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Giraffe in the wild
© Sausage Tree Safari Camp
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Giraffes are one of Africa’s most iconic animals, beloved by tourists from around the world who take home with them iconic wooden carvings of the magnificent animal each and every day… And yet giraffe numbers across Africa are plummeting with an estimated drop of 40% over the last 30 years to an estimated 97,500 individuals remaining throughout the continent.

Indeed, two of the known subspecies, the Kordofan and Nubian giraffes, are listed as ‘Critically endangered’ on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List – just one stage away from being declared extinct in the wild. The reticulated, Maasai, Thornicrofts and West African subspecies are also listed as either ‘Endangered’ or ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN.

Giraffe in the wild
© Sausage Tree Safari Camp

Habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, civil unrest and poaching for bushmeat, skins and tails are some of the reasons for the giraffe’s dramatic decline. It’s all very sad when you consider that the giraffe is the tallest terrestrial animal on the planet and the largest ruminant. With its supermodel looks (long neck and legs), its horn-like ossicones and incomparable coat pattern the giraffe is simply a stunning beast and a firm favourite of our guests here at Sausage Tree Safari Camp and across the Balule Private Nature Reserve.

Its closest living relative is the equally strange okapi, and while its neck is super long, it actually has the same number of cervical vertebrae in it as other mammals: seven. However, those vertebrae are up to 28cm long! They need the length to browse on the uppermost branches of trees, their favoured food being the leaves, fruits and flowers of mostly acacia trees.

Giraffes live in groups of related females with their offspring, or sometimes form bachelor groups of unrelated bulls. They are social though, and often gather in large numbers. When they’re standing still feeding, these groups are known as a ‘tower’. When they’re on the move, they’re called a ‘journey’.

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So how tall does a giraffe actually get? The tallest recorded bull was measured at 5,88 metres (19,3 feet) and the tallest female at 5,17 metres (17 feet). Their front and back legs are around the same length but the body is relatively short from front to back. Giraffes have only two gaits – walking and galloping. They walk just like camels, moving both legs on one side of their body and then both legs on the other side.

The giraffe’s ossicones are actually made of ossified cartilage. When they are born their ossicones are flattened backwards to avoid damaging the mother’s birth canal. As the giraffe grows they become more upright and eventually fuse to the skull. With males the ossicones become thickened and develop bald patches on top (due to constant fighting, known as ‘necking’, for dominance) whereas the female’s ossicones remain slender, dainty and fluffy! This is the easiest way to tell a male from female at a distance.

Other ossifications on the heads of male giraffes as they grow older add weight to their skull and aid in necking – the swinging blows delivered by the heads and necks of combating males during their constant battle for dominance and mating rights.

The critically endangered Kordofan giraffe has a pronounced and distinctive third ossicone in the middle of its forehead. The reticulated and northern subspecies also have this third (or median) ossicone.

Kordofan giraffe
The Kordofan giraffe is ‘Critically endangered’. It has a distinctive third ossicone and is found in parts of Cameroon, Chad and the Central African Republic © Sharon Gilbert-Rivett

The giraffe is a very taciturn animal and many believe that they have no vocal cords due to their quiet nature, but this is untrue. Supposition is that the giraffe cannot move sufficient air over their vocal cords or folds to make them vibrate and produce sounds, but in 2015 scientific researchers discovered that they actually hum, mostly at night, and at very low frequencies (around 92HZ), making the sounds they produce right at the lower end of the human hearing spectrum. If you’d like to hear what a giraffe hum sounds like,  click on the sound bit below:

While we still have no idea what this humming is for, the researchers deduce that it’s a way for the giraffe to stay in touch with others during the night without drawing the attention of predators.

Which is probably a good idea as giraffes are one of the favourite prey species of lion, who hunt mostly at night.

Up close photo of a head of a giraffe
© Sausage Tree Safari Camp
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