What started out as a happy event last month with the release in the Damhoek Conservancy, on the slopes of the Magaliesberg, of two graceful female giraffe, one of whom was accompanied by a lovely little long eye-lashed two week old baby, ended sadly when the little one, who had failed to keep up with her mum passed away - notwithstanding the best efforts of caring humans.
Already very far gone when she was found by Rob Adams, lying alone and dehydrated on one of the conservancy roads, the baby was successfully resuscitated by Ryan Jeffries, a vet who is clued up on game handling, via numerous intravenous drips and tubes inserted down her throat directly into her stomach. With help and advice streaming in from all sides, Rob Adam, Neil Morrison, Doc Pretorius, Ryan Jeffries, Cliff Sanders and Margo, to name but a few - Elsabé and I endured a crash course on how to hand-rear a two week old giraffe. With everyone lending a hand we were, over-optimistically, confident that she would live.
Having survived the first night in a makeshift boma, we were all elated to find her, not only on her feet the next morning, but pretty feisty when we slowly approached her in an effort to coerce the little waif into suckling rich fresh cow's milk from the teat on a milk bottle. Stamping her front feet, she gave a brave display of mock aggression, when all the time she must have been terrified of these strange creatures, who had no way of communicating their loving attention to her.
With no other solution, it was once again a battle to physically restrain her and feed her through the tube with the six to eight litres of milk that she needed per day to survive. Having been told that she should have some form of company, we added two sheep to the boma, and to show that she heartily disapproved of these domestic intruders, she chased them off (as the photos on the Conservancy web site show), with that stiff legged front leg kick that giraffe are famous for - and considering that she already weighed almost a hundred kilos - no-one could blame the sheep for fleeing.
Almost as if she began to realise that we were desperately trying to help her, she commenced on day three to tentatively suckle the teat of the milk bottle that was offered to her. Our hopes rose, only to be dashed the next morning, when we found that her stomach had rejected the fresh cow's milk and that diarrhoea had forced her back into a dehydrated state. Despite trying to revive her with more drips and intubated electrolytes she gave up the battle and slowly slipped away, dying with her little head cradled in Elsabé's tearful lap the following morning. In keeping with our commitment to nature, we sadly drove her up to the mountain top and left her to return to the earth as nourishment for the winged and clawed scavengers that form part of the cycle of life and death in the African bush.
Two weeks later, our mourning for our little short-lived friend was alleviated somewhat by a call from the wing of our family who had gone off to Australia and still live there. We had told them our story, and their young daughter had repeated it in front of her class to her classmates in Melbourne. The teacher, having obviously never been exposed to anything more exciting than a clinging Koala bear, summarily decided that the story was nothing more than a "tall tale and obviously untrue!" - berating our young niece for lying! This schoolmistress will soon be confronted with the photographs that accompany this article and will have to humbly apologise for misbelieving her young student.
Man often does the wrong thing when intervening in the natural cycle, but at the same time, it is difficult to walk away from a young creature in distress. What we did learn from this experience is that replacing a natural mother when dealing with a wild and free creature is far more complex than nurturing an orphaned domestic lamb or calf. Nature can be as cruel as it is beautiful, but we must continue to embrace it in all its facets. It is nevertheless difficult to walk away and allow nature to take its course when confronted by a small and helpless abandoned wild animal.
I suppose that we can rationalise that our action in trying to save such a life is also part of nature, for it is in the nature of decent people to show kindness and compassion to helpless creatures. If we were to encounter the same or a similar happenstance, it is unlikely that we would react differently, knowing full well that out chances of success are slim but that there is always hope and that we have learned much in the interim from our sad encounter.