Out and about in South Africa’s wild places, the Giraffe is probably the closest thing you can get to a “gentle giant”, although I still wouldn’t venture too close to those powerful legs and heavy hooves if I were you! Towering up to 5 meters high, Giraffe are by far the tallest animal alive on earth today. Bulls can weigh up to 1,500kg, while cows are more delicately built and seldom reach a ton in weight.
Giraffes prefer open semi-desert and savanna habitats, especially where thorn trees proliferate. They feed on leaves, shoots, pods, flowers, thorns and fruit, consuming more than 50kg of browse daily. They also have a curious habit of chewing on old bones to supplement the calcium in their diet. When surface water is available, Giraffes will drink regularly, but in drier areas, like the Namib desert, they can survive without water for extended periods.
Giraffe society is a very fluid one. Adult cows and their calves congregate in herds numbering up to 30, but these are not very stable and individuals move between herds as they please. Adult bulls live mostly solitary lives, while younger bulls often associate in bachelor groups after leaving their maternal herds. Adult bulls establish their dominance through ritualised displays and fighting by using their long necks and heads as clubs, often knocking one another unconscious and sometimes even causing the death of one of the combatants through a broken neck or limb when they crash to the ground after a well placed blow. Although they seem ungainly, Giraffes can attain speeds of up to 60km/h, run for distances of up to 7km, and jump over fences 1.5m high! Giraffes have acute senses and other herbivore species often accompany them, as Giraffes are usually the first to detect the presence of predators. They are mostly diurnal, preferring to rest in the shade during the heat of the day.
Cows give birth standing up to single calves, although twins have been recorded, after a 15 month gestation. Giraffe calves are about 1.8m high and weigh up to 100kg at birth, and can stand within an hour of being born. Cows are very determined about protecting their calves, and many a lion has been kicked to death when attempting to catch a calf. Calves also fall prey to hyenas and leopards, while adults only really need to fear lions, of which they are a favourite prey. Giraffe can live to an age of up to 30 years in the wild.
Despite being classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN, giraffe populations are declining across much of their range due to habitat loss and poaching, and the total African population now probably numbers less than 80,000 animals. Over 30,000 animals, representing the two southern subspecies, occur in Angola, Namibia, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa (where they have been extensively introduced outside their natural distribution range) and likely represent the only stable or increasing populations of giraffe on the continent. South Africa’s biggest population of giraffe occur in the Kruger National Park, but they are also regularly encountered in several other parks and reserves, including the uMkhuze section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, Mapungubwe, Marakele, Mokala and Pilanesberg National Parks, and Ithala Game Reserve, of which they are the emblem.
Recent genetic studies suggest that there may actually be four distinct species of giraffe, but it remains to be seen whether this becomes a widely accepted scientific view.