A journey with giraffes – African Geographic

Giraffes have intrigued mankind with their unusual yet graceful appearance. However, little is known about the species and it has been somewhat neglected by scientists. It is estimated that there are only 80,000 giraffes left in Africa and the species has already gone extinct in at least seven countries.

   This gentle giant lacks the attitude and reputation of the rhino, the human-like traits of the gorilla, the intelligence of the elephant and the elusive nature of the pangolin, and so is overshadowed by these supermodels of conservation and could very well disappear before our eyes; loping silently into extinction.

   The giraffe’s long neck is equipped to fill an ecological niche above the average bushveld browsing line; setting it a stretch above the rest as it twists its tongue around tricky acacia thorns. The species has further evolved into regional variances: the giraffe, like the Asian tiger, has nine different subspecies, two of which are now classified as endangered.

  Browse this issue to find fascinating facts about the nine different giraffe subspecies and their closest living relative, the okapi. The nine subspecies are listed in order of rarity.

West African giraffe (aka. white giraffe) ©Julian Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Foundation


With an isolated pocket of 400 individuals, the West African giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis peralta) is rarer than both the Ethiopian wolf and the mountain gorilla. As the most endangered of the nine giraffe subspecies, the remaining population lives alongside villagers outside of protected areas in Niger.

   The West African giraffe’s journey to recovery, although not complete, can be attributed to the Niger government, local NGOs and international support, all of which have worked to increase the population numbers from just 50 in the mid-1990s to the 400 that exist today.

   APPEARANCE: The West African giraffe is believed to be genetically distinct from its fellow giraffes, with some scientists saying it could even be its own species. It has a washed out coat with rectangular-shaped, tan-coloured spots set between thick ivory lines. Its light appearance has given rise to it often being called the ‘white giraffe’.

   WHERE TO SEE THEM: You can visit this giraffe population 50km east of Niger’s capital, Niamey, on a day trip with Association pour la Valorisation de l’Ecotourisme au Niger (AVEN). 


Thornicroft’s giraffe ©Marcus Westberg, Norman Carr Safaris


It is estimated that there are fewer than 550 left of this subspecies in the wild, and there are 400 kilometres separating South Luangwa Valley’s isolated population of Thornicroft’s from the nearest other subspecies of giraffe.

   APPEARANCE: The Thornicroft’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis thornicrofti) has a cream-coloured hide cracked with dark brown, irregular blotches. Some scientists suggest that the Thornicroft’s giraffe is genetically similar to the Maasai giraffe.

   WHERE TO SEE THEM: Explore the Valley of the Leopards from ChinzomboMchenja or Kakuli Camps with Norman Carr Safaris and see the Thornicroft’s giraffe.

- See more at: http://magazine.africageographic.com/weekly/issue-67/a-journey-giraffes-9-species/ag-mag-gallery/image/thornicrofts-giraffe/#sthash.s10rIauJ.dpufonservation, visit the Giraffe Conservation Foundation website.


Nubian giraffe ©Julian Fennessey, Giraffe Conservation Foundation


With an estimated 650 left in the wild, the Nubian giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis) comes in third on the most endangered giraffe list. The subspecies occurs in Western Ethiopia and South Sudan, and it is 32.5 times rarer than another endangered Ethiopian native, the Grevy’s zebra.

   APPEARANCE: The Nubian giraffe has rectangular-shaped splotches on an off-white hide, and the pattern does not extend further than the hocks. Some scientists have suggested that the Nubian giraffe could actually be the same subspecies as the Rothschild’s giraffe and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation is trying to unravel this mystery with its partners.

   WHERE TO SEE THEM: Spot their splotches in Gambella National Park, Ethiopia, which is located 850km west of Addis Ababa and hosts several wildlife species that aren’t found anywhere else in the country.



Rothschild’s giraffe at Giraffe Manor ©Ana Zinger


Towering above the rest of the fauna in Uganda and Kenya is the Rothschild’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi). With an estimated 1,500 left in the wild, the Rothschild’s giraffe is even rarer than the black rhino.

      APPEARANCE: The Rothschild’s giraffe has a dark rectangular pattern that is broken up by a cream-coloured coat, and it can have up to five ossicones, which are horn-like protuberances, on its head! Like the West African giraffe it is speculated that it could be its own species.

      WHERE TO SEE THEM: The Rothschild’s giraffe has become a huge attraction at Giraffe Manor in Kenya. The history of this iconic building dates back four decades to when Jock and Betty Leslie-Melville first adopted an orphaned Rothschild’s giraffe. They then chose to dedicate their lives to rehabilitating this threatened subspecies, developing a sanctuary and breeding programme on their grounds before their son opened it as a small hotel in the 1980s. Set in 12 acres of private land within 140 acres of indigenous forest in the Langata suburb of Nairobi, the giraffes are nurtured until they are ready to be reintroduced into the wild.

   Guests at the hotel have the chance to feed these elegant creatures from the windows or to take a guided walk around the sanctuary and learn more about them at the onsite Giraffe Centre, which is run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife. However, if you wish to see naturally occurring wild populations of the Rothschild’s giraffe, these only exist in Murchison Falls and Kidepo Valley National Park in Uganda.


Kordofan giraffe in Zakouma National Park ©Michael Lorentz, Passage to Africa


Fewer than 2,000 Kordofan giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis antiquorum) have succeeded in inhabiting some of the most hostile places in Africa – navigating the war-torn countries of southern Chad, Central African Republic, northern Cameroon and the northern Democratic Republic of Congo.

   APPEARANCE: The Kordofan is one of the paler subspecies thanks to its light-coloured, irregular patterns that extend to the inside of their legs but not past the knees.

   WHERE TO SEE THEM: Zakouma National Park, Chad, one of Africa’s conservation success stories, is the continent’s hottest new safari destination and is home to half of the Kordofan population in Africa. You can visit Zakouma with Passage to Africa.


Reticulated giraffe (aka. netted or Somali giraffe) ©Mali N Reddy


Although the population of reticulated giraffe is relatively high compared to other subspecies, its population of an estimated 8,000 is in rapid decline and has suffered an 80% decrease in its numbers over the last decade or two. The reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) can be found in Somalia, Ethiopia and north-east Kenya.

   APPEARANCE: This giraffe is a burnt orange with large brown markings that are shattered by thin white lines.

   WHERE TO SEE THEM: A stay at Sosian Lodge or Porini Rhino Camp in the Laikipia region of Kenya both offer, among many other things, the fantastic opportunity to see this subspecies.


Angolan giraffe in Namibia ©Julian Fennessey, Giraffe Conservation Foundation


The Angolan giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis angolensis) sadly no longer occurs in Angola but can be seen in Zambia, Namibia and Botswana where an estimated 15,000 roam in the wild.

   APPEARANCE: The Angolan giraffe is often referred to as the smoky giraffe because of its light, irregular patterns extending across the length of its body.

   WHERE TO SEE THEM: Etosha National Park in Namibia is a great place to see the Angolan giraffe and Mokuti Lodge is the perfect base from which to explore the area. Also look out for them in the stunning desert landscape along the Skeleton Coast and Kaokoland in northern Namibia.


South African giraffe (aka. Cape giraffe) ©Andy Biggs


Over 17,000 South African giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa) can be found across South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, and current projects aim to ensure its return to Mozambique.

    There is a growing concern with regards to re-introduction of Angolan and South African giraffe in the same areas as this has resulted in hybrid populations. Hybrids among subspecies can occur naturally but, like tigers, it does muddy the genetic pool and makes it difficult to define distinct subspecies.

   APPEARANCE: The South African giraffe’s hide is covered with star-shaped spots set against varying shades of tan to off-white.

   WHERE TO SEE THEM: The South African giraffe is commonly seen in South Africa’s popular safari areas such as Kruger National Park and Addo Elephant National Park. You can also watch this subspecies wander by from Etali Safari Lodge or Jaci’s Safari Lodge, both of which are located in malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve.


Juvenile female Maasai giraffe ©HAWK Photography


The Maasai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelschirchi) is the most common of the subspecies with just under 37,000 in the wild. However, poaching poses a particular threat to them and their numbers have halved in the last few decades.

   APPEARANCE: With irregular spots shattered by cappuccino-coloured lines, this is one of the darkest subspecies, particularly the males.

   WHERE TO SEE THEM: The Maasai giraffe occurs across central and southern Kenya, and Tanzania. Why not horse ride alongside these magnificent creatures in the Maasai Mara with OffBeat Safaris? And if you’re not an equestrian enthusiast, head toPorini Mara Camp with Gamewatchers Safaris and Porini Camps.


Okapi ©Okapi Conservation Project


The okapi (Okapia johnstoni), often referred to as the forest giraffe, is the giraffe’s only living relative. This elusive and shy creature is endemic to the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is considered one of the oldest mammals on earth but was only discovered in the early 20th century. With only 10,000 to 20,000 left, the okapi was listed as endangered in 2013.

   APPEARANCE: The okapi is the size of a horse, with what appears to be the bottom of a zebra and the tongue of a giraffe.

   WHERE TO SEE THEM: The best place to see an okapi is at the Okapi Conservation Project in the DRC’s Ituri Forest.


Maasai giraffe and oxpecker ©Billy Dodson



   Giraffes and oxpeckers: Giraffes and red-billed oxpeckers have a symbiotic relationship. The giraffe is a blood hotel for ticks and flies – the oxpecker’s favourite food. It’s a mutual agreement that works out well for all concerned, unless the giraffe is injured. These birds, also referred to as ‘vampire birds’, keep wounds open to attract more insects so that they have more to feed on, including the flesh itself.

      Giraffe calves: Giraffe cows are pregnant for 15 months and have no formal breeding season. It is believed that, like turtles, giraffes give birth where they were born, in areas called calving grounds. The 100kg calf plummets into life in the savanna, falling about 1.5 metres to the ground, and will be up and suckling within an hour. A calf’s height will double within a year and, after that year some subspecies keep their calves in nursery groups.

   Giraffe social structures: A herd of moving giraffes is referred to as a ‘journey’ while a stationary herd is called a ‘tower‘. Giraffes live in loose herds, with females generally residing together and males living in bachelor groups until they reach sexual maturity. However, in some populations, males do live with the females.

      Giraffes and acacias: The giraffe’s 45cm long tongue is tough because their favourite food source, the acacia tree, has developed a cavalry of thorns to protect its desirable leaves and flowers. In some areas, giraffes also go to war with armies of acacia-dwelling ants defending the sweet nectar – another one of the tree’s defence mechanisms. To top that off, acacia trees have an ethylene alarm system that warns other trees of the imminent threat from giraffes. This causes the trees to produce a leaf tannin, which can be lethal for browsers.

   A giraffe’s coat: A giraffe’s coat is more than just a camouflage. The brown splotches are heat releasers, acting as thermal windows with a sophisticated network of blood vessels beneath them.

      Giraffe necking: Giraffe bulls establish dominance through necking, which is a fighting sequence in which a bull swings its seven-vertebrae-long neck into the body of its rival. The giraffe’s skull has evolved to take the impact of the head butting but they do occasionally get knocked unconscious during bouts and can sometimes (although rarely) die.


About the author


GEORGINA LOCKWOOD grew up escaping Johannesburg city to go horse-back riding in the Magaliesberg mountains or Land Rovering in the Madikwe sand veld. Accustomed to the sun on her face and the wind in her hair, Georgina embarked as a trainee sailor on a three-masted barque to travel the world beyond her beloved Southern Africa. Ship life steered her to remote destinations and ecological treasure houses like the Galapagos, Pitcairn Island and Polynesia. Once grounded, her love of the outdoors developed into a deep respect for the environment and a desire to preserve it. Georgina is newly graduated from the University of Cape Town with a degree in Environmental Science.

- See more at: http://magazine.africageographic.com/weekly/issue-67/a-journey-giraffes-9-species/ag-mag-gallery/image/maasai-giraffe-and-ox-pecker-by-billy-dodson/#sthash.usAXgl7N.dpuf