Giraffe

The first thing we did in Nairobi was to go off to the Giraffe Center in the suburb of Langata. I’d read about this effort to breed the critically endangered Rothschild’s giraffe and reintroduce it into the wild. We didn’t have the time to visit Lake Nakuru or other places where there is an established population of this giraffe species, so visiting the center was the only way we were going to be able to see this rare animal. For a wildlife enthusiast like The Family, this counts as a failure. We drove through a suburb full of sprawling colonial era bungalows, hidden behind tall walls surrounding immense gardens. The colonial era ranches were as large as some cities. That era’s greed for land is at the root of the crisis which the Giraffe Center tries to mitigate.

The Giraffe Center is open from 9 in the morning to 5 in the evening. A busload of school children was getting down in a disciplined queue as we entered. You can buy a paper bag full of chips of acacia branches to feed to the giraffes if you wish. I decided to keep my hands on the camera, as The Family gingerly fed the beasts. A tall animal dipped its head down to pick up the pieces of branches from her hand with its prehensile lips. I had expected its shoulders to be higher than her head, but I hadn’t realized that a giraffe’s lip is a grasping organ! Their really long tongues are their main organ for grasping and manipulation, but the lip also seems to be able to grasp quite delicately.

I’d been primed by my reading to look closely at the pattern on these giraffes. The irregular dark patches could be roughly six, or five, or four sided. But the colour was darker towards the center than at the edge. The background was lighter, but quite a dark shade of beige at places. But most distinctive, I thought, were the “white socks”. The pattern on its hide did not continue all the way down the legs, so the giraffes looked like they were wearing socks. We climbed up to a feeding balcony which was about two meters up. The necks of the giraffes easily came up here, but not much higher. So I guess Rothschild’s giraffes are between 2.5 and 3 meters tall.

The giraffe has its heart in the right place, protected by its rib cage. This must be a huge and muscular organ, since it needs to pump blood up a couple of meters to the animal’s head. I watched all the interesting motions that a giraffe makes: it walks with both front and back legs on the same side of its body moving forward together. This is quite unlike a cow’s gait, for example. A cow moves front and back legs on opposite sides of its body forward together. I watched with interest how a giraffe sits and gets up. This did not look very different from the way a cow gets up from a sitting position. The most interesting thing is the way it dips its head to eat or drink. You would think that excess blood pressure needed to pump its blood up to the maximum height of its stretched head would be enough to burst its arteries when it lowers its head. But there must be something special about its circulatory system that prevents this pressure overload. Such an amazing creature!

A giraffe is a giraffe. Is it?

Until yesterday I knew that a giraffe is a long-necked mammal with brown patches of fur on white, which walked gracefully through east African savannas, delicately picking leaves off the tops of trees. Now, while idly surfing for information on giraffes online, I find that there are more species of giraffes than I could hope to see in one trip. Web sites called Giraffe Conservation Foundation and Giraffe Worlds list out the four main species of giraffes: the northern, the southern, the Masai and the Reticulated. IUCN, meanwhile counts only one species, but concedes that these four are subspecies, each deserving of individual conservation effort. When I tried to access original literature on giraffes I was stunned to find how little they have been studied.

The Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi) ranges over large parts of Kenya and Tanzania, with an isolated population in Zambia. Even with the intense conservation effort that Kenya and Tanzania are known for, the population of the Masai giraffe has halved over the last decades, and now stands at about 35,000 individuals. This year it has been moved from a classification of Vulnerable to Endangered. It is such a pity that the tallest animal on earth, the 6 meter high adult Masai giraffe, is in danger of becoming extinct.

The reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) can be found in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia (and probably inside Somalia as well). Most counts place their population at about 15,000. This has also been moved into the class of endangered species.

Distribution of giraffe species

The northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis) has extremely fragmented habitat, and therefore has been reclassified this year as Critically Endangered. The northern giraffe contains populations called the Nubian, Kordofan and West African giraffes. The Nubian giraffe can be seen in north-western Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda. The Kordofan giraffe can be seen in Central African Republic, Chad, and Cameroon. To see the West African giraffe you need to travel to the extreme west of Niger. This population has only about 600 individuals left. Some add the Rothschild’s giraffe, from the Baringo area of Kenya, as a separate population to this species. This can be seen in the breeding center in Nairobi.

The southern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa) has two sub-populations: the Angolan and South African. Fortunately, the conservation effort for this species has paid off, and both populations are on the increase. I understand that this holds out hope for giraffe conservation across the continent, although populations like the West African and Rothschild’s giraffes will have to pass through a really narrow genetic bottleneck. I understand that giraffes evolved in the Miocene era, about when apes were diverging from monkeys, and so evolved along with us in the East African Rift Valley geography which is our ur-homeland.

For a mere traveler like me, Kenya seems to be the most giraffe-diverse country. One should be able to see the Masai, reticulated, Rothschild’s, and Nubian giraffes in this one country.