Today was a long day.

The plan was to head out of Porini Lion Camp at around 0615 for a couple of hours before returning for a breakfast and then maybe a walk after that.

We started the day by watching the two big males, Olonyokie and Osupat return from their nightly activities to a warm greeting from their cubs. After taking a few quick photos, we came across a cheetah with cubs who was in the process of setting up a hunt. We backed off a bit and gave her some space but she didn’t seem to be under any pressure and eventually lay down under a tree to sleep. This may have had something to do with the fact that she’d made 3 kills in a single day earlier in the week, so clearly she was a confident cheetah!

We then got word of a lioness that was attempting to bring down a young giraffe. We made our way to ‘the scene’ pausing to congratulate a triumphant Marabou stalk who had managed to hook itself a rather large fish.

Arriving at the river crossing we found an anxious mother on one side, and no baby in sight. However a lioness was visible, lying in the dry riverbed, under the opposite bank.

After initial speculation that the youngster had already met its fate, it transpired that in fact the mother and newborn, fleeing hyenas, had run down from the nearby hill at which point the mother had descended the opposite bank, run across the riverbed and then climbed the other side. The baby, being weak from the running and accidental knocks from mum’s legs while hiding under her belly, couldn’t make it up the bank to join her.

This is where we joined the scene. A bit of a standoff. The pregnant lioness with her eyes on some tender young giraffe flesh had a healthy fear of the adult’s hooves, forcing her to keep her distance.

For the time being, the baby was somewhat safe, albeit stuck in the middle with a bank on one side and a hungry lioness on the other.

This all changed when mama started to walk away. Seizing the opportunity, the lioness dashed in, towards us and out of sight under the bank on our side of the riverbed, where we knew the baby was. Moments later, the lioness emerged, dragging the baby along the ground by her long neck.

On seeing this from her tall vantage point at the end of her own neck, the mother charged down the bank at the lioness, causing the cat to drop the giraffe and make herself scarce.

Alas it appeared too late for the little one who lay in a crumpled heap, blood pouring from its head and not moving. Opinions were conflicting, some of us in the vehicle were certain it was dead while others held out hope for its life. The doubters were proven wrong however, as it began to take a few breaths, its small chest rising and pouring as oxygen made its way back around its bloodstream.

Mum walked away again and the lioness began to move forward to finish the job but on seeing this, she whirled around and charged at the lioness one more time. Suddenly the baby lifted its head, staggered to its feet and stumbled from the dry part of the riverbed into the wetter area, eventually finding itself waist deep in water (walking depth for a baby giraffe but swimming depth for a lion).

Suddenly the baby lifted its head

Blood was pouring into the water in a large enough volume to break the surface and splash and a look through the binoculars revealed that the skull was broken. But still the little one stood. At one point she staggered towards some deadwood and leant against it, dripping blood all the time.

Blood was pouring into the water in a large enough volume to break the surface and splash

A giraffe has to have a strong heart to pump blood all the way up its neck and now that same heart seemed to be its downfall, emptying the small amount of blood it had been born with straight into the river. It seemed like it was only a matter of time.

“15 minutes”, someone said.

From here on, I’ll stick to timestamps.

0909: Giraffe enters the water.
0950: Giraffe leans on wood while bleeding heavily. Mum has disappeared.
0958 Mum suddenly runs back, but doesn’t descend the bank to help her baby.
1001: Giraffe has gained some strength and can stand without leaning on the the wood but mother has disappeared again. The lioness looks on.

1005: Mum comes back. Baby staggers about a bit but doesn’t know what to do.
1017: After standing in one spot, the baby takes its first step. It is looking at us in our vehicle, perhaps uncertain if we are its mother. For the first time, we can see the full extent of its injuries
1112: Baby still standing.
1130: The lioness sits down to watch
1157: Baby moves towards the deeper water, away from the branch.
1230: Youngster getting tired. It’s a lot to go through just minutes or hours after leaving the womb with no chance to suckle and build up energy. It’s falling asleep standing (giraffes can lock their kneecaps but its head keeps on bending down to the water, which then wakes it up as it makes contact with the surface.
1306: It’s getting windy. The baby is swaying about but can’t tell whether it’s wind or fatigue.

1403: It’s pouring with rain and there is a billowing, cold wind. Still standing.
1516: The giraffe has moved into deeper water and is staring at the lioness. The lioness is starting at the giraffe. What an atavistic spectacle to witness.
1542: The lioness has fallen asleep on her back. She is just waiting now.
1600: She has lost her footing several times and gone completely under but come back to the surface. In these winds, she must be absolutely freezing.

1729: She’s gone. Too tired and too sick to stand any more, she simply ran out of energy and drowned.

The bravest baby – born that day –  abandoned by its mother – struggled on for 9 hours  – nature at its starkest.

A big thanks to the team at Porini Lion Camp for waiting with us for the full 11 hours and supplying us with a meal. For the earlier part of this story you can check out the video below from the Latest Sightings Youtube channel.

How come a croc didn’t come and end it quickly?

There hasn’t been much rain and rather than being a proper river this had become just a series of pools in the riverbed. Whilst there are definitely crocs around in the river, there just weren’t any where this all took place. 

Why couldn’t you scare off the lioness

Answer: It’s not our place to interfere and in any case, from the baby giraffe’s point of view, it needed its mum. The real issue wasn’t the presence of the lioness, it was the absence of the mother.

Why wouldn’t the lioness enter the water?

Lions generally don’t like water and although this one considered it, she seemed to think some of the floating hippo poo was a crocodile (backed off and hissed at it!) and didn’t fancy going in. 

Why did the mother leave

It’s hard to say. Maybe this was her first calf and her instincts weren’t quite there. Maybe she feared for her own life. Giraffes are known to be quite poor mothers.

Why couldn’t you rescue it?

Again, it’s not our place to interfere. Sadly a giraffe orphan just isn’t considered ‘rare enough’ to be rescued, especially a common Maasai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchii) at that. If it was a more rare and endangered Rothschild’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi), things may have been different.

Who were you backing?

Tough one. On the other hand I really felt for the giraffe of course but the lioness was pregnant and I would really feel for her if I saw her days later struggling to support her starving cubs. Luckily who I’m backing doesn’t matter and it’s mother nature that has to make the hard choices :).

Why couldn’t the giraffe escape up the opposite bank to the lioness?

Firstly it was too small and too weak. Secondly, the lioness would have just cross the river by the dry section and met the giraffe on the other side.

Why did you decide to stay?

I wanted to see what would happen. In the beginning there was a glimmer of hope for the giraffe. By the end, it was clear the giraffe wouldn’t survive and there was a glimmer of hope that the pregnant lioness would get a meal. In the end, neither happened. I am still shocked by the strength and resilience of this newborn giraffe to stay alive as long as it did.

Watch a film of this event that Latest Sightings made with some of my footage alongside some footage from Don Heineken.