One of the most majestic sights while on safari in East Africa is not necessarily the lion nor the elephant, but that of a ‘tower’ (what better way to describe this group!) of giraffe silhouetted against the setting sun, as they stride gracefully across the flat grassland. For animals that at first glance seem somewhat ungainly with their long stilt-like legs and outstretched necks, the Twiga as they are called in Swahili, move like a bevy of tall ballerinas.
Giraffes are an integral part of the landscape in the semi-arid savannah and savannah woodlands in sub-Saharan Africa, and also occupy a unique place in the cultural landscape of the African continent. They are highly regarded throughout the continent, and the giraffe spirit animal is seen as a being who can connect the material world to the heavens. In Botswana they call the giraffe Thutlhwa which means ‘honoured one’. Cave paintings from early civilizations in Africa depict giraffes, and giraffes feature in a lot of mythology and folklore of the different tribes. These indicate a high regard for this unique animal, as well as delightful tales that link to the origins of the characteristic features of the giraffe.
The name ‘giraffe’ itself has its earliest origins in the Arabic word zarafa, (fast walker), which in turn may be have been derived from the animal’s Somali name geri. The Italian word giraffa came up in the 1590s, and the modern English form developed around 1600 from the French word girafe. The history of the word follows the history of the European’s exposure to this unusual animal.
This animal has always fascinated people through history. The Greeks and Romans believed that this creature was an unnatural hybrid of a camel and a leopard and called it a Camelopardalis (which also became its scientific name). Julius Caesar is believed to have brought and displayed the first giraffe in Rome in 46 BC. In the Middle Ages Europeans knew about giraffes through contact with the Arabs. A giraffe presented to Lorenzo de Medici in 1486 caused a great stir on its arrival in Florence. In the early 19th century a similar gift to the Charles X of France from Egypt caused a sensation. He loved this animal, and it was something he showed to special guests for 18 years. His palace featured many paintings of his beloved giraffe.
In 1414 a giraffe was taken on a ship to China along with precious stones and spices. It was placed in a zoo where it was a source of fascination for the Chinese people who saw in it a beast that represented the characteristics of various animals and identified it with the mythical Quilin which is a part of Japanese, Chinese and Korean mythology.
What makes the giraffe so unusual? To start with, it is the tallest mammal on earth, reaching a height of up to 18 feet. The height is achieved by its very long neck and legs.
African folklore has a number of tales that explain why the giraffe has such a long neck. Here is a delightful Twiga tale from East Africa.
In the beginning the Creator gave the same legs and neck to all the animals. One year there was a terrible drought, and all that could be grazed and browsed was eaten by the grazers and browsers, until only a hot and dusty expanse spread before their hungry eyes. One day Giraffe met his friend Rhino, and they walked hungrily and thirstily in search of a water hole. Giraffe looked up and sighed “Look at the fresh green leaves on the acacia trees. If only we could reach them we would no longer be hungry”. Rhino said, “Maybe we can visit the wise and powerful magician and share our troubles.” The two friends trudged on till they reached the place where the magician lived. He told them to return the next day. The next day Rhino forgot all about this and did not show up, but Giraffe was there. The magician gave him the magic herbs that he had prepared for the two animals. Giraffe greedily ate up both the portions. Suddenly he felt a strange tingling in his legs and neck, and felt giddy, so he closed his eyes. When he opened them he saw that the ground was way beneath, and his head was way up, close to the fresh green leaves on the high branches of the tall acacia trees. Giraffe looked up at the sky and down at his long legs, and smiled as he feasted. Meanwhile Rhino finally remembered, and went to the magician. But the magician said he was too late! Giraffe has eaten all the magic herbs! Rhino was so angry, that he charged at the magician, and continued to do so at everyone he encountered. And so, they say, the rhino remained bad tempered, while the giraffe retained his gift of height.
Interestingly, the giraffe’s long neck has only 7 vertebrae, the same as other mammals. The long neck enables the giraffe to browse on the leaves and shoots of thorny acacia trees in the flat grasslands that it inhabits. This is helped by the strong, long (45-50 cm) and dexterous tongue which is bluish-purple in colour, and the ridged roof of their mouth.
The long neck with eyes located near the top of the head also provides it with a vantage view of the surroundings. The giraffe can spot approaching danger well before the other grazing animals, who are usually found around the giraffe. If they sense any nervousness on the part of the giraffe, they take it as a cue to stay alert or flee.
Curiously, once the height of the legs is added, the long neck is too short to reach the ground. Thus in order to drink from a water hole giraffe have to splay their forelegs and/or bend their knees. This is also the time when they are the most vulnerable to predators like lions. However as giraffes do not need much water, this exercise is not needed very often.
The long slender legs make the giraffe a very fast runner. Although initially the gait may seem stiff-legged, once they get into rhythm they are a graceful sight. The legs provide more than momentum, they are also a giraffe’s only means of defense. A powerful kick from its hind legs has been known to kill a lion, and its front legs with sharp hooves can come down just as hard.
Female giraffe give birth standing up, which means that the new born has a fall of about 2 metres before it touches ground. And yet the calf can stand up within an hour of its birth; but this is the time when it is most vulnerable to attack by predators.
Giraffe have very thick skin, and they are distinguished by their reddish brown coats with irregular patches divided by light coloured lines. While they may look alike at a glance, each of the different species of giraffe have very different types of spot patterns. In fact, just like human fingerprints, no two giraffe have the same spot pattern.
Certainly an animal that “stands out in a crowd!” But where once they stood tall and strode majestically across their land, giraffe are numbers are declining alarmingly. As with all wildlife, the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of their habitat, poaching, disease, and encroachment of human settlements into their home range and competition for resources is endangering this unique animal. In 2016, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the status of giraffes was changed to ‘vulnerable to extinction.’
In response, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation has dedicated 21June to raising awareness about giraffes by celebrating World Giraffe Day. A day to remind ourselves that the loss of the Twiga is not only a loss for biogeography, but equally a significant cultural loss.