Written by Sophie Brown, photographs by Samuel Cox
The very nature of wildlife means you never know what may be around the corner. This was epitomised during a recent drive on a private game reserve.
It had been a relatively quiet drive when suddenly our guide stopped the vehicle and made a statement I never thought I would have the odds of hearing.
“There’s a giraffe giving birth.”
And sure enough, a brief look to the left showed that very sight.
In amongst the acacias, whilst making sure to be in an open area in order to sight potential predators, stood a lone female. Her waters had broken, amniotic fluid pooled on the ground next to her, the beginnings of legs protruding from her rear, fluid still dripping from its hooves.
With the vehicle positioned in the perfect spot and the engine turned off, we waited with baited breath to see how she would react to our presence.
Fortunately for us she seemed undisturbed and remained calm as we settled into our seats to watch something none of us ever thought we would be privileged enough to see.
Almost an hour passed and we watched as slowly, through intense strains from the mother, the remaining front legs and head emerged, a mucus plug remaining around its nose and mouth, sustaining its precious life during its arrival.
Then, as the neck slipped out and despite her acceptance of our presence, in a typical wildlife manner she retreated behind a termite mound, her giraffe instincts to hide kicking in. At this moment, the rear of the calf emerged and the newborn made its first contact with the earth, its back legs flailing out from behind the termite mound.
As our vehicle was repositioned, our hearts were in our mouths as the calf stayed still on the ground for what felt like an agonising amount of time. In reality, it was perhaps only a couple of minutes but in that moment time stopped.
Then, a back leg kicked out and a tiny head swung up in an attempt to take up a seated position. Everybody breathed out a sigh of relief.
But now came the next agonising wait. We all knew it was crucial that the calf stood as quickly as possible as in its current state it was in the most vulnerable position it would ever be in. Predators would take the opportunity to take down a newborn giraffe should there be any in the area.
Its mother was as aware of this as we were, and she quickly began licking the calf’s face, ears and neck in order to clean the amniotic sack still attached to the young.
She also began eating the placenta. By doing this, the mother removed the smells of the birth, giving the calf the best possible chance of survival in its first hours.
We watched for an hour as the young calf made failed attempt after failed attempt to stand. With each minute that ticked by, the increasing risk of predator attack was forever on our minds. However, with each failure he inched closer to achieving his goal of standing.
Finally, with one mighty push, he staggered forward, rocking on his back legs, forcing his front legs up, standing for the first time in his short life.
Despite spending 15 months in his mother’s womb, developing his muscles, the baby trembled with the effort and energy it took him to maintain his standing position.
The sight was the most endearing sight I have ever seen, emotion filling the space as we all willed the calf to succeed in taking his first steps. As his mother began cleaning the remaining fluid from his body, he tentatively lifted his right hooves, replacing them a little further forward, followed tentatively by the left. He had accomplished his first steps. Pride overwhelmed us all.
At this point, we left the new family to themselves, emotionally drained and adrenaline pumping.
When we stepped into the game drive vehicle as the sun began to rise that morning, we could never have expected to see such a sighting. The odds of seeing such a sight are truly once in a lifetime with many people never being able to claim seeing such an event.
It was an honour to watch as his mother expertly cared for her newborn in his first moments, magical to watch as he finally stood and heartwarming to witness his first steps. However, in the back of our minds was the overwhelming knowledge that he would have to continually defy the odds.
He had made it through his first moments of life but he will still have many obstacles to overcome if he is to beat the 50% chance of seeing his six-month birthday, let alone the course of his journey to fully fledged adult.
By the end of his first day he would be able to run, and within the next few days his mother would likely join a group of females and their young, and as a group they would work together to raise their young, giving them all the best possible chance of survival.
We hope that he will continue to defy the odds.