Northern Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardus)

There are three subspecies of the Northern Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), the world’s tallest mammal, an all occur across Eastern and Central Africa. Kordofan giraffe (G. c. antiquorum), West African giraffe (G. c. peralta) and Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis) identical to the Rothschild’s giraffe (G. c. rothschildi).  Rothschild’s giraffe was, in 2016, considered to be conspecific ecotype of the Nubian giraffe, however these results are not yet definitive. At present, fewer than 200 occur in western Ethiopia, 450 in eastern South Sudan, 800 in Kenya, and more than 1,550 in Uganda.

The Northern Giraffe should be on the list of the Africa safari “BIG” game animals found in Uganda. Rothschild’s giraffe is rare elsewhere in its former range but very common in the northern part of Murchison Falls National Park, Kidepo Valley, Lake Mburo and very recently (2019) and very recently also translocated to Pian Upe Game Reserve.

The world’s tallest animal (up to 5.5m) lives in loosely structured mixed-sex herds, typically numbering between five and 15 animals. As herd members may be dispersed over an area of up to 1km, they are frequently seen singly or in smaller groups, though unusually large aggregations are often seen in Uganda.

The long neck of the giraffe gives it a slightly ungainly appearance when it ambles; giraffes look decidedly absurd when they adopt a semi-crouching position in order to drink.

Giraffe, Northern giraffe, rothschild's giraffe in Uganda
Breast Feeding Giraffe at The Zoo in Entebbe Uganda

Description

Goraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) is the world’s tallest mammal. Male giraffes (bulls) stand a total of 5.7 m from the ground to their horns: 3.3 m at the shoulders with a long neck of 2.4 m. Female giraffes (cows) are 0.7 to 1 m shorter than bulls. Bulls weigh up to 1,930 kg, while cows can weigh up to 1,180 kg. At birth, giraffe calves are 2 m tall from the ground to the shoulders. Newborn giraffes weigh 50 to 55 kg.

Both male and female giraffes have a spotted coat. The pattern of the coat varies and is an aide for camouflage with the different habitats. The nine giraffe subspecies have various skin patterns. The patches on a giraffe coat can be small, medium, or large in size. Giraffe coats are sharp-edged or fuzzy-edged; small, medium, or large; or yellow to black in color. The skin pattern for an individual giraffe is constant throughout the giraffe’s life. With the changing of season and health, the coat color may be altered.

Giraffe have long, sturdy legs, with their front legs longer than their back legs. Giraffe necks contain 7 elongated vertebrae, same as humans. Giraffes have a steeply sloping back from the shoulders to the rump. Their tails are thin and long, measuring about 76 to 101 cm in length. A black tuft at the end of the tail whisks away flies and other flying insects.

Giraffe horns, called ossicones, are bone protuberances covered with skin and fur. Female giraffe horns are thin and tufted; male giraffe horns are thick but the hair is smoothed by sparring. A medium-sized horn is common in both male and females; while males can grow a second pair behind the first pair of horns.

The eyes are very large and their 45 cm long black tongue grasps prickly food from the very tops of trees.

Africa safari melee of antelopes and giraffes
Africa safari melee of antelopes and giraffes in Uganda

Food Habits

Giraffes feed on leaves, flowers, seed pods, and fruits in areas where the savanna floor is salty or full of minerals, they eat soil as well. They are ruminants and have a four-chambered stomach. Chewing cud while traveling helps to maximize their feeding opportunities.

These giants with giant features have long tongues, narrow muzzles, and flexible upper lips to help obtain leaves from the tall trees while browsing. They use many tree species for browse, including: Acacia senegal, Mimosa pudica, Combretum micranthum, and Prunus armeniaca. Their main food is the leaves from Acacia trees. Giraffes browse by taking the branches in their mouths and pulling away the head to tear away the leaves. Acacia trees have thorns but giraffe molars crush the thorns. Up to 66 kg of food for one day can be consumed by an adult, male giraffe. However, in poor-quality areas, a giraffe can survive on 7 kg of food per day.

Male giraffes typically feed with their head and neck completely outstretched to the shoots, their fodder is from the underside of the high canopy. Female giraffes feed at body and knee height, feeding from the crown of lower trees or shrubs and are particulary selective when feeding. They choose foliage with the highest nutritional value.

Giraffe, Northern giraffe, rothschild's giraffe in Uganda

Behavior

Giraffes are social animals, living in loose, open, unstable herds varying from 10 to 20 individuals, although herds of up to 70 have been observed. There are no major rule for joining or leaving a herd, individual giraffes join and leave the herd at will. Herds can include all female, all male, female with young calves, or mixed genders and ages. Female giraffes are more outgoing than male giraffes. Isolated introverts can also be encountered in the wild.

Giraffes feed and drink during the morning, evening and rest at night while standing up but can occasionally lie down. When resting, the head lies on a hind leg, with the neck forming an impressive arch. When resting lightly, they remain in a fully upright position, with half-closed eyes, and ears continuing to twitch. During the hot midday, giraffes usually chews their cud and this can take place during any part of the day.

Adult male giraffes establish dominance hierarchies by sparring, which involves two individuals standing stiff-legged and parallel. The males march in step with one another with their necks horizontal and looking forward. They rub and intertwine their necks and heads, then lean against each other to evaluate their opponent’s strength. “Necking” occurs when two giraffes stand alongside each other and swing their heads at the other giraffe. They aim their horns at their opponent’s rump, flanks, or neck. A hard enough blow can knock down or injure an opponent.

A Giraffe is a fast moving mammals, reaching impressive speeds of up to 60 km/h. They can sprint for considerable distances.

They are non-territorial. Giraffe home ranges vary from 5 to 654 km2, depending on food and water availability.

Giraffes are also great hosts to troublesome ticks.  Very often on Africa safari you see Oxpecker birds (Buphagus africanus) resting on the backs and necks of giraffes, removing the ticks from the giraffe skin. There is an impressive mutually beneficial relationship between giraffes and oxpecker birds.

Rothschild Giraffe in Uganda

Communication

The Giraffe is rarely heard and are usually considered a silent mammal. Giraffes communicate with one another by infrasonic sound, though they do, at times, vocalize to one another by grunts or whistle-like cries. Some other communication sounds for giraffes are moaning, snoring, hissing, and flutelike sounds.

When alarmed, a giraffe grunts or snorts to warn neighboring giraffes of the danger. Mother giraffes can whistle to their young calves and also search for their lost young by making bellowing calls. The calves return their mother’s calls by bleating or mewing.

While courting an estrous cow, male giraffes may cough raucously.

Giraffe vision relies mainly on their height which allows giraffes a continual visual contact while at great distances from their herd. The acute eyesight of giraffes can spot predators at a distance so they can prepare to defend themselves by kicking. Individuals within a herd may scatter widely across the grassland in search of good food or drink, and only cluster together at good food trees or if threatened.

References

Get Updates & More

Thoughtful thoughts to your inbox