, and when dead, it was eaten by the lioness (lions sometimes eat their own cubs when they die).

Jan 2003 6th Adoption: lasted only for 24 hrs. – calf escaped and returned to its mother, shortly after Kamunyak and the mother Oryx fought.

Kamunyak: "The Blessed One"

Her story was recorded by Saba Douglas-Hamilton and her sister, Dudu, between January 2002 - August 2003. Their film, Heart of a Lioness, was first shown on the BBC and later premiered in the United States on Animal Planet in March 2005. Video clips from this film can be accessed on the Discovery Channel website, together with audio interviews with pictures and an extensive discussion.

It is thought that Kamunyak may be around 11 years old now. She was estimated to be about 2 to 3 years old when she adopted her first Oryx calf.

Kamunyak was most often alone. She seemed to move in the same territory as with the 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, she could 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 was last sighted in February 2004, then she eventually disappeared, and despite a number of searches, has not been seen since.

Additional Photos


Alex Newstead said...


Please contact me via our website - you can use the e-mail

We are a press agency with links to the UK national media as well as international press. We are interested in using your video of the lion who adopted a antelope.

I look forward to hearing from you

Alex Newstead

Anthony Yap said...

Thanks for contacting, unfortunately, I don't have license to the video. It was simply recorded from Nat Geo Wild.

I simply use a part of this recorded video for my own documentary.

Furthermore, Kamunyak was nowhere to be found. Her last appearance was on February 2004. This is already an old documentary.

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