Physical Description

The giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis is an even-toed ungulate and the tallest animal and largest ruminant in the world. The average adult height is 5.3m (17ft 4in) for males and 4.3m (14ft 2in) for females. On average they weigh 830-1,200kg, depending on sex. Giraffe longevity is assumed to be +/- 25 years in the wild. Their main defense is to kick with their fore or hind legs. They can run at speeds of 50kph (35mph). Like the okapi, giraffe have a blue coloured prehensile tongue (50cm or 18in in length) and the upper lip is prehensile for browsing.

Social

Giraffe social behaviours range from solitary (often older males) to large, loose and mixed herds. This is known as fission-fusion society, whereby individuals or smaller groups readily merge with or split from the herd. Patterns of social behaviour differs from one population to another.

Breeding

Giraffe females become sexually mature at 3-4 years; they are in oestrus 1 day every 2 weeks. The males are often restricted by competition from larger bulls. Giraffe breed throughout their life and have a gestation period between 453-464 days (+/- 15 months). They typically have a single calf, but have been known to twin on a rare occasion. Females have been recorded mating within weeks of giving birth. Offspring are known to stay with their mother until 22 months old, but are often independent much sooner, depending on the gender.

Diet

Giraffe are almost exclusively browsers and eat on tree leaves, fruits, pods and shoots. They prefer Acacia trees across much of their range but their diet can include more than 100 plant species in some populations. Feeding takes up most of the giraffe’s day, spending up to 75% at certain times of the year. Time spent browsing often increases markedly during the dry season compared with the rainy season as good quality browsing is harder to find and the giraffe often have to travel further to satisfy their nutritional needs. Giraffe are also active at night, but feed significantly more during moonlit nights and ruminate more during dark nights.

In 1985 the estimated population of giraffes in Africa was between 151,702 and 163,452 individuals.  By 2015, this figure had reduced to an estimated 97,562, representing a population decline of 36-40% over three generations (30 years, 1985-2015). Giraffe populations are highly fragmented across Africa, and are subject to different pressures and threats specific to country and region. Overall, the number of giraffes in Africa is generally decreasing. However, there is local variation: populations in East Africa are generally decreasing; populations in southern Africa are generally increasing. In West Africa, the single population is increasing, but in Central Africa, the population is decreasing.

The most abundant subspecies of giraffe is G. c. tippelskirchi, followed by G. c. giraffa. Both subspecies account for almost half the giraffe population in Africa. Of the nine currently recognised subspecies, four are increasing (G. c. angolensis, G. c. giraffa, G. c. peralta, G. c. rothschildi), four are decreasing (G. c. antiquorum, G. c. camelopardalis, G. c. reticulata, G. c. tippelskirchi), and one is stable (G. c. thornicrofti) (IUCN Red List assessment, Giraffa camelopardalis).

Limited research has been undertaken on giraffe across Africa. In 2015, the giraffe was listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Subspecies assessments are currently underway.

There are currently one species and nine recognised subspecies of giraffe in Africa.

Angolan giraffe, G. c. angolensis

Despite generally being called the Angolan (or sometimes smoky) giraffe, this subspecies is thought to be extinct in most areas in Angola although now re-populating naturally from Namibia. Its range is believed to include Namibia, south-western Zambia, central Botswana, and potentially western Zimbabwe. G. c. angolensis has increased from an historic estimate of 5,000 individuals to the 2015 estimate of 13,031 individuals (+161%, Marais et al. 2016). The Angolan giraffe is relatively light in colour and has large, uneven and notched spots that cover the whole leg. International Species Information System (ISIS) records indicate that only about 20 individuals are kept in zoos worldwide.

Kordofan giraffe, G. c. antiquorum

The Kordofan giraffe’s range includes some of Africa’s more hostile areas: southern Chad, Central African Republic, northern Cameroon, northern Democratic Republic of Congo and western South Sudan. The populations of G. c. antiquorum has decreased from an historic estimate of 3,696 individuals to an estimate of 2,000 individuals in 2015 (-46%, Fennessy and Marais 2016). The Kordofan giraffe’s spots are pale and irregular and cover the upper leg. ISIS records show that approximately 65 Kordofan giraffe are in zoos worldwide.

Nubian giraffe, G. c. camelopardalis

The Nubian giraffe ranges across western Ethiopia and eastern South Sudan, but reports about this precariously small and fragmented population are extremely difficult to interpret. Large herds have been reported in South Sudan, but it has been impossible to determine whether they were G. c. camelopardalis, the relatively numerous G. c. antiquorum, the dwindling G. c. reticulata or even G. c. rothschildi. The best figures available indicate that G. c. camelopardalis has declined from an historic estimate of 20,577 individuals in 1979/1981 to a 2015 estimate of 650 individuals (-97%, Wube et al.2016). Genetic research is ongoing to establish the identity of the remaining wild populations, as well as to get a better understanding of the subspecies’ numbers and distribution. The distinctive coat of the Nubian giraffe has large, normally four-sided, chestnut-brown blotches on a slightly off-white background. It has no markings below the hocks. The Al Ain Zoo in the United Arab Emirates has 11 giraffe that were thought to be Nubian giraffe but re-classified to Rothschild’s giraffe.

South African giraffe, G. c. giraffa

The South African giraffe ranges from east to west across South Africa, southern and northern Botswana, eastern Namibia and southern (and potentially western) Zimbabwe. Previous reintroductions of this subspecies and the Angolan giraffe into northern South Africa, southern Botswana and southern Zimbabwe are likely to have resulted in hybrid populations in those areas. There have also been extralimital introductions of the South African giraffe into Angola, Senegal, throughout South Africa and Zambia. G. c. giraffa has increased from an historic estimate of 8,000 individuals to the 2015 estimate of over 21,387 individuals (+167%, Deacon et al. 2016). The South African giraffe’s pattern extends all the way down the legs and is made up of star-shaped blotches on a background that is more tan-coloured than cream or white. According to ISIS, only about 45 South African giraffe occur in zoos around the world.

West African giraffe, G. c. peralta

At the beginning of the 20th century the West African (or Nigerian) giraffe was widely distributed from Nigeria to Senegal, but by the late 1990s only about 50 individuals remained in the whole of West Africa. These few survivors are now formally protected by the Government of Niger, and exist exclusively in an isolated population east of the capital, Niamey. No other large wild mammals still occur in this region. G. c. peralta has increased from an historic estimate of at least 50 individuals to the 2015 estimate of 400 individuals (+700%, Fennessy et al. 2016). According to ISIS, none are kept in captivity. The West African giraffe is noticeably light in appearance with rectangular tan blotches separated by thick, cream-coloured lines.

Reticulated giraffe, G. c. reticulata

The reticulated giraffe (sometimes called the netted or Somali giraffe) is predominantly found in north-eastern Kenya, with small populations also occurring in southern Somalia and possibly southern Ethiopia. Giraffa c. reticulata has declined from an historic estimate of 36,000-47,750 individuals to the 2015 estimate of 8,661 individuals (Doherty et al. 2016). The reticulated giraffe has brown-orange patches clearly defined by a network of thick and striking white lines. According to ISIS, the reticulated giraffe is one of the more common subspecies in captivity, with about 450 kept in zoos around the world.

Rothschild’s giraffe, G. c. rothschildi

Rothschild’s giraffe (also known as Uganda or Baringo giraffe), ranges through Uganda and west-central Kenya into South Sudan. The majority of Rothschild’s giraffe in Kenya are outside their natural range (extralimital introductions), in contrast to those in Uganda and South Sudan which are natal. Giraffa c. rothschildi has increased from an historic estimate of 1,331 individuals in the 1960s to the 2015 estimate of 1,671 individuals (26%, Fennessy et al.2016). Rothschild’s giraffe have large, dark, rectangular blotches set irregularly against a cream background. The lower legs are noticeably white and not patterned. ISIS reports that more than 450 Rothschild’s giraffe are in captivity.

Thornicroft’s giraffe, G. c. thornicrofti

Thornicroft’s giraffe (also known as Rhodesian giraffe) survives as an entirely isolated population in a small area of north-eastern Zambia. Occurring only in the South Luangwa Valley, it is geographically separated from any other giraffe population by at least 400km in any direction. The population of Giraffa c. thornicrofti has stabilized at close to 600 individuals since 1973 (Berry and Bercovitch 2016), following an increase from approximately 300 giraffes in the early 1970s (Bercovitch et al. 2015). Thornicroft’s giraffe have a pattern of large, dark, ragged leaf-shaped blotches on a cream background that continues down the length of its legs. According to ISIS, none are kept in captivity.

Masai giraffe, G. c. tippelskirchi

The Masai (also known as Kilimanjaro giraffe) ranges across central and southern Kenya and south through Tanzania, and extralimital populations have been translocated into Rwanda. Giraffa c. tippelskirchi has declined from an historic estimate of 63,292 individuals to the current estimate of 35,000 individuals (-50%, Bolger et al. 2016). The Masai giraffe is often noticeably darker than other subspecies. Its blotches are large, dark brown and distinctively vine-leaf shaped with jagged edges, and are separated by irregular, creamy brown lines.  ISIS records indicate roughly 100 individuals in zoos.

Threats

Fragmentation, degradation and loss of habitat, disease, illegal hunting (poaching), the growth and expansion of the human population, and war and civil unrest have all impacted on giraffe numbers and distribution across Africa – and continue to do so.  Many threats arise from direct, indirect or perceived competition for resources from humans, their livestock and agricultural land.

Giraffe habitat is degraded or destroyed by pastoralism, the clearing of land for agriculture and the uncontrolled harvesting of timber and fuel wood, to name just a few causes. Damage to crops creates conflict between humans and giraffe, while close contact with domestic livestock can result in the transmission of diseases. Giraffe outside protected areas are sometimes even involved in road accidents.

Human encroachment into giraffe habitat results in the fragmentation of that habitat and the isolation of giraffe populations. This in turn limits gene flow and the exchange of genetic diversity. Increased levels of inbreeding may have restrictive implications on the evolutionary potential of the species.

There is also risk of compromising genetic integrity when individuals of one subspecies are translocated into an area occupied by another subspecies. Should they breed, the genetic purity of each of those subspecies is at risk of being diluted.

Current Projects

Giraffe Conservation Foundation

giraffeconservation.org

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) is dedicated to securing a future for all giraffe populations and (sub)species in the wild. Currently GCF is the first and only organization to undertake or support dedicated giraffe conservation efforts of all nine subspecies in Africa and currently works across 14 countries. The GCF mission is to:

  • Establish the current status of all giraffe populations and (sub)species to support and inform their conservation and management.
  • Identify key threats to giraffe and innovative ways to mitigate these.
  • Increase awareness about the plight of giraffe.
  • Support dedicated and innovative research to better understand giraffe ecology, conservation and management.
  • Promote and support giraffe conservation initiatives and work collaboratively with local communities to develop a sustainable future for both people and wildlife.
  • Promote the importance and profile of giraffe conservation on the international stage.
  • Provide a platform and forum for giraffe related research, conservation and management discussion.
  • Develop a world class network of individuals and organisations dedicated to securing the future of giraffe.
  • Secure viable, and protect existing, habitat for giraffe and other wildlife.
  • Maintain a close working relationship with the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group (GOSG) to provide comprehensive educational and technical support.
  • Establish GCF as the key focal organisation for giraffe conservation and management.

As the experts in giraffe conservation in the wild, GCF provides technical support and expert advice to a range of projects, governments and organisations across the African continent. GCF believes that as an organisation, we have an important role supporting giraffe conservation, monitoring and research initiatives in all giraffe range states.

Reticulated Giraffe Project

reticulatedgiraffeproject.net

The Reticulated Giraffe Project is working to arrest and reverse the current population decline. It does so by coordinating the efforts of a large and varied network of contributors, who in different ways provide information, experience, effort and expertise. All are motivated by a shared desire to protect reticulated giraffes and prevent their being known to future generations only through photographs and film. This common purpose unites villagers in the troubled border regions to the east, camel herders in the northern desert, children in the slums of Nairobi and tribal elders who remember the days when giraffes were still abundant. The wider network includes people and partners from all over the world.

Rothschild’s Giraffe Project

girafferesearch.com

Established in 2009, the Rothschild’s Giraffe Project aims to increase our knowledge of this Endangered giraffe subspecies. Based near Nakuru in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, the Project is located right in the heart of the Rothschild’s giraffe range. The Rothschild’s Giraffe Project is the first dedicated scientific research programme ever to be carried out on the Endangered Rothschild’s giraffe and we are working hard to secure a long-term future for the magnificent animal in the wild.

San Diego Zoo Global Reticulated Giraffe Conservation with Pastoralists

giraffeconservation.org

This initial two-year pilot project has the central goal of working with local communities in gathering data on livestock movements to benefit both our understanding of interactions with wildlife, but also to help grazing managers plan herding strategies. Following the pilot period, the project will be evaluated with the community and other conservationists on how successful it has been, how best to continue and how to improve it. Results will be incorporated to improve and finalise methods and approaches. We will then look to expand giraffe conservation and awareness programs to other areas, improving our knowledge and building a network of giraffe champions.

Wild Nature Institute Masai Giraffe Conservation Project

wildnatureinstitute.org

The goal of the project is to estimate population size, survival, reproductive success, and movement throughout the fragmented Tarangire Ecosystem so places with high survival and reproduction can be identified, protected, and connected. Most giraffe habitat in Africa now exists in fragmented landscapes with heavy human impacts, and our study provides insight into how giraffes use fragmented landscapes so our data can inform wildlife and land management activities. This is one of the largest individual-based demographic studies of a large mammal ever undertaken, covering 4,000km2, and includes encounter histories for more than 2,100 individual giraffes. Our data are part of a large-scale land-use planning effort in 10 villages in Monduli District that aims to safeguard habitat for livestock and wildlife mobility between Tarangire National Park and Lake Natron. We are also compiling Tanzanian government aerial survey data and computing correction factors based on simultaneous ground counts to create an accurate account of the status of Masai giraffe populations in Tanzania. Finally, we are conducting disease investigations to document prevalence, incidence and mortality of Giraffe Skin Disease, which causes lesions in the front legs, throughout northern Tanzania.

University of Free State Kalahari Giraffe Research Project

South African giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa) population numbers are increasing thanks to the expansion of the game industry. Giraffe numbers in South Africa are estimated at 22,000 to 29,000 individuals. Most of these giraffe are either privately owned or managed inside conservation areas or national parks. As little is known about these animals, especially in arid areas, ground breaking research is undertaken at the University of Free State in South Africa, by wildlife researchers Francois Deacon and Nico Smit in the Kalahari region bordering Namibia and Botswana.

SubspeciesCommon nameRegionStatusHistoric PopulationCurrent PopolationChange in population% change
EstimateYearSourceEstimateYearSource
G. c. camelopardisNubianNorthern and Eastern Africa (Ethiopia, South Sudan)Decreasing20.5771979-1982Wube, T. et al. (2016)6502015Wube, T. et al. (2016)-19.927-97%
G. c. tippelskirchiMasaiEastern Africa (Kenya, Tanzania)Decreasing66.4491977-1980Bolger, D. et al. (2015)31.6112015Bolger, D. et al. (2015)-34.838-52%
G. c. thornicroftiThornicroft'sEastern Africa (Zambia)Stable6001983Berry and Berecovitch (2016)6002015Berry and Berecovitch (2016)00%
G. c. reticulataReticulatedEastern Africa (Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia)Decreasing36.000-47.7501990sEast, R (1999), Doherty, J.B. et al. (2016)8.6612016Kenya Wildlife Service (2016) draft National Conservation Strategy and Action Plan for Giraffes in Kenya (2016-2020); Doherty, J.B. et al. (2016)-27.339-39.089-77 -82%
G. c. rothschildiRothschild'sEastern Africa (Uganda, Kenya)Increasing1.3301960sFennessy, S. et al. (2016)1.6712016Fennessy, S. et al. (2016)34126%
G. c. angolensisAngolanSouthern Africa (Namibia, Botswana)Increasing5.0001970-2004Marais et al. (2016)13.0312016Marais et al. (2016) 8.031161%
G. c. angolensis (provisional)AngolanSouthern Africa (Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe)Increasing10.0001970sDaggand Foster (1982)17.5512016Fennessy, J. (Unpublished data); Great Elephant Census 2016 (Unpublished data)7.55176%
G. c. giraffaSouth AfricanSouthern Africa (Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana)Increasing8.0001979Daggand Foster (1982)21.3872016Deacon et al. (2016)13.387167%
G. c. antiquorumKordofanNorthen and Central Africa (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan)Decreasing3.6961975-1986Fennessy, J. and Marais, A. (2016)2.0002016Fennessy, J. and Marais, A. (2016)-1.696-46%
G. c. peraltaWest AfricanWest Africa (Niger)Increasing501990sFennessy, J. at al. (2016)4002015Fennessy, J. at al. (2016)350700%
Totals151.702-163.45297.562-54.140-65.890-36-40%
  • Giraffe are already extinct in at least seven countries in Africa.
  • Just like humans fingerprints, no two giraffe have the same coat pattern.
  • Giraffe feet are the size of a dinner plate with a diameter of 30cm.
  • Giraffe tongues are bluish-purple and between 45-50cm long.
  • Both male and female giraffe have ‘horns’ already at birth. These ossicones lie flat and are attached to the skull to avoid injury at birth. They only fuse with the skull later in life.
  • The giraffe is the tallest mammal in the world. Even newborn giraffe are taller than most humans.
  • Female giraffe give birth standing up. Their young fall about 2m to the ground and can stand up within an hour of birth.
  • About 50% of all giraffe calves do not survive their first year.
  • A giraffe’s neck is too short to reach the ground. As a result, it has to awkwardly spread its front legs or kneel to reach the ground for a drink of water.
  • Giraffe only need to drink once every few days. Most of their water comes from all the plants they eat.
  • To protect the giraffe’s brain from sudden changes in blood pressure when it lowers its head to drink, it has valves to stop the back-flow of blood and elastic-walled vessels that dilate and constrict to manage flow. NASA has done research on the blood vessels in giraffe legs to get inspiration for human space suits.
  • A giraffe heart can weigh approx. 11kg and is the biggest of any land mammal. It is used to pump 60 litres of blood around its body every minute at a blood pressure twice that of an average human.