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South African Giraffe @ Western Shores - iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Photo: Håvard Rosenlund

Giraffe

Giraffe - Giraffa camelopardalis - Distribution mapThe giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) is the worlds tallest land animal, with heights up to 5-6 m (16-20 ft). An average male giraffe can weigh 1,200 kg (2,640 lb) and a female 830 kg (1826 lb). They are easily recognized by having long necks reaching up to 2 m (6ft 7 in) in length. This allows the giraffe to forage on treetops and taller branches few other animals can reach. They also have good eyesight, and a sharp sense of hearing and smell. Their coat differs between subspecies in different geographical regions, but all giraffes have some form of big brown blotches on a light background. The darkness of the pattern can differ, and dark brown to almost black blotches are most often found in older males in some subspecies. Some giraffes are also unusually pale, which is a genetic trait for absence of pigment, and is not albinism.

Feeding and drinking

When feeding, giraffes will use their up to 50 cm (20 in) long and dark blue tongue, as well their prehensile upper lip. The combination of the two makes it a lot easier for the giraffe to grab and get foliage off thorny branches. Both tongue and lip, as well as the inside of their mouth, is covered in papillae that protects them from becoming damaged by the sharp acacia thorns. When drinking, a giraffe is at its most vulnerable, and will not drink until it deems it absolutely safe. It is most often done when in larger groups or with other vigilant species close by. To drink it will have to move into an awkward position, with both front legs spread out to the sides as it lowers its head and neck to reach the water. Special valves in the jugular veins of the neck keep too much blood from getting to its head when drinking.

Social behaviour and reproduction

Giraffes live social lives in groups with no set structure. You get female groups with young, male groups and mixed groups. The dynamic of a group might change at all times, with individuals from either sex joining or dispersing. Males have a tendency to become less social as they get older. Older males are generally more dominant, and will mate with the most females. Here is a video of two South African giraffes mating, notice how much darker the male is.

After a gestation period of 400-600 days a single calf will be born. Twins are very rare, but it does happen. A new-born giraffe is already 1.8 m (6 ft) tall. It is very vulnerable at this stage, but will learn to stand, walk, and even run, within hours with the help from its mother. Females with calves often group together for more protection. Sometimes females temporarily leave their young with another female, this is called a “calving pool”, while they forage or drink. A mother will protect its calf fiercely and will try to kick any predators that come too close. The time calves stay with their mother varies, but sometimes they stay until the mother is ready for her next calf. A female giraffe will reach sexual maturity at four years, and males at four to five years. Average lifespan is 20-25 years in the wild, and up to 28 in captivity.

Necking

Male giraffes fight over dominance and mating rights in something called necking. When doing this, they will swing their neck at their opponent with force, trying to inflict damage using their horns. A telltale sign between adult males and females is the presence or absence of hairs on top of the horns, as males loose their hair and go “bald” after continued fighting, whereas females do not. Male giraffes fighting can be quite violent, and the looser can sometimes come out of the fight severely injured. In some instances it can even end with death. Here’s a video of a less severe fight between two younger males:

Status

Giraffe as one species is currently listed as least concern on the IUCN Red List. Giraffes are common in many African reserves, but they are declining in numbers, mostly because of habitat destruction, and it is extinct in many areas of its previous range. It is considered a protected species throughout most of its range, and it is believed to be downgraded to a threatened species after a new assessment is done in 2016.

Subspecies

There are nine recognized subspecies of giraffe and a few are more endangered than others. These nine are:

Reticulated giraffe (G. c. reticulata) is probably the giraffe with the most recognizably different coat, with big polygonal reddish-brown patches separated by thin white lines. It is also called netted giraffe, as the pattern can resemble a net. It is found in northern Kenya and southern Somalia and Ethiopia. It is decreasing in numbers, with 4,700 thought to remain, but is not formally addressed as anything but least concern.

Masai giraffe (G. c. tippelskirchi) is the common East African subspecies found in southern Kenya and throughout Tanzania. 37,000 are believed to live in the wild.

Angolan giraffe (G. c. angolensis) is, despite its name, probably extinct in Angola, but is found in Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, where it is fairly common still with 15, 000 individuals.

Thornicroft’s giraffe (G. c. thornicrofti) is only found in the Luanwga Valley in eastern Zambia. Only around 550 remain in the wild, but it is not yet listed on the IUCN red list. The population is, however, deemed stable and viable.

South African giraffe (G. c. giraffa) is the giraffe subspecies found in South Africa, as well as southern Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. 17, 000 is believed to roam free in the wild.

Kordofan giraffe (G. c. antiquorum) is a subspecies found in Central Africa, with countries such as Cameroon, Chad, DR Congo and Central African Republic housing the species. Less than 2,000 might still remain in the wild.

The are three endangered subspecies, although only two are listed as such on the IUCN Red List:

Rothchild’s giraffe (G. c. rothschildi), is the first of these, and is found in parts of Uganda and Kenya with less than 1,100 individuals.

Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis) is found in south-eastern South Sudan and south-western Ethiopia. It is rare, with possibly less than 650 individuals left. It is not currently assessed and listed on the red list.

West African giraffe (G. c. peralta), used to be found from Nigeria to Senegal, but is now only found in Niger. It is the lightest of all subspecies and only around 400 remain in the wild, making it the most endangered subspecies.

Here’s a map showing the distribution of all giraffe subspeces (courtesy of Giraffe Conservation Foundation):

Gallery

How you can help

Here is a few projects and organizations you can support to help save the giraffe and its endangered subspecies:

Giraffeconservationfoundation

Giraffe Conservation Fundation
Mission: To secure a future for all giraffe populations and (sub)species in the wild.

giraffealliance

Giraffe Conservation Alliance
Mission: Committed to making sure that giraffes roam across the African savanna for generations to come.

Giraffe Research & Conservation Trust
Mission: To carry out essential research on giraffe populations in the wild with a view to developing long-term conservation programmes.

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