| Giraffes are popular among safari-goers, and like many other large African mammals,
it's unmistakeable. No other land mammal is this high or has a neck or legs this long.
The markings are special to giraffes, too.
Species and subspecies
The giraffes all over Africa have been believed to belong to one single species, with
a number of different subspecies mainly differing in markings and patterns. Modern research
indicates that this may not be correct; some of the 'subspecies' may be full species
(which, for example, don't breed with other species).
Masai giraffe, reticulated giraffe and Rothschild giraffe.
Three subspecies/species, mainly differing in markings, are found in East
Africa. The Masai giraffe is most widespread, found from central Kenya
southwards throughout Tanzania. This is the giraffe you
may see in for example Masai
Mara or Serengeti.
The reticulated giraffe is found in northern and eastern Kenya, for example in Samburu
and Shaba. It has more clearly defined markings and a redder tint to its colour.
In central Kenya, reticulated giraffes and Masai giraffes are said to hybridize.
The Rothschild giraffe, sometimes called Baringo giraffe, is found in small populations
in the far west, in areas visited by few tourists. In an effort to conserve this subspecies/species,
a small group of Rothschild giraffes was translocated to Lake
Nakuru National Park in the 1970's. Today, the park
has a stable population of these giraffes.
A number of other giraffe subspecies/species are found in other parts of Africa.
Groups of giraffes
Female giraffes live in loosely connected and temporary groups, where members keep joining
and leaving. Such groups are often seen spread over feeding areas. Its members don't
interact much, but benefit from being a group, which means better protection against
Dominant males patrol and defend the core areas of their home ranges, on the lookout
for females. Thus, males are always on the move, and spend most of their lives as solitaries,
other than when following a female about to come in heat.
The long neck
Like other mammals, the giraffe has seven cervical, or neck, vertebrae. The neck is
supported by strong muscles, attached to the enlarged thoracic, or chest, vertebrae
seen as a hump on its back. Elastic blood vessels and pressure-reducing valves are necessary
adaptions to maintain a stable blood pressure.
The reason for having such a long neck was originally thought to be to reach higher
for food than other browsers. The neck is unnecessarily long for that reason, though.
A more recent explanation is that a long and strong neck on a male is an advantage when
fighting other males for determining dominance. When fighting, males wrestle their necks,
and also try to hit each other, using their heads as clubs. Only dominant males get
mating opportunities, and even though the fights may not look very rough, they may end
in broken skull bones or broken necks.
A good lookout
The giraffe's most developed sense is its eyesight. From it's elevated position, it
has a very good lookout over its surroundings. Antelopes and zebras may benefit from
this by following the giraffe, as it may detect danger early. It also has good hearing,
but not so good sense of smell.
The marking pattern of each giraffe is unique, and is kept unchanged throughout its
life. The colours may darken with age, though.
The giraffe is a ruminating browser. It focuses on high quality and high nutrition browse,
such as fresh shoots, flowers, seeds and fruits, and needs only half as much food (in
relation to body weight) as other and typical browsers. An adult bull may eat up to
65 kg/140 lb of fresh food per day, a cow up to 58 kg/125 lb. The bull spends 45 %
of its time feeding, the cow 55 %. A giraffe has an almost 50 cm/20 in long tongue,
using it to pick leaves and shoots from thorny twigs. If browsing is poor, the giraffe
may resort to eating grass, which it usually does laying on the ground.
During rainy seasons, when food is ample, giraffes may be spread over vast areas. When
the dry season comes, they congregate in areas where quality food is available, for
example along rivers, where fresh leaves and shoots are found all year round.
The giraffe may go a number of days without drinking, but prefers drinking regularly
and may travel far for water. To reach the surface to drink, it spreads its front legs
wide while bending forward. In this position, it is much more vulnerable to predators
The giraffe has fewer enemies than most herbivores,
but is not all safe. A pride of lions may kill an adult giraffe, often going for solitary
animals. A giraffe is no easy prey, though, as it may kill a lion by kicking it using
its front legs.
The calves, 175 cm/70 in hight and weighing 75 kg/165 lb when born, are more vulnerable
to predators. They grow quickly, doubling in height during their first year, but may
be killed by hyaenas, leopards and African wild dogs during their first three or four
months. Older calves may be hunted by lions.
Humans hunt giraffes for meat, and some African tribes use the tail hair for ornaments.
Unlike the other very large herbivores elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and
buffalos giraffes are not aggressive to humans, other than possibly to defend
Giraffes on safaris
Like most African mammals, giraffes are mainly found in protected areas, such as national
parks and reserves, but are fairly common and may be seen in all parks on popular safari
routes in Kenya and Tanzania.
In Tanzania, the giraffes seen are Masai Giraffes. When travelling the classic Kenyan
route SamburuLake NakuruMasai
Mara, you may see all three East African subspecies/species; reticulated giraffe
in Samburu, Rothschild giraffe in Lake Nakuru and Masai giraffe in Masai Mara.