Hey, Giraffe! Nice to meet you!

IUCN has classified the giraffe as vulnerable due to a decrease in total population of 36-40% between 1985 and 2015. Yet they receive far less attention than other animals in Africa. This article is the continuation of my article on the Giraffe Center Nairobi with facts and interesting details about our largest land animal.
Reticulated Giraffes Samburu National Park - Netzgiraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata)

Kenya. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the giraffe as vulnerable due to a severe decrease in total population. Yet they receive far less attention than other animals in Africa. This article is the continuation of my article on the Giraffe Center Nairobi with facts and interesting details about our largest land animal. 

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Table of Contents

Population Status of Giraffes in Africa

IUCN has classified the giraffe as vulnerable due to a loss in total population of 36-40% over 30 years between 1985 and 2015. Populations of giraffes are scattered as well as fragmented. Each group is subject to threats that are specific to their habitats. As a result, some populations are stable or increasing, while others are declining.

The best available estimates show a total population in 1985 of 151,702 – 163,452 giraffes (106,191 – 114,416 mature individuals), and in 2015 of 97,562 giraffes (68,293 mature individuals). However, the most dramatic declines have occurred among the Masai Giraffe, Nubian Giraffe, and Reticulated Giraffe sub-species. On the other hand, the total population of Rothschild’s giraffe shows an increase from 1,330 individuals in the 1960s to 1,671 in 2016 (IUCN, 2016).

Masai Giraffe - Massai-Giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi)
Masai Giraffe in the Masai Mara Game Reserve

Threats to Giraffes​

There are four major threats to giraffes. However, the presence and severity of these are different depending on the region and population:

  1. Habitat loss together with fragmentation: deforestation, mineral extraction, land conversion, expansion of agricultural activities as well as human population growth
  2. Civil unrest and military operations
  3. Illegal hunting
  4. Ecological changes: climate-induced processes, such as draught, increase competition between humans, livestock and giraffes for water and food
Typical giraffe conservation measures include habitat management, protection through law enforcement as well as community-based conservation initiatives

Giraffes in Portrait – Who is Who?

The genus of giraffes is divided into three species and includes a total of ten independent subspecies. One of them is already extinct.

  • Northern Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) with 5 subspecies
  • Southern Giraffe (Giraffa giraffa) with 2 subspecies
  • Massai Giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi) with 2 subspecies

All subspecies live in geographically distinct areas in southern and eastern Africa, with smaller isolated populations in west and central Africa. Three subspecies occur in Kenya: The Masai Giraffe, the Reticulated Giraffe, and the Rothschild Giraffe. The latter two are subspecies of the North Giraffe.

The easiest way to distinguish the different giraffe species is by their coat pattern.

Giraffes – perfectly adapted​

In the course of evolution, giraffes have adapted perfectly to their habitat. In order to reach the leaves in the treetops, their necks and legs evolved to become longer and longer. Like humans, giraffes have seven cervical vertebrae. However, unlike humans, the giraffe’s vertebrae are massive and long. Its neck can reach a length of up to 2.5 meters. Their tongues are also perfectly adapted for leaf picking: they can measure up to being 50 centimeters long. These tongues are also very flexible and they are protected from thorns and spines by a horny skin. In the front area, the tongue is heavily pigmented to protect against sunburn and has a bluish appearance.

Masai Giraffe Masai Mara - Massai-Giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi)
Masai Giraffe in the Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya

But the long neck also has a catch. In order to supply the head with sufficient blood, the heart must beat strongly. So giraffes are not only the animals with the longest necks, but they are also the ones with the highest blood pressure. To compensate for the high pressure in the legs caused by gravity, the leg arteries are thick-walled and the skin fits particularly tightly, similar to a compression stocking. But what happens when the giraffe lowers its head to drink? Elastic blood vessels in the head absorb the inflowing blood, and special valves in the neck veins prevent the blood from flowing back into the lowered head. Giraffes drink only briefly and also rarely. They meet most of their fluid requirements from food. As adults, they have few enemies a kick can be fatal but in their drinking position they are vulnerable to attack.

Giraffe Centre Nairobi - Rothschild's giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi)- Rothschild Giraffe
At eye level with giraffes

Social Life

Giraffes live as solitary animals or together in loose associations. Females often form small herds of 4 to 32 animals, so they can better protect their young. However, they are often only moderately successful: 50% to 75% of all newborn giraffes do not make it to adulthood. Unlike females, giraffe bulls usually live alone. Only young or less dominant bulls form so-called bachelor groups. Bulls and cows come together only for mating.

Reticulated Giraffes Samburu National Park - Netzgiraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata)
Three Reticulated Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) in the Samburu National Park

References and Links

Muller, Z., Bercovitch, F., Brand, R., Brown, D., Brown, M., Bolger, D., Carter, K., Deacon, F., Doherty, J.B., Fennessy, J., Fennessy, S., Hussein, A.A., Lee, D., Marais, A., Strauss, M., Tutchings, A. & Wube, T. 2018. Giraffa camelopardalis (amended version of 2016 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T9194A136266699. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T9194A136266699.en. Downloaded on 10 January 2021.

Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Annual Report 2019/20. https://giraffeconservation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GCF_AR_2019-20.pdf Downloaded on 10 January 2021.

Webside Giraffe Centre Nairobi. https://www.giraffecentre.org/ Downloaded on 10 January 2021.

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