Guide to Kenyan species: Giraffes

Giraffes are one of Africa’s most iconic animals, instantly recognizable to people of all ages and backgrounds from around the world. Many people don’t realize that there are actually nine different subspecies of giraffe, three of which are found in Kenya: the reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata; also known as the Somali giraffe), Rothschild’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi), and the Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi; also known as the Kilimanjaro giraffe).

(Distribution of giraffes in Africa. Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Reticulated giraffes are found predominantly in the northern portion of Kenya, but they are also quite common in zoos and wild animal parks; we ticked this subspecies off our list during our visit to the KWS headquarters in Nairobi. Rothschild’s giraffes are highly endangered because they frequently hybridize with other subspecies; only a few hundred “pure” individuals are thought to exist in the wild. One of the few locations where they can be observed is Lake Nakuru National Park, where small herds of them can often be found foraging together. By far the most common during our travels was the Masai giraffe, which can be seen in parks, on reserves, along roadsides, and on pastureland.

(Reticulated giraffe having a drink at the KWS headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya)

(Rothschild’s giraffe eating acacia leaves at Lake Nakuru National Park. Photo by John Abernethy.)

(Masai giraffes foraging at Crater Lake)

At first glance, these subspecies may seem too similar to tell apart, but in reality it’s actually not a difficult task. The reticulated giraffe has much whiter lines between the brownish (or sometimes even reddish) patches on its pelt, and the patches are bordered by very smooth lines. The Rothschild’s and Masai giraffes have much creamier lines in between their patches, and the patches have more jagged edges. The key to telling these two subspecies apart is the legs: Masai giraffes’ legs are decorated with brown spots all the way down to their feet, but Rothschild’s giraffes appear to be wearing cream-colored socks.

Seeing a giraffe for the first time can be pretty spectacular because they are so gigantic; indeed, they are the tallest extant terrestrial animals and also, unsurprisingly, the largest ruminant. We see so many that it is easy to begin overlooking them; this is especially true because they tend to be very serene (a less generous person might say “boring”). Anyone who watched the recent footage of fighting reticulated giraffes on David Attenborough’s Africa, however, knows that these guys can be as exciting as any other species on the savanna.

Giraffes are also known for having horns–or, more accurately, ossicones, which are horn-like growths of ossified cartilage (not bone tissue) that are permanently covered in skin and fur (rather than a velvet that can be rubbed off). Some people will tell you that giraffes are the only animals that are born with horns, but technically this isn’t true–and now you know enough to call their bluff!

(Masai giraffes in the Masai Mara)

Adult giraffes are so large that they usually don’t have to worry about the large predators that share their habitat. Young, sick, and old giraffes, however, may be targeted by lions, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs. Giraffes, in turn, target acacia trees, from which they feed with the aid of their incredibly long tongues. All bits of the giraffes’ mouths are quite tough, since they have to withstand exposure to the sharp thorns of acacia trees. This tolerance allows an individual giraffe to make its way through over 30 kg of foliage each day.

Thanks to their long necks, giraffes are able to eat from parts of the acacia tree that are not accessible to other herbivores in the area. Amazingly, giraffes’ long necks are not achieved by the addition of extra vertebrae (relative to similar species), but, rather, lengthening of individual cervical vertebrae. The animals’ closest living relative (and the only other member of the family Giraffidae) is the okapi; these ungulates have approximately 33% of their vertebral length in their cervical region, whereas this value is approximately 50% for giraffes. While this is advantageous for feeding, it makes drinking a bit awkward; giraffes must splay out their legs in order to achieve a position that allows them to lap up and swallow water.

(Masai giraffes at Crater Lake. Photo by Tristan Pett.)

Giraffe necks are good for one other purpose: necking. This is a fighting behavior characterized by the use of necks as weapons to batter other giraffes; as you might expect, it is seen among males seeking to establish dominance and maintain territories (not to mention access to females). Fights can last over 30 minutes and may be followed by a ritual mounting.

Happily, giraffes are of least conservation concern, though they currently inhabit a much smaller region than their ancestors did. As mentioned above, some subspecies are more threatened than others. There are, for example, fewer than 400 of the peralta subspecies, and fewer than 700 of the rothschildi; in fact, these two species are rarer than pandas, mountain gorillas, blue whales, tigers, and bonobos combined.* However, because giraffes are rarely involved in human-wildlife conflicts, they stand a fighting chance of maintaining or even improving their population numbers. This is especially true given the number of protected areas in which they occur–including many destinations of our field course, such as Hell’s Gate, Lake Nakuru, Crater Lake, and the Masai Mara.

(Masai giraffes in the Masai Mara)

*For more info on this issue, visit the Giraffe Conservation Foundation website.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos and content by Dr. Caitlin Kight.