Giraffe, hearing this name it reminds me of childhood days. As I remember when I was small on my drawing book, and Moral Science book giraffe was on the front page. This long-necked animal was always special to many of us. Giraffes made our childhood memorable.
The giraffe is a large African hoofed mammal belonging to the genus Giraffa. It is the tallest living terrestrial animal on Earth. Traditionally, giraffes were thought to be one species with nine sub-species. Most recently, researchers proposed dividing them up to eight extant species. Due to new research into their DNA, seven other extinct species of Giraffe are known from the research records.
The giraffe’s chief distinguishing characteristics are its extremely long neck and legs, its horn-like ossicones and its spotted coat patterns. Its scattered range extends from Chad in the North to South Africa in the South and from Niger in the West to Somalia in the East.
Giraffes grow to nearly their full height by four years of age but gain weight until they are seven or eight. Males weigh up to 1930 kgs and females weigh up to 1180 kgs. The tail may be a metre in length and has long black tuft on the end. Thick- walled arteries in the neck have extra valves to counteract gravity when the head is up, when it lowers the head to ground, special vessels at the base of the brain control blood pressure.
Both sexes have prominent horn-like structures called ossicones, which can reach 13.5 cms, the ossicones may have a role in thermoregulation and are used in combat between males. Appearance is a reliable guide to the sex or age of a giraffe, the ossicones of females and young are thin and display tufts of hair on top, whereas those of adult males tend to be bald and knobbed on top. In males it emerges in the middle of the skull. Males develop calcium deposits that form bumps on their skulls as they age. However, as males age, their skulls become heavier and more club-like, helping them become more dominant in combat. The bones at the bottom of the skull allow the animal to tip its head over 90 degrees and grab food on the branches directly above them with the tongue.
On the sides of the head, the giraffe has abroad visual field from its great height. Giraffe vision is more binocular and the eyes are larger with a greater retinal surface area. Giraffes may see in colour and their senses of hearing and smell are sharp. The ears are movable. The giraffe’s tongue is about 45cm long. It is black to protect against sunburn and can grasp foliage and delicately pick off leaves.
Giraffes usually inhabit savannahs and open woodlands. They prefer to eat leaves mainly from the thorny acacia tree. Giraffes obtain most water from their food, though in dry season they drink at least every three days. They must spread the forelegs apart in order to reach the ground with the head.
Giraffes are usually found in groups that vary in size and composition according to ecological and social factors. The composition of these groups had been described as open and ever-changing. Giraffe groups tend to be sex-segregated. Generally females are more selective than males in who they associate with regarding individuals of the same sex. Stable giraffe groups are those made of mothers and their young. Young males also form groups and will engage in playfights. However, as they get older, males become more solitary but may also associate in pairs or with female groups.
Giraffes are not territorial, but they have home ranges that vary according to rainfall and proximity to human settlements. Male giraffes occasionally roam far from areas that they normally frequent.
Reproduction in giraffes is broadly polygamous. A few older males mate with the fertile females. Females can reproduce throughout the year. Male giraffes assess female fertility by tasting the female’s urine to detect oestrus, in a multi-step process known as the flehmen response. Once an oestrous female is detected, the male will attempt to court her. When courting, dominant males will keep subordinate ones at bay. A courting male may lick a female’s tail. Lay his head and neck on her body or nudge her with his ossicones.
Females first breed at four or five years of age. Gestation is 15 months and though most claves are born in dry months in some areas, births can take place in any month of the year. The single offspring is about 2 metres tall and weights 100 kgs. For a week the mothers licks and nuzzles her calf in isolation while they learn each other’s scent. Thereafter, the calf joins a “nursery group” of similar aged youngsters, while mothers forage at variable distances. Male giraffes use their necks as weapons in combat, a behaviour known as “necking”. Necking is used to establish dominance and males that win necking bouts have greater reproductive success.
With its lanky build and spotted coat, the giraffe has been a source of fascination throughout human history and its image is widespread in culture. It has represented flexibility, far-sightedness, femininity, grace, beauty and the continent Africa itself.
• Paintings of giraffes appear on early Egyptian tombs. Giraffe tails were prized for the long wiry tuft hairs used to wave belts and jewellery.
• Giraffes were depicted in art throughout the African continent including that of Kiffians, Egyptians and Kushites.
• The Kiffians were responsible for a life size rock engraving of two giraffes that has been called the “world’s largest rock art petroglyph.”
• How the giraffe got its height has been the subject of various African folktales. The people of Kenya used the giraffe to depict their God Mda.
• Giraffes also have presence in modern Western culture. Salvador Dali depicted them with burning manes in some of his surrealist paintings.
• Several children books feature giraffe including David A Ufer’s “The Giraffe, who was afraid of heights”, Giles Andrea’s “Giraffes can’t dance”, Ronald Dahl’s “ The giraffe and the Pelly and me”. Giraffe’s have appeared in animated films, as minor characters in Disney’s The Lion King and Dumbo.
• The giraffe has also been used for some scientific experiments and discoveries. Scientists have used the properties of giraffe skin as a model for astronaut and fighter pilot suits because the people in these professions are in danger of passing out if blood rushes to their legs.
• The Egyptians were among the earliest people to keep giraffes in captivity shipped them around the Mediterranean. The Giraffe was among the many animals collected and displayed by the romans. The first one in Rome was brought in by Julius Caesar in 46 BC.
However, a study, in 2016 determined that habitat loss resulting from expanding agricultural activities, increased mortality brought on by illegal hunting, and the effects of civil unrest in a handful of African countries had caused giraffe populations to decline by 36-40% between 1985 and 2015. In 2016, the IUCN has reclassified the conservation status of the species as vulnerable.