Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Grieving Giraffe?

We saw something very strange on obs this past week. One morning, we found our hyenas running in and out of the thicket around a tall female giraffe. Then we realized that she was standing over a juvenile giraffe that was lying on the ground. We couldn’t tell what was wrong with the juvenile, but it was clearly dying. It was sprawled out on its side and every once in a while it would twitch its head and kick its legs out uselessly. We couldn’t see anything visibly wrong with it but we assumed it must have broken something critical or gotten sick. The hyenas circled excitedly at first, but the mother giraffe kept standing over the juvenile, sometimes running at the hyenas until they backed off. Ripkin, one of our youngest subadults, kept sitting down in the bushes next to the juvenile, watching it hungrily.

We stayed for a long time until it became clear that the giraffe wasn’t going anywhere. So we left, planning to come back that evening just in case she was still there.

That night, we made our way back, mostly expecting not to see anything since it had been so long. Instead, as we drove up, we saw the mother giraffe’s head sticking out above the bushes. She was still there guarding her calf, which was still alive, but unable to stand or move much at all. There were lots of hyenas in the bushes, waiting for her to leave. They were just resting patiently, waiting. The giraffe, on the other hand, looked very stressed. She had strings of saliva hanging from her mouth and kept walking away from the juvenile as if she was about to leave, and then running back as though she’d changed her mind. We were surprised that she was still standing guard, especially since her calf was clearly not going to make it, and she was unable to eat much herself while she guarded it.

The next night when we returned, the mother giraffe was still there, but the juvenile was dead and partially eaten. The hyenas were still mostly keeping their distance but something, probably hyenas or a lion, had managed to eat out some of the internal organs. The mother giraffe either hadn’t comprehended that her calf was dead, or didn’t care, because she continued to keep guard over its body, chasing away any hyena that inched too close. However, after two days of vigilance, she was clearly getting tired; it was taking her longer to run back to the carcass every time she swayed away. Every once in a while she would go just far enough that a few of the hyenas would crawl up and start feeding, but then she would run back and chase them away again. We couldn’t understand why she was still expending so much energy and risking starvation for a calf that was clearly dead. We guessed that it might be a grieving response similar to what scientists have observed with elephants, and it makes me wonder whether and how the hyenas might be grieving for their lost clan members after the poisoning event.

By the next morning, there were no signs that there had ever been a giraffe in that clearing at all—not even a bloodstain was left. All we found were two hyenas, Alice and Kyoto, sniffing hopefully at the ground.

1 comment:

Scissors MacGillicutty said...

Very sad, but also very remarkable, especially that the mother still kept watch when the juvenile was obviously dead.
Perhaps this is ghoulish (and I apologize even if it isn't), but I'd be curious to know when the mother giraffe finally abandoned her child. Was it after the predators ate the dead giraffe beyond some point of recognition, maybe the face, or did the mother's own hunger force her to abandon them? Did she go out to finally graze and then return to find nothing or an unrecognizable corpse?
And then there are questions we can never know the answers to: was the child her first? How did it become ill or injured?
I've learned a great deal from this blog, but one of the most significant lessons is really how little we know about the charismatic fauna of Africa.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science