Nothing in the bush causes more ooohs and aaaahs than the giraffe.
Considered one of the most iconic animals in Africa, it is difficult to put one’s finger on what it is that people love about nature’s skyscraper. Perhaps its the uniqueness of the giraffe. There is nothing quite like it. Its closest relative is the okapi, which is only found in central Africa and is seen by few. That animal is also odd-looking, with a slightly elongated neck and stripes like that of the zebra down its rump.
If not the giraffe’s uniqueness, it must be its awkward, yet elegant grace. Its long legs move with consummate ease and enable the animal to travel at a surprising pace, even though its strange gait of moving both left legs and then both right legs makes it look rather unstable. The way that the neck rocks as it walks is mesmerising and I like to describe it as nature’s lava lamp. The giraffe seems to have the ability to de-stress people by merely watching it carrying out its business. If giraffes had jobs, it would surely be as a counsellor or therapist! Men, women and children alike seem to melt in their presence and a dumb grin spreads unconsciously across their faces as they lose themselves in this strange creation.
It is odd to think that such a graceful animal has a violent streak in it, but one must remember that this is the wild and there are things to fight for: survival and genetic success. Giraffes are capable of killing with a single kick and many a hungry lion has fallen foul to a skull-shattering, flailing limb.
The only way giraffes can ensure genetic survival is to find a mate and that must be achieved through dominance, and that means combat. As a giraffe ages, calcium deposits form on the skull, making it heavier and more robust, and therefore an effective weapon. The thick ossicones (horns) that protrude from its head are used to great effect as they are swung at their opponents with surprising force. Impacts can be savage and giraffe have been knocked unconscious in these exchanges.
Recently, I was privileged to witness a heated exchange between two young males as they vied for the affections of a nearby female. They stood side by side, jostling each other for position and swinging their necks with incredible ferocity. The flexibility of their necks defied belief as they were wound up, blow after blow; like medieval knights wielding maces. Perhaps even more impressive though were the defensive manoeuvres as the combatants deflected and avoided each other’s club-like skulls. It was a strange spectacle to see. We were torn between marvelling at the almost balletic swaying of the long necks, and shocked by the brutality of the exchange. The thuds rang out through the bushveld and winces of empathetic pain could be heard coming from the spectators as their notion of a peaceful and docile animal were shattered.
I have worked in the bush for eight years but even so, I often see things that I have never witnessed before, and this exchange was no different. The two giraffes seemed to have different tactics: one preferred to swing downwards and concentrate on its opponent’s flanks, while the other took the low road and swung upwards into the stomach with an upper cut. However, at one point, the latter giraffe got his head caught under the leg of his opponent and as he raised his neck, the other giraffe found himself in a rather ungainly position. It resembled the giraffe equivalent of yoga as one of the animals balanced precariously on three limbs as his fourth was raised aloft by the other. The guests’ seriousness turned to amusement as the duo struggled to free themselves, stumbling through the undergrowth. After the incident, the giraffes seemed to lose their desire to do battle, perhaps wanting to rest their hyper-extended limbs. I have never seen a giraffe do the splits and now that I have, the spectacle will stay with me forever!
It was a wonderful sighting, full of intrigue and mixed emotions as the guests got to absorb the beauty of the gentle giant, yet had to re-evaluate their preconceptions of the animals’ tranquil nature as the heated battle raged. Harmony was quickly restored, however, thanks to the rather light-hearted and comedic ending to the exchange, and we left the scene grinning from ear to ear. Once again, the complexity of nature had revealed itself but somehow, even in the midst of a brutal confrontation, the giraffes had given us a display we would never forget and a warm, fuzzy feeling in our hearts.
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