Lions cling to giraffe's back in risky attack

In this rare video, lions hitch a ride to a large male giraffe, leading to a five-hour standoff.

THE SCENE IS strikingly reminiscent of children playfully hitching a ride on a grown-up’s body. One lion clambers onto the giraffe’s back, while two others wrap themselves around his legs. The giraffe, seeming little fazed, tromps through the brush.

In reality, the footage taken in Klaserie Game Reserve near South Africa’s Kruger National Park depicts an attack, a pride of lions teaming up to take down an adult male giraffe. Francois Pienaar, a safari guide who filmed the video, calls it the best sighting of his career and says the whole incident lasted five hours.

Guests on safari in South Africa were surprised to see a lion jump on the back of the adult giraffe—with her kin joining in.

The clingy method of attack is fairly standard for lions, David O’Connor, a researcher at the Institute for Conservation Research at the San Diego Zoo, says by email. Lions commonly attack prey by first going for the hind legs, then for the backs, and then the jugular. But with giraffes, especially ones standing upright, lions have to skip the final step: Their long necks make the jugular a “no go,” says O’Connor, hence the awkward stalemate we see in the video.

Successfully killing an adult giraffe, therefore, means getting it to the ground.

To do this lions will typically try to trip an adult giraffe as it gallops or will climb atop it as a group to try to push it down with sheer weight, according to Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, a big cat conservation nonprofit. “It looks like this lioness [on the giraffe’s back] is hoping for the latter but a lone lioness will not succeed alone. It might have paid off if her pride mates had helped.”

While lions usually go for younger giraffes, it’s not unusual to attack an adult, Julian Fennessy, director of the nonprofit Giraffe Conservation Foundation, says in an email. What is unusual, both Fennessy and O’Connor say, is the lion pride sticking with it for five hours. There is no shortage of easier prey in Kruger and “an adult male giraffe can kill them easily with one kick,” says O’Connor.

The marathon event “shows amazing perseverance,” Fennessey says.

That perseverance ultimately didn’t pay off for the lions. The giraffe shook them off his body after about five minutes and continued to keep them at bay for the next few hours by trying to stomp them each time they approached, reports Pienaar, the videographer. O’Connor and Fennessy aren’t surprised the giraffe prevailed.

“The old bull would have been around the block before [with lions] so he obviously learned a trick or two,” says Fennessy. “One to the prey this time!”

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