The very nature of wildlife means you never know what may be around the corner. In my work as a wildlife photographer, nothing has epitomised this more than the seemingly quiet drive in which my guide suddenly stopped the vehicle and uttered simply “There’s a giraffe giving birth”.
This sighting was a few years ago now but it is one that is ingrained in my memory – I vividly remember every sound, sight and movement. For in amongst the acacias, stood a lone female. Her waters had broken, amniotic fluid pooled on the ground next to her, the legs beginning to protrude from her rear, fluid still dripped from its hooves. I held my breath as the vehicle was positioned, the engine turned off and we waited with baited breath to see how she would react to our presence. She remained calm and we settled into our seats to watch something I never thought I would be privileged enough to see.
Almost an hour passed and I 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 instinct to hide kicking in. At this moment, the rear of the calf emerged and the new born made its first contact with the earth, it’s back legs flailing out from behind the termite mound.
As the vehicle was repositioned, my heart was in my mouth 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. I let out the sharp intake of breath I didn’t even realise I was holding.
But now came the next agonising wait. It was crucial the calf stood as quickly as possible as in its current state, it was in the most vulnerable position it would ever be in. Any predators in the area would grab the opportunity to take down a new born giraffe. Its mother was as aware of this as I was, 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.
For an hour 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 my mind. 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 l 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. The sense of pride was overwhelming.
At this point, the new family to themselves. I was emotionally drained and my adrenaline was pumping. Stepping onto the game viewer as the sun began to rise that morning, I could never have imagined 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 new born in his first moments, magical to watch as he finally stood and heart-warming to witness his first steps. However, in the back if my mind was the overwhelming knowledge that he would have to continually defy the odds. He had made it through the first moments of life but there would be many obstacles to overcome if he was to beat the 50% chance he had of seeing his six-month birthday, let alone the course of his journey to fully fledged adult. With already six of the nine subspecies of giraffe classed as ‘critically endangered’, ‘endangered’ or ‘vulnerable’ every new birth of this iconic species is vital to its future survival.
I can only hope he continued to defy the odds.
Text written by Sophie Brown. Photographs by Samuel Cox.