On January 7, 2003, a spectacular friendship was forged between a lioness called Kamunyak and a baby oryx in Samburu National Reserve. In a radical departure from its instincts, Kamunyak protected the little calf for 15 days since its birth.

Ordinarily, Kamunyak, which means blessed one in Maa, would have killed the oryx for a meal. Instead, she escorted it around the wildlife reserve, keeping her close and distant relatives away!

The tale of a top predator making an alliance with a herbivore that is its traditional prey, defied all logic and quickly spread. Tourists, villagers, journalists and scientists flocked Samburu National Reserve to witness this anomaly for themselves. Their interest, how such an odd friendship was forged.

This is how a Nation reporter recorded the extraordinary tale:

In a radical departure from its instincts, the lioness protected the little calf, which it would ordinarily have killed for a meal, escorting it around the Samburu wildlife reserve.

Truckloads of tourists kept following the pair as they strolled around the foot of Koitogor Hills, near the Serena Samburu Lodge. Alongside game workers, the tourists watched daily in disbelief as the lioness and the frail brown calf wandered the range, side by side and lay down to rest together, with all the intimacy of a mother and her cub.

Had the lioness adopted the oryx as her own? What powerful drive overrode all her instincts to kill? No definitive scientific explanation has been offered to date for the strange friendship which lasted for an amazing 15 days before the law of the jungle reigned supreme and sadly an older lion from another pride killed the calf.

Death came suddenly when the odd couple strayed into the territory of another lion, which spotted easy prey. The predator pounced as the lioness turned her back to drink from the Uaso Nyiro river. That was the evening of Sunday.

It was an unusual lapse of care on the lioness’s part. For the time they were together, she had successfully warded off all dangers to the frail little calf, including threats from a pride of cheetahs, by walking watchfully behind it as it would with its own cubs. The lioness is said to have taken over the calf after frightening off its mother at birth.

The two animals have sharply contrasting habits. Lions are voracious carnivores and commonly prey on browsers like antelopes, waterbucks and zebras. The oryx, on the other hand, is a gentle herbivore, which survives on grass and leaves, and spends much of its time dodging predators such as big cats, mainly by its speed, although the adults are also adept at defending themselves with their long sword-like horns.

The lioness sleeps for up to 16 hours a day and is active for only 8, while the oryx spends 65% of its time browsing. Lions rely largely on their sight while oryx survive by their sharp sense of smell, which deepened the mystery of how the two had been communicating in the wild.

Samburu rangers had ruled out separating them, preferring to let nature take its course, but like everyone else, they crossed their fingers in the hope that the mysterious relationship would last.

Wildlife experts say that lions – moving in 2s or 3s – will normally mark out a territory by fighting off the weaker males. They will then subdue the females within the territory by killing all the cubs from previous mates so the females would come on heat, providing an opportunity for them to sire their own as the natural way of ensuring their own perpetuation.

Samburu Serena nature expert Vincent Kapeen said there was a high possibility that the killer lion could have killed the calf while mistaking it for a rival’s cub but then realised that it was actually a meal.

Later an animal expert explained the relationship thus:

Like many other predators, the lion has a complex behaviour pattern when hunting. During the hunt, cats execute a series of behaviours such as: stalking, where the cat sneaks up on its prey; chase, when the predator runs at high speed to catch the prey; catch, depending on the size of prey, different techniques are deployed but all of them resulting in the prey being knocked off its stand, neutralised.

The last behaviour is the kill: Lions often suffocate their prey by biting and closing the windpipe or using “the kiss of death” where the lion bites the muzzle of the prey so the animal cannot breathe.

This series of behaviour is the core of a cat’s hunting behaviour. However, under some circumstances, there is a key factor in the hunting behaviour that lies on the part of the prey, which is fleeing. Depending on the situation, the predator needs the prey to flee, before the hunting instincts – chase and kill – are evoked.

A full explanation to the “odd couple” is unlikely to ever be revealed, as scientists should need more information on the history of the lioness and the young oryx, although it is known that Kamunyak had adopted 5 oryxes before! Nevertheless, a partial explanation for the phenomenon could be that the oryx calf never fled the lioness. Thus her hunting behaviour was never initialised.

The explanation, on behalf of the oryx, is to be found in the behavioural patterns of the species. The oryx is a social herbivore in some places in East Africa living in herds of up to 200 individuals.

The glue in a group lifestyle like this is, of course, the herd instinct. This instinct is even stronger in young animals. They will, for protection, always follow their mother around.

Therefore, in the “odd couple” case, the young calf was following its basic instincts and thus following the only animal in the vicinity left to follow, the lioness. In other words, the unusual constellation was a behavioural dead end – a checkmate, if you will.

It is understandable, or rather human, to see the alliance of the lioness and the oryx calf as friendship. Even to view it as an unusual act of humanism among animals, as the lioness seemed to have adopted the orphaned oryx calf.

However, there is no room for friendships of this sort in the wild. Remarkably, on every account, it is nonetheless, that the alliance lasted a whole 15 days. It is ironic too, that the calf would likely have been killed by the male lion, even if it had been a lion cub. That is the way of Mother Nature.

Like the tragic epic of Romeo and Juliet, Kamunyak also suffered greatly in this union, starving most of the time since the calves she adopted could not act like lion cubs and wait somewhere while she hunted for food, so she was forced to keep vigil. It has been a while since she was seen – in fact, the last time she was sighted was in February 2004. Several searches for her have since yielded no result.