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Two male reticulated giraffes in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya.
  More about giraffes
Scientific name:
Giraffa camelopardalis
Swahili name:
Weight: 450–1,180 kg/990–2,600 lb (female), 800–1,930 kg/1,750–4,250 lb (male).
Height: 3.5–4.7 m/11.5–15.5 ft (female), 3.9–5.2 m/13–17 ft (male).
Length: 3.5–4.8 m/11.5–15.7 ft.
Tail length: 75–110 cm/30–45 in.
25 years when wild, somewhat longer in captivity.
Up to 55 km/h or 35 mph at a gallop. For lower speeds, it has a kind of slow ambling trot.
Giraffes are only found in sub-Saharan Africa, preferring savanna and woodland habitats where vegetation consists of low to medium-high shrubs and trees.
Male home ranges vary in size up to 650 km2/250 sq mi, of which a smaller part is the core area defended against other males. The female home ranges are less well defined and may vary depending on where food and water are available.
Giraffes may mate at any time of the year, but mating is most common during dry seasons. One calf is born after a 14 to 15 month gestation. (Twin births do happen, but the calves rarely survive.) The calves are born in special birth areas. A female may return to the same area each time she is about to calve, even if it means that she has to travel far, even out of her present home range. She gives birth standing up, and the calves stand up shortly after being born. They suckle for 6 to 12 months and reach sexual maturity after about 4 years. Females normally mate for the first time when 5 years old, males not before 8 years old.
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By African Wildlife Foundation.
By Wildwatch.
Safari glossary
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Wildlife & nature:
Giraffes are popular among safari-goers, and like many other large African mammals, it's unmistakeable. No other land mammal is this high or has a neck or legs this long. The markings are special to giraffes, too.

Species and subspecies
The giraffes all over Africa have been believed to belong to one single species, with a number of different subspecies mainly differing in markings and patterns. Modern research indicates that this may not be correct; some of the 'subspecies' may be full species (which, for example, don't breed with other species).

Masai giraffe, reticulated giraffe and Rothschild giraffe.
Masai giraffe, reticulated giraffe and Rothschild giraffe.

Masai giraffe
Three subspecies/species, mainly differing in markings, are found in East Africa. The Masai giraffe is most widespread, found from central Kenya southwards throughout Tanzania. This is the giraffe you may see in for example Masai Mara or Serengeti.

Reticulated giraffe
The reticulated giraffe is found in northern and eastern Kenya, for example in Samburu and Shaba. It has more clearly defined markings and a redder tint to its colour. In central Kenya, reticulated giraffes and Masai giraffes are said to hybridize.

Rothschild giraffe
The Rothschild giraffe, sometimes called Baringo giraffe, is found in small populations in the far west, in areas visited by few tourists. In an effort to conserve this subspecies/species, a small group of Rothschild giraffes was translocated to Lake Nakuru National Park in the 1970's. Today, the park has a stable population of these giraffes.

A number of other giraffe subspecies/species are found in other parts of Africa.

Masai giraffe feeding from an acacia.

Groups of giraffes
Female giraffes live in loosely connected and temporary groups, where members keep joining and leaving. Such groups are often seen spread over feeding areas. Its members don't interact much, but benefit from being a group, which means better protection against predators.

Dominant males patrol and defend the core areas of their home ranges, on the lookout for females. Thus, males are always on the move, and spend most of their lives as solitaries, other than when following a female about to come in heat.

The long neck
Like other mammals, the giraffe has seven cervical, or neck, vertebrae. The neck is supported by strong muscles, attached to the enlarged thoracic, or chest, vertebrae seen as a hump on its back. Elastic blood vessels and pressure-reducing valves are necessary adaptions to maintain a stable blood pressure.

The reason for having such a long neck was originally thought to be to reach higher for food than other browsers. The neck is unnecessarily long for that reason, though. A more recent explanation is that a long and strong neck on a male is an advantage when fighting other males for determining dominance. When fighting, males wrestle their necks, and also try to hit each other, using their heads as clubs. Only dominant males get mating opportunities, and even though the fights may not look very rough, they may end in broken skull bones or broken necks.

A good lookout
The giraffe's most developed sense is its eyesight. From it's elevated position, it has a very good lookout over its surroundings. Antelopes and zebras may benefit from this by following the giraffe, as it may detect danger early. It also has good hearing, but not so good sense of smell.

The marking pattern of each giraffe is unique, and is kept unchanged throughout its life. The colours may darken with age, though.

Two male Masai giraffes fighting in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania.

Feeding habits
The giraffe is a ruminating browser. It focuses on high quality and high nutrition browse, such as fresh shoots, flowers, seeds and fruits, and needs only half as much food (in relation to body weight) as other and typical browsers. An adult bull may eat up to 65 kg/140 lb of fresh food per day, a cow up to 58 kg/125 lb. The bull spends 45 % of its time feeding, the cow 55 %. A giraffe has an almost 50 cm/20 in long tongue, using it to pick leaves and shoots from thorny twigs. If browsing is poor, the giraffe may resort to eating grass, which it usually does laying on the ground.

During rainy seasons, when food is ample, giraffes may be spread over vast areas. When the dry season comes, they congregate in areas where quality food is available, for example along rivers, where fresh leaves and shoots are found all year round.

The giraffe may go a number of days without drinking, but prefers drinking regularly and may travel far for water. To reach the surface to drink, it spreads its front legs wide while bending forward. In this position, it is much more vulnerable to predators than otherwise.

Giraffe enemies
The giraffe has fewer enemies than most herbivores, but is not all safe. A pride of lions may kill an adult giraffe, often going for solitary animals. A giraffe is no easy prey, though, as it may kill a lion by kicking it using its front legs.

The calves, 175 cm/70 in hight and weighing 75 kg/165 lb when born, are more vulnerable to predators. They grow quickly, doubling in height during their first year, but may be killed by hyaenas, leopards and African wild dogs during their first three or four months. Older calves may be hunted by lions.

Humans hunt giraffes for meat, and some African tribes use the tail hair for ornaments. Unlike the other very large herbivores – elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and buffalos – giraffes are not aggressive to humans, other than possibly to defend their young.

Giraffe markings.

Giraffes on safaris
Like most African mammals, giraffes are mainly found in protected areas, such as national parks and reserves, but are fairly common and may be seen in all parks on popular safari routes in Kenya and Tanzania.

In Tanzania, the giraffes seen are Masai Giraffes. When travelling the classic Kenyan route SamburuLake NakuruMasai Mara, you may see all three East African subspecies/species; reticulated giraffe in Samburu, Rothschild giraffe in Lake Nakuru and Masai giraffe in Masai Mara.

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Page updated 18 February 2009