She knows this part of the world like the back of her hand.
Nicole Panos (25), a qualified field guide, works at Bhejane Nature Training and serves as student support for those learning to become field guides.
She and her children live not far from her parents at Kuleni Game Park, near Hluhluwe, KwaZulu-Natal, and they regularly walk the 200m (656.16 feets) (656.16 feet s) (656.16 feet) stretch through the sand forest to the main house and office.
That afternoon she breastfeeds her daughter and falls asleep with both her kids in her arms. She is woken by a message notification reminding her of an appointment with a student at the office.
She takes a selfie of her and the kids little does she know it will be the last picture she ever takes of the three of them.
It’s a perfect day for a walk not too hot as it can often get around here.
She gets Kayden (3) and Kaia (16 months) dressed and tells them they’re going to see their grandparents, Dylan and Christa.
Nicole sets off, carrying Kaia on her hip with little Kayden beside her.
Right before they reach the office, Nicole notices a pair of giraffes. The bull doesn’t seem particularly interested, but the cow is watching them and Nicole instinctively checks to see if the cow has a calf with her.
Earlier, she’d spotted a giraffe with a baby, and although she can’t see a calf, she knows to keep a safe distance. The animal turns away and Nicole presumes it has lost interest and then the nightmare begins.
She looks over her shoulder and sees the 4m-tall giraffe come charging at them, bearing down on her and Kaia.
Nicole shouts at Kayden to run away as fast as he can. Then she tries to scare off the giraffe, screaming No! and finally, Help!
The giraffe kicks her in the back and she falls headfirst into the sand with Kaia in her arms, helpless as the giraffe kicks and stomps her over and over again.
She loses consciousness briefly, but comes to in time to see the animal heading for her son. The little boy drops to the sand and curls into a ball, but the giraffe keeps heading towards him and proceeds to trample him.
Nicole can’t do anything— bones in her face, arms, legs and back are broken. Kaia is silent in her arms. Then she passes out again.
Only later, in the hospital, the full horror of what’s happened emerges: her son, cushioned by the soft sand, miraculously survived. But her baby girl didn’t make it.
Two weeks later, YOU meets some of the Panos family members in a hotel in Umhlanga, close to the hospital where Nicole is being treated. Dylan, Christa and Kairan, Nicole’s 17-year-old brother, talk about their struggle to process the day that changed their lives.
Jason Coetzer (27), Nicole’s partner and the father of her kids, is here too. He’s been working on a mealie farm in Mississippi in the US, building up a nest egg for his family. He tried to call Nicole as usual on the morning of the attack, but someone else answered and told him something terrible had happened.
“I just sat there in the field,” he says, sobbing. He made immediate plans to come home and now holds his little boy close, too distraught to speak.
Kairan was the first to arrive at the scene of the attack. “I was sweeping the deck at my parents’ house when I heard Nicole’s screams,” he says. I grabbed the broom and ran towards them, but the giraffe didn’t flinch. I ran back into the house and got my mom’s gun. I fired two warning shots into the ground, but that didn’t scare her either. It was only after I fired five shots in the air that she ran off into the forest.
Christa and her sister, Lize, also rushed to the scene. “I thought my child was dead,” says Christa, bursting into tears.
Nicole, talking to YOU via WhatsApp from her hospital bed, says when she regained consciousness the second time, she saw her mom holding Kaia. “I could hear that she was breathing loudly, she recalls. I didn’t see Kayden, but I was glad Kaia was breathing and that my mom had her.”
Kairan recalls hearing little Kayden crying. “It was a relief,” he says. I knew he was okay. An ambulance was called, but Nicole was so badly injured she was flown by emergency helicopter to Netcare Umhlanga.
Lize rushed Kaia to the nearest clinic and Kayden was taken to hospital in Richards Bay before being transferred to the same hospital as his mom. The little boy, who sustained bruises and an injury to one hand, was in hospital for a week before being discharged. But for Kaia, it was too late.
Dylan recalls how he was on his way from an appointment when he was called to go to the clinic where Lize had taken the baby. When I arrived, the police were there. I still wondered why I was in total denial. But when he saw his granddaughter’s little body wrapped in a towel, his legs gave way.
Nicole has had two operations but she has no feeling in her legs and a long road lies ahead. Kaia’s body has been cremated, but the family has placed the memorial service on hold until Nicole has been discharged. Nicole believes the life lessons she learnt from having Kaia will help her with her grief.
“I birthed Kaia unassisted and unmedicated and surrendering trust to my body and my baby in that process was the most powerful thing Ive ever done,” she tells YOU. “It made me realise our bodies are on our side and that its inherent intelligence is something important to realise and have a relationship with. Kaia taught me to really trust that process of surrendering and knowing that powerful things will unfold because of that trust. Her birth made me step into that and embody that and that’s influenced the way I lived and viewed life since. I trust the process. Whatever it may be.”
Dylan, who also works in training at the park, can’t stop wondering why the giraffe attacked. This area is not giraffe world and the park is also too small for the number of giraffes they do have. “I’ve told [park management] this for a long time. Just because there are a lot of trees doesn’t mean those are trees giraffes eat. Just last year, a calf died after its mother didn’t produce enough milk. It’s possible the cow [that attacked Nicole] was stressed because of a lack of nutrition during the winter.”
Brian Ring, chairperson of the board of trustees at Kuleni Game Park where the nature-guide school is based, says they don’t know which of the five giraffes in the park attacked Nicole. “Our giraffes are in good condition. They’re healthy and they’ve been in this park for over 20 years. All the game parks around here, everybody’s got giraffes. It’s possible the calf of the cow was hiding in the bushes when the mother attacked Nicole,” he adds. “If that were the case, she would’ve been aggressive. Giraffes are extremely protective of their young.”
Produced in association with Magazine Features ZA.
Edited by Arnab Nandy and Newsdesk Manager