window spacer


George, the tallest ever giraffe, was sent from Kenya to Chester Zoo, Lancashire, England in 1959 and lived to July 22, 1969. When he was only nine years old, his 'horns' almost grazed the roof of the twenty foot (6.2 m) high Giraffe house. Claims for taller giraffes (up to 23 ft, 7 m) shot in the wild are unsubstantiated. On average, bull giraffes often reach eighteen or nineteen feet (5.5-5.8 m). Although they seem ungainly, in real life they are strikingly lovely animals. People are usually surprised with the imperial grace of its walk and a giraffe at full gallop cannot fail to electrify the onlooker.

Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardis, Twiga) weigh upward of 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg), among the heaviest mammals of the plains. Their closest relative is the rare okapi (Okapia johnstoni). Other relatives include the hippo and pigs, with which it is allied on account of having the same number of toes. Giraffes are long-lived, often reaching twenty-five.

Females are smaller than males but otherwise similar. The coat pattern of the giraffe is netlike patterns of crazy paving defined by narrow, white or cream colored lines which surround squarish chestnut patches that fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Giraffes sport two or three horns, while some subspecies have three to five stubby horns. These are not true horns but tufts of stiff matted hair fused together and covered with skin.

The giraffe is divided into five or six subspecies, based on differences in coat markings and geographical location. Tourists are most familiar with the southern giraffe (G. c. tippelskirchi) that open woodlands of Kenya and Tanzania. The southern African variant (G. c. giraffa) occurs in from Angola across northern Zambia to Mozambique. The reticulated giraffe (G. c. reticulata) inhabits dry areas of Somalia and eastern Sudan. Physically, the subspecies are readily distinguished.

Giraffes inhabit dry thorn-scrub, acacia grasslands, savanna, bush and forest. Key to the giraffe's success as a herbivore is, of course, their height, due to long legs and neck. The neck has seven elongated vertebrae, the same number as humans. Their height allows them to browse on the tops of tall acacia trees and reach shoots and leaves far out of reach from other browsers.

Tallness also helps giraffes spot predators from a great distance and the animals are rarely caught by lions. They have excellent eyesight for this purpose. Think of the giraffe as a sort of early warning system of the savanna because other animals will often respond to a startled giraffe, knowing it can spot danger well before they can. Not only can they detect danger efficiently, giraffes can also run for long distances at a good speed and if threatened will kick vigorously with their long, powerful legs.

The main problem caused by the long neck is when the animal needs to drink. When a thirsty giraffe must splay its front legs wide and lower its head to drink at a water-hole, it is highly vulnerable. Judging from the way it scans the landscape before drinking, a giraffe is acutely conscious of its danger. They occasionally lie down but always keep their heads in the air.

Herds of giraffe comprise up to 40 individuals, mostly females and calves with a half dozen or so bulls. Bachelor herds comprise mostly large males, although they may be joined by a few adolescents.

In a competition for females, males fight by curling their necks around each other and butting with the horns. Male and female giraffes form pair bonds by the most literal 'necking' in nature. A pair literally entwine their necks in spirals prior to the consummation of their courting. They are gentle creatures. Males use scent to detect when a female is ready to mate, but among giraffes a bull tests a cow's receptiveness by tasting her urine without drinking. After mating, the fetus gestates for fifteen months before birth.

The cows leave their young in creches while going to feed, and the calves remain in the creche for four or five months, until they're quick enough to escape casual predators. After this time they accompany their mothers for feeding. Survivorship of calves is as low as 25%, i.e., about three-quarters of the young die before maturity. Major predators include lions, leopards, hyenas and people. Close to water, crocodiles take inexperienced young coming to drink.

Giraffes feed on over 100 plant species, but the main tree is the tall, flat-topped acacia (in the family Leguminosae). In areas where giraffe are common, trees re browsed to the bases of their branches. Many acacias have long thorns but these seem not to deter the giraffes. Their long tongue wraps around branches, coating them in sticky saliva, and then strips the leaves.

Giraffe populations are fragmenting due to loss of habitat, and some poaching. The main problem is competition with rural farmers who graze cattle and goats in the same habitat. Most populations are now found only in protected areas, and although not endangered as a species, some of the regional variants are increasingly vulnerable.


Top of page

back to the giraffe photos

Click for the giraffe photos baby giraffe photo


Back to African animals

© Jungle Photos 2000-2014

window spacer