Giraffe are definitely one of the iconic animals of Africa. Their unusual looks and inexplicable elegance often fill people with amazement and wonder when they first see one. The name is derived from the Arabic zarāfah which means “fast walker”. In the local Xhosa language, they are called “indlulamithi” which translates to” above the trees”.
The Romans under Julius Cesar brought the giraffe to Europe in 46 BC. They understandably developed a fascination with the animal, thinking that it was a union between a camel and a leopard, they called it a camelopard. It however is not related to the camel. Giraffe are only one of two living animals in the family Giraffidae, the other is the Okapi. The Okapi is endemic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The okapi is an even stranger animal resembling a zebra and giraffe mix! Fossils to date have indicated 10 animals in the family.
As of 2021 genome sequencing suggests four distinct species with and seven subspecies. The elegant giraffe that occurs at Kariega Game Reserve is the Southern African giraffe – a subspecies of the Southern giraffe. They are very tall, around 5.5 meters tall with males taller than females. The males weigh around 1200 kg’s while the females are a delicate 800 kg’s. as you can imagine they need a large heart to pump the blood around the body, around 12 kg’s. The heart beat fluctuates from 90 beats per minute up to an astounding 150 beats per minute under stress – unusual for such a large animal. When they bend down to drink the pressure would be very high, so they have a safety net that stop the blood flow to their brain while drinking. There are vessels that constrict to stop the blood from leaving the brain too rapidly when they lift their heads. They always do a characteristic flick of their head once finished drinking, which is a great time to photograph them!
Other interesting physical characteristics of the graceful giraffe are the long tongue (45cm) that they use to wrap around the leaves that they browse upon. Their tongue lacks the sensitivity and blood supply that we have so they are able to cope with the thorns efficiently. Another interesting use of the tongue is to use it to clear the nasal cavities with their tongue. They also have horns called ossicones that are bone covered by hair and skin. The males have thicker horns as they use them to fight other males with. Over time they lose the hair on top of their ossicals, whilst the females retain their hair due to not engaging in this behaviour. The ossicones has a vascular system so may aid in temperature regulation. Giraffe also have very tight skin around their legs to decrease the blood that will flow into them.
Male giraffe engaging in a practice known as “necking”. This is a whole lot less benign than it sounds, as necking is basically the manner in which male giraffe fight for dominance over another male to promote their chance of mating with receptive females. They will stand next to each other and swing their 30 kg heads at each other. Their heads are at the end of a two meter long 100 kg neck. All of this swung by their 1000 kg bodies (fully grown). The impacts are pretty intense and have been known to knock each other out. Sub-adult males will engage in this behaviour as well though not as intensely as fully grown male giraffe. Males will often strangely “court” each other after the combat is over and are frequently seen to mount each other. Severe fights though can result in serious injuries and even death.
Male giraffe will mate with the female at any stage throughout the year. Gestation is a lengthy affair, at around 14 months. This is due to the calf being almost two meters tall at birth and weighing in at around 65kg’s. The mother gives birth standing up meaning the calf enters the world via an undignified bungee jump. As the calf falls it severs the umbilical cord and hits the ground hard, surely a traumatic way to enter the world! They are standing within 30 minutes as the mother cleans up the new-born calf.