During my recent trip to South Africa, one of the animals that really stood out to me was the giraffe. The first giraffe we saw was in the Hluhluwe Imfolozi game reserve. In the distance, towering above the trees, we could see the head of a giraffe. As we got closer, its immense height was profoundly startling – large adult males stand at nearly 6 metres tall. We were watching the tallest animal in the world. It was pleasantly humbling; it was their world, we were just visitors.
The taxonomy of giraffes has been heavily debated over the years. Currently, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) only recognises one species with nine subspecies. However, the latest genetic studies have proposed that there are four species: the northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), southern giraffe (G. giraffa), reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata), and Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi).
The main difference between these species is their distinctive patterning – a mosaic of brown, yellow and cream. A giraffe’s coat acts as an excellent form of camouflage in the dappled lighting of savanna woodlands. I can attest to this. The giraffe I mentioned earlier managed to seemingly dissolve into the vegetation as we grew closer. An animal taller than a double-decker bus was able to vanish within the blink of an eye. It amazed me, and revealed that, through millennia of intricate evolution, the giraffe has developed a camouflage perfectly suited to its environment.
Giraffes feed primarily on the twigs of trees, especially acacia trees. These twigs often have thorns, but giraffes have thick, tough tissue coating their lips and tongue to combat this, as well as special hairs. Their tongue is an oddly fascinating adaption of the giraffe. It is prehensile (capable of grasping), purplish-black in colour and 45cm long. As well as helping to grasp foliage, a giraffe’s tongue is also used for grooming. The unusual colour of a giraffe’s tongue is thought to help protect against sunburn.
With a neck of around 2 metres in length, giraffes have the best view of the African savanna. Antelope species, such as impala, like to stay close to giraffes as they are first to spot any signs of danger. However, their height can makes giraffes look a bit awkward at times. When drinking, they must clumsily spread their legs and bend down to reach the water, but this makes them vulnerable to predators. Lions in particular. Most predators avoid giraffes due to their strong eyesight and powerful kicks, but lion prides work together to take down giraffes of any size. The risk is high, but the reward is even greater. A single giraffe carcass can provide meals for countless big cats and scavengers.
In 2016, the conservation status of giraffes was upgraded from ‘least concern’ to ‘vulnerable’ as their population is experiencing a rapidly declining trend. The disappearance of giraffes from much of their historic range and their plummeting populations have led some conservationists to call their loss the ‘silent extinction’. It is called a silent extinction because their disappearances go under the radar. Their population is thought to be at around 100,000 individuals, threatened mainly by habitat loss and poaching. The giraffe is such an iconic African animal, and one of the most unique mammals on earth, that more awareness must be raised for their situation.