A Brief History of the Giraffe

I’ve talked a fair amount on this site about some of the world’s lesser known species, and why they deserve your attention. That’s all well and good, but there’s more to biodiversity than deep-sea sharks or fungus-farming ants or mysterious Vietnamese bovines. People gravitate towards what they know, and it’s important to remember that when trying to promote conservation. So this week, I’m turning my attention back to one the more famous species. After all, there’s a reason that giraffes are so well-known around the world.

  A giraffe on the move at sunset, Kruger National Park, South Africa.

A giraffe on the move at sunset, Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Giraffes are of course best known for their height. They’re the world’s tallest living land animals, reaching heights of 4.5-5.5 m (14-18 ft), although one fellow was once measured at nearly 6 m (20 ft). Part of this massive height comes from the legs, which are often long enough that most human adults could stand underneath a giraffe’s belly without having their head touch the animal. Not that I would recommend trying that – all that leg and height comes with a lot of weight and a lot of speed. Giraffes usually walk, but can gallop up to 60 kph (37 mph) when they need to, although this can increase the chances that they’ll trip over their own legs, potentially making them easy prey for large predators.

  Giraffe with oxpecker birds along its spine, Kruger National Park, South Africa. Every giraffe has a completely unique pattern on its coat. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought the pattern looked a bit leopard-ish on a cameloid body, hence the giraffe's genus name: Camelopardis.

Giraffe with oxpecker birds along its spine, Kruger National Park, South Africa. Every giraffe has a completely unique pattern on its coat. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought the pattern looked a bit leopard-ish on a cameloid body, hence the giraffe's genus name: Camelopardis.

The giraffe’s most defining feature, however, is the neck, which can be up to 2.5 m (8 ft) long on its own. Giraffes have the same number of neck vertebrae as any other mammal – 7 – but theirs are unusually long, and connected with ball-and-socket joints (like our shoulders). It takes a lot of muscle and ligaments to keep that much neck upright, not to mention a lot of blood pressure to ensure that the giraffe’s brain gets the oxygen it needs. To compensate for the height, giraffes have enormous hearts that can weigh more than 11 kg (25 lb), with specialized blood vessels that keep them from getting a head rush every time they bend down. Recently, we’ve started studying their circulation and skin, to find ways to help leg circulation in fighter pilots and astronauts.

For a long time, it was thought that the purpose of the long neck and legs was to allow the giraffe to reach high branches to avoid competing with other plant-eaters, but recent studies indicate that it’s more likely that the necks are for fighting. Male giraffes compete for mates by “necking”, or slamming their heads and necks together. They also develop thicker, more club-like skulls as they grow older, which gives them an advantage in these fights. The height also gives giraffes advantage in terms of vigilance. They have good eyesight, and can see when something’s coming before anyone else. They also sleep very little – less than 2 hours per day – since their height can make them vulnerable.

  Prehensile tongues can come in handy in a lot of ways. Image by  Irina Polikanova .

Prehensile tongues can come in handy in a lot of ways. Image by Irina Polikanova.

Giraffes are the world’s largest ungulates (hoofed mammals), and eat high vegetation – mostly acacia leaves. Acacia trees can have long nasty thorns though, so giraffes have a number of adaptations to work around this, including long luscious eyelashes, nostrils they can close, and a long prehensile tongue that can grasp branches and strip off leaves without getting stabbed. As ruminants (like cows), they have multiple stomachs and have to chew, swallow, bring the food back up to their mouths, chew some more, swallow again, and repeat this process a number of times. If you watch a giraffe carefully while it’s doing this, you can actually see the lump of food traveling up and down the neck, which is maybe a little gross, but mostly fascinating.

  Chinese art of a giraffe with two Arab handlers. Giraffes first arrived in China in the 15th century. Image from  strangehistory.net .

Chinese art of a giraffe with two Arab handlers. Giraffes first arrived in China in the 15th century. Image from strangehistory.net.

Being so tall and unique (and living in open savannah), giraffes are pretty hard to miss. So we’ve known about them pretty much all along. They appear throughout recorded and oral history, in most sub-Saharan African cultural traditions, in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek and Roman writings, Chinese art, and more. They became popular as high-status pets/livestock, and were often gifted from one royal to another across Europe, Asia, and Africa. They continue to be popular today, featuring in almost any animal-based pop culture, especially in media designed for kids. Strange and appealing, there’s no doubt that giraffes are well-known and well-liked.

However, many people don’t realize that giraffes are threatened. We have largely failed to notice that they’re disappearing. While we were enjoying giraffes in cartoons and toy stores, the world’s population of wild giraffes dropped by about 40% in 30 years (in Kenya, the population dropped by more than 3 quarters). From 2010 to 2016, their IUCN Red List status changed from “least concern” to “vulnerable”, with many biologists and conservationists pushing to place them in the “endangered” category (and some subspecies are considered “endangered” with populations in the hundreds).

  An anti-poaching unit investigates a giraffe carcass in Niger. Image by  Cristophe Corteau .

An anti-poaching unit investigates a giraffe carcass in Niger. Image by Cristophe Corteau.

Why the sudden drop in numbers? Giraffes have always been hunted in Africa, for meat, skins and tendons (which can be used to make all sort of things), and traditional medicines. When Europeans started colonizing Africa, they hunted giraffes for sport. Today, giraffes are popular in trophy hunting – in the last 10 years, tens of thousands of giraffe products and trophies were legally imported into the US. They also get poached for their meat, skins, and frequently, for their tails. Giraffe tails are seen as status symbols in many African cultures, and are sometimes used as a dowry for marriages. In a few places in Africa, there was also speculation that certain giraffe body parts could cure HIV/AIDS (they can’t). Legal hunting is also contributing, although this is a more contentious issue – big game hunting in Africa brings in huge amounts of money for local economies and for conservation efforts (this is a huge topic that I’ll be addressing separately in a later post).

Another pressing issue is the same one that affects thousands of species across the globe – habitat loss. Cities are growing, farmland is expanding, and mismanaged land combined with the effects of climate change leads to drought, loss of vegetation, and more land consumption by people. The savannah is shrinking, and the many animals that call it home – including giraffes – are losing space and numbers.

  Giraffes lean way down and splay their front legs to get a drink. Image by  kimvanderwaal .

Giraffes lean way down and splay their front legs to get a drink. Image by kimvanderwaal.

We need to start paying attention to giraffe populations so we don’t run the risk of losing them. Giraffes are familiar to most of us because of pop culture and their popularity in zoos across the globe. But they’re so well-known that we got it in our heads that they’re doing just fine, and they’re not. Admittedly, giraffes are currently a lot better off than some species – rhinos, for example – but that doesn’t mean we should continue to be complacent about them. Let’s do our best to keep them around for a long time to come.


You can support giraffe conservation efforts through WWF or IUCN, or check out the Wild Focus Project’s list of conservation groups to support in Africa.

If you're interested in learning more about the economic tradeoffs of poaching vs ecotourism, check out my post about it here.