The giraffe is the world’s tallest land animal and heaviest ruminant, standing up to 19 ft tall and tipping the scales at 300 stone. A bizarre and unmistakable browser with a blotched black-on-fawn coat, it boasts several adaptations that enable it to feed on treetop foliage. These include thin stilted legs, a greatly elongated neck, a disproportionately small head, and a muscular 18-inch tongue it uses to grasp leaves. Incredibly, while a giraffe’s neck accounts for 45% of its height, it comprises only seven vertebrae (as is the case with all other mammals), each of which is almost one foot long.
Where to see Giraffe in Africa
Giraffes are common and conspicuous residents in most of Africa’s more popular safari destinations. There are a handful of exceptions, notably Queen Elizabeth National Park (Uganda), Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania), Lower Zambezi (Zambia), Mana Pools (Zimbabwe) and the portion of Selous (Tanzania) south of the Rufiji River.
Did you know?
- The giraffe’s scientific name, Giraffa camelopardalis, comes from the ancient Greeks’ belief that it looked like a camel wearing a leopard’s coat.
- A giraffe has an average of 200 spots.
- The patterns on a giraffe are totally unique – no two giraffes are ever the same!
- A giraffe’s tongue is blue-back to protect it from sunburn in hot climates
Giraffe numbers have been in steady decline for decades, particularly outside of conservation areas, where they are increasingly rare. The continental population has plummeted from more than 150,000 in 1980 to fewer than 100,000 in 2016, when the IUCN revised the giraffe’s conservation status from Least Concern to Vulnerable. Furthermore, certain subspecies that might yet be recognized as full species are at greater risk than this blanket assessment suggests. These include the Kordofan giraffe (west-central Africa), Nubian giraffe (South Sudan and western Ethiopia), reticulated giraffe (northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia) and Rothschild’s giraffe (western Kenya and Uganda), all of which are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered.
Giraffes are generally quite peaceful and spend most of their day striding gracefully through the open savanna feeding on Acacia, Commiphora and Terminalia leaves and twigs. Males periodically engage in necking, a peculiar form of jousting wherein two individuals will clobber each other’s necks repeatedly to establish dominance. Necking is usually fairly low-key and ritualized, but where neither participant is prepared to concede submission, it can escalate into a violent bout in which the loser might be knocked unconscious or killed.
Giraffes are somewhat clumsy runners, but deceptively nippy, attaining a speed of up to 30 mph. They also look very awkward when they drink, a maneuver that requires them to spread their legs wide apart before they lower their head to the water’s surface. Giraffes were once thought to be mute, but it turns out that they do emit the occasional grunt or bleat – and further communication probably occurs at frequencies inaudible to human ears.
Giraffes generally live in loosely-affiliated non-territorial groups of up to 15 animals, members of which often disperse and might be seen singly or in smaller subgroups. In some areas, notably Murchison Falls National Park and Selous Game Reserve, larger groups comprising up to 50 giraffes are quite common.
African Fund for Endangered Wildlife – https://www.giraffecentre.org
Giraffe Conservation Foundation – https://giraffeconservation.org
Giraffe Alliance – http://www.giraffealliance.org
World Giraffe Foundation – http://www.worldgiraffefoundation.org
African Wildlife Foundation – https://www.awf.org/country/kenya