The okapi Okapia johnstoni of the tropical forests of Africa, which has a neck of intermediate length between that of a modern giraffe and the antelopes, diverged from the giraffe lineage 11,5 million years ago. It shares 19,4 per cent of its 3,3 billion protein gene base pairs with the 2,9 billion pairs of the giraffe. It is speculated that the long neck and mottled coat of the giraffe developed in response to a need to feed at higher levels when most of the forests that once covered Africa, were replaced by the savannas. It is interesting that African folklore mirrors the same speculation. According to this folklore, the long neck of the giraffe is regarded as a gift by a traditional healer to the original short-necked giraffe, enabling it to reach the lush, green leaves of tall trees after a terrible drought had dried up the grasses and rivers.
The giraffe was originally described as a deer Cervus camelopardalis by the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in 1758, based on a specimen from the Sudan. The genus Giraffa was created by the French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson in 1762, but the Cape giraffe was still described as Camelopardalis giraffa by the German naturalist Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber in 1776.
There is a dispute about the taxonomy of the living giraffes. In a phylogenetic revision in 2011, the name Giraffa camelopardalis is reserved for the Nubian or Rothschild’s giraffe, one of eight species, with the Cape giraffe now representing Giraffa giraffa. Another study in 2016 found that Giraffa giraffa is one of four species. However, if these new species were invalid, the Cape giraffe would represent the subspecies Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa.
The name Giraffa is believed to be based on its name zarāfa in an Arabic dialect of possible Somali origin. The name camelopardalis is Latin for “a camel that is marked like a leopard”.
The tallest known giraffe of 5,88 m was collected in East Africa. The adult bull of a Cape giraffe has a mean shoulder height of 4,4 m and a mean mass of 830 kg, but the cow is smaller and weighs less. The coat colour consists of irregularly shaped, darker patches that are divided by a network of off-white, yellowish-white or white bands. The dark patches vary in colour and darken with age. These patches cover complex blood vessel systems and large sweat glands for heat regulation. There is a short mane on the neck and a prehensile upper lip.
The neck can be up to 2,4 m long and the elongated seven vertebrae have ball-and-socket joints to improve the animal’s movement. The mean blood pressure is 185 mm mercury, as opposed to 95 mm in most other terrestrial mammals. The giraffe’s heart forms 2,3 per cent of the body weight, as opposed to 0,5 per cent in other mammals. Valves in the blood vessels prevent a giraffe from fainting when it lowers or raises its head. The “horns” of a giraffe are bony appendages formed from ossified cartilage. They are covered with skin and are smaller in a cow than in a bull. The horns of a cow have a tuft of hair on top, while those of the bull become bald with age because they are damaged when fighting with the head.
Giraffes cannot pant and they also regulate heat by the evaporation of water from the mucous membranes in the nose.
The giraffe historically occurred in all the savannas of Africa, at one time including Morocco and parts of the Sahara Dessert, but its distribution has now become patchy and discontinuous. Diseases such as rinderpest have been the cause of local disappearances. In South Africa it is doubtful that the giraffe occurred historically south of the Komati River in KwaZulu-Natal, but its presence in the vicinity of the Orange River in the Northern Cape Province was already documented by explorers such as Mollbergen in 1663, Le Vaillant in 1796, and Lichtenstein in 1812.
The giraffe inhabits a range of woodland and scrub regions, including arid, open parts, but it does not occur in forests where its height would create difficulty in moving. The Angolan giraffe is found in the Pro-Namib Desert region.
Diet and water
The giraffe is a concentrate selector, with 98 per cent of the diet being browse, but it occasionally does feed on sprouting grasses, wild fruits and flowers. Under extreme conditions it will chew the bark of woody plants and lick at the dried meat on carcasses. The leaves of thorny trees are the primary source of food, which is browsed at a height that only the elephant can equal. However, a giraffe often feeds at lower levels too. The purplish-black, prehensile tongue of some
50 cm is used to curl around the food and bring it into the mouth. Giraffes are partial to salt licks. They have high calcium and phosphate requirements and chew soil, a practice known as geophagia.
While the giraffe will drink water regularly when available, it is not dependent on surface water and can obtain sufficient moisture from its food plants. When drinking, the front legs are splayed wide or are bent to provide a firm footing. In the Kaokoveld region of north-western Namibia, it frequents waterless regions as far as 50 km away from the coast and obtains water from advection fog and succulent plants. When it does drink water, a giraffe will consume some 40 litres per day during daylight. It can close its nostrils in sandstorms and also does so to prevent ants from crawling into the nose.
The giraffe has an open and ever-changing sex-segregated group structure and a breeding herd can contain up to 44 adult cows and young animals. These herds seldom contain the same individuals for more than a few days, but giraffes do have long-term, social associations that are based on kinship and other factors. The adult bulls are solitary and wander from herd to herd without defending a territory. At times they also wander far from the areas they normally frequent. Ranges vary in size, based on rainfall.
During the wet season, giraffes spread out but will gather closer to evergreen woody plants in the dry season. These graceful animals are highly mobile and an adult cow can move up to 20 km in a day. A barrier such as a perennial river can effectively restrict giraffes to a specific region, although the river may become dry and passable at times. When walking, the gait is unusual in that the two legs on the same side swing in near unison. Although normally docile, a giraffe can deliver a lethal chopping kick. Sparring or head-butting occurs when two adult bulls combat to mate with a cow.
The giraffe breeds throughout the year and recent rainfall seems to improve the probability of conception through increased nutrition levels. The bulls become sexually mature when 36 to 42 months old, and the cows when 42 to 54 months old. The gestation period lasts 400 to 460 days and the cow leaves the herd to give birth to a single calf, although twins have been recorded. The calf weighs some 102 kg and has a shoulder height of 1,5 m. The cow gives birth while standing with her back legs bent and she may eat the afterbirth. The calf emerges head first and remains isolated for the first one to three weeks of its life while its mother may forage up to 3 km away. Nursery herds may be formed. The “horn” ossicones become erect after the first few days. The cow has four inguinal mammae and the milk yield is up to 10 litres per day. The calves may only suckle for a month but weaning usually occurs at the age of 12 to 13 months, after which the calf leaves its mother within a few months. The mortality rate among the calves is high and up to 73 per cent of a calf crop may be killed in the first year of life. The life expectancy of a giraffe in the wild is up to 25 years.
Management and utilisation
The giraffe can jump fences of up to 1,5 m tall. An overabundance of giraffes can seriously impair the growth of woody plants. Because they are jumpers, an additional electrified top wire 1,8 to 2,0 m above the ground and 450 mm away from a wire fence is advised. In the Kruger National Park the mean annual population growth rate is 5,2 per cent.
Capture and transportation
Chemical capture under veterinary supervision can be done with M-99®, combined with azaperone as tranquilliser and M-5050® as antidote. Alternatively, an adult bull can be captured chemically with A3080®, combined with azaperone as tranquilliser and naltroxone as antidote. A breeding herd of up to five giraffes can be transported over a short distance in a mass crate with
2,4 m2 of floor space per giraffe. Specialised, individual crates can be used for adult bulls, with the same floor space limitation per giraffe. For short-acting tranquillisation, haloperidol can be used, and for long-term tranquillisation, perphenazine enanthate, both under veterinary supervision.
Giraffes can be kept together in a special, high-walled pen. Giraffe milk contains 12 per cent fat, 6 per cent protein and 3,4 per cent carbohydrate.
Based on weight, a giraffe is equivalent to 3,15 Wildlife Units, but based on diet, it is equivalent to 0,03 Grazer Units and 3,12 Browser Units, with the available browse being calculated up to a feeding height of 5 m.
Meat and live sales
Giraffe meat was used by the older hunter-explorers for the camp, but it is not exported. In Kenya, giraffe meat has been used as a source of biltong for commercial purposes. A slaughtered carcass yields 99 to 118 kg of meat.
Giraffes are popular on auctions of live wildlife and the mean price of R12 752 in 2017 increased by 12,7 per cent to R14 601 in 2018. The record price since 1991 has been R40 000.
Limited numbers of giraffes are hunted as trophy animals and the hide is difficult to tan. Yet, a rug mount is a popular, typically African motive in interior design. In the 2015/2016 hunting season, 19 giraffes were hunted by trophy hunters in South Africa at a mean price of US$2 189,47 per animal.
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