ALONE and frightened, a gangly calf wanders on a forlorn journey to find its missing mother – and straight into the powerful clutches of a prowling lion.
What happens next has become a wildlife wonder. The African savannah’s most powerful hunter turns into a gentle, doting pussycat.
And ready to fight with its life to protect its “adopoted’ offspring from rival big cats. Footage of the incredible encounter between the king of the beasts and its favourite prey has amazed animal lovers the world over.
Over four dramatic minutes, a running camera shows how the powerful lion first hunts down the wandering wildebeest calf and then, once in its clutches, displays amazing tenderness.
As the calf bleats, the lion, most probably a young male, nuzzles the youngster’s head, puts a huge paw on its shoulders but resists any urge to kill.
It does happen, but it’s quite unusual
Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick
Even when the lion open its powerful jaws and gently mouths the calf, not once does it clasp them shut with what would be deadly force.
The gangly calf walked nervously through the savannah
When a rival lioness appears on the scene, the big cat turns protector, putting its own life at risk to save the baby antelope.
What happens when the film stops running has become something of mystery, with commentators arguing over the reasons why such an unusual bond across natural boundaries was forged, and what eventually happened to the calf.
A lion begins to chase the startled calf
Theories put forward include the lion was simply keeping the calf as food, having earlier killed its mother, to more optimistic hopes that the youngster survived the encounter. Surprisingly, such acts of unlikely altruism in the world of lions is not unknown.
Photographer Adri De Visser shot amazing footage of a lioness with a baby gazelle in 2012 that went on to become an internet classic.
Once the lion catches the calf however they just play fight for a few minutes
lion pushing its head against
A ferocious predator turns into a doting pussycat
He was filming a lion hunt in Uganda when the lioness appeared to “adopt” the orphan calf of a mother antelope she had just killed and eaten.
A decade before, African newspapers celebrated the story of a lioness who took on the role of a “great aunt” to three oryx calves in Kenya’s Samburu National Park.
Another lion approaches and tries to attack the calf
In one case, the lioness would allow the calf’s mother to feed her offspring several minutes a day before resuming her guardian duties.
It was the way that the “adoptions” had all taken place on significant dates – Christmas Day, Valentine’s Day and Good Friday – that intrigued the local press.
The calf was protected by the befriended lion from certain death
The lioness was said to have been “fiercely protective” of her adopted oryx calve and was said to be stricken with grief when one of them was eaten by a male lion.
At the time, conservationist Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick told the BBC: “It does happen, but it’s quite unusual. Lions, like all the other species, including human beings, have this kind of feelings for babies.”