With its boldly patterned skin and incredible long neck, the giraffe is one of Africa's most recognizable animals. There is only one species (Giraffa camelopardalis), divided into nine subspecies each with subtle physical and genetic differences. Giraffes can be found throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, from Chad down to South Africa and from Niger across to Somalia. However, despite their wide range and the fact that they're usually considered easy to spot on safari, the global giraffe population is declining. In the past three decades, numbers across Africa have decreased by approximately 40%.
The Tallest Animal on Earth
Giraffes are the tallest animals on Earth, with the record belonging to a male with a height of 19.3 feet/5.88 meters. Male giraffes are taller than females, with an average height of around 16 feet/4.8 meters. Being the world's tallest animal requires some special adaptations. Much of a giraffe's height is accounted for by its elongated neck, which is held up by exceptionally strong muscles. It also contains complex veins and blood vessels that work against gravity to push blood upwards to the brain; and to stop blood from flowing too quickly away from the brain when the giraffe lowers its head.
The arduous task of pumping blood up its neck means that the giraffe's blood pressure is double that of other mammals. Its heart is the largest of any land mammal and can weigh up to 24 pounds/11 kilograms. Despite the length of the giraffe's neck, it's still too short to reach the ground; so in order to drink, giraffes must bend their knees or spread their front legs wide. Giraffes rarely lie flat - instead, they sleep by resting their bodies on top of their folded legs.
Appearance & Adaptations
Giraffes have a light coat that's covered in darker patches. The color of these patches ranges from orange to almost black and depends on a variety of factors including subspecies, gender and age. It is thought that the giraffe's unique patterning is a camouflage tactic. Giraffes also have exceptionally thick skin, which protects them from the thorn bush in which they often feed. Other special adaptations include their nostrils, which they can close against sandstorms or insects; and their prehensile tongues. The purple-black color of a giraffe's tongue is believed to be a defense against sunburn.
Both male and female giraffes have horn-like knobs on top of their heads called ossicones. Made from ossified cartilage and covered with skin, ossicones are thought to help giraffes to regulate their body temperature and are also used in combat between males. For safari-goers, a giraffe's ossicones are one of the easiest ways to differentiate between males and females, because the females' are tufted with hair while the males' are bald.
Life Cycle & Behavior
Giraffes usually favor savannah and woodland habitats and live on a diet of leaves, fruit and flowers (specifically those of acacia tree species). They live in herds known as towers or journeys, which are typically made up of related females and their babies or bachelor males. Male giraffes fight for the right to mate with the females by striking each other with their powerful necks - a behavior known as "necking". Giraffes have a 15-month gestation period and females give birth standing up, which means that newborn babies start life with a 2-meter/6.5-foot drop to the ground. Within an hour, they can stand up.
Giraffe calves are raised entirely by their mothers. Sadly, only 50% of babies reach adulthood, but if they do, they have a life expectancy of around 25 years.
There are approximately 97,500 giraffes left in the wild and global populations are decreasing. Already, the species has become extinct in many parts of its historic range and it is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Certain subspecies are particularly at risk. The Kordofan and Nubian giraffes are both listed as Critically Endangered, while the reticulated giraffe is Endangered. The West African giraffe used to be found across the region from Chad to Senegal but is now limited to just 400 individuals in remote areas of southwest Niger; while the Thornicroft's giraffe is similarly scarce with just 550 left in the wild.
The most numerous subspecies are the South African and Masai giraffes, with estimated wild populations of 31,500 and 32,550 respectively. The giraffe's natural predators include the lion, leopard, spotted hyena and African wild dog but it's humans that are the biggest threat. People contribute to giraffe deaths both directly (through hunting and poaching) and indirectly (through habitat loss and degradation).
Best Places to See Giraffe
Giraffes of one subspecies or another occur in most of the major game reserves and parks of Southern and East Africa. You'll need to tailor your itinerary more carefully if you want to see a specific subspecies. For example, Kordofan giraffes are found in Cameroon, Chad and the Central African Republic but the best place to see them is in Chad's Zakouma National Park (which is home to 50% of the global population). Northern Kenyan parks like Marsabit National Park & Reserve and Samburu National Reserve are the best places to spot reticulated giraffes, while Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park is famous for its Rothschild's giraffes.
If you want to see West African or Thornicroft's giraffes, your options are extremely limited. West African giraffes are endemic to southwest Niger's Dosso Region and are most often seen around Kouré. The Thornicroft's giraffe is only found in Zambia's Luangwa Valley and the best place to spot them is in South Luangwa National Park.