South Africa’s Graceful Giraffes

As the world’s tallest mammals, giraffes can be relied on to generate some excitement among spectators out on a bush drive when spotting wildlife has been rare. Standing tall above the surrounding vegetation, giraffes are a magnificent sight, and while their gait is incredibly graceful, they can reach speeds of up to 56 kilometers per hour if necessary to escape danger.

Giraffes grow to a height of between four and six meters and on average weigh between 794 to 1,270 kilograms. They are herbivores and use their above-average height to reach the tastiest leaves and buds in the tree-tops, with acacias being among their favourite foods. They use their exceptionally long tongues to wrap around the twigs and pull them into their mouths where they strip the leaves off with their teeth. Most of their waking time is spent looking for and eating vegetation, which they regurgitate and chew as cud, in much the same way that cows do.

While the giraffe’s height is helpful in accessing food sources other mammals are not able to reach, and is advantageous for spotting predators at great distances, it is a disadvantage when they need to drink water, as they must spread their front legs far apart and stretch their necks forward to reach the water. This awkward position makes them vulnerable to predators, but fortunately they only need to go through this process every three or four days as they get most of the moisture they need from the vegetation they eat.

Giraffes generally gather in groups of six or more females and young ones, with males moving between groups to check for sexually receptive females. There may be a measure of rivalry among males, leading to some conflict, but this rarely results in injury as one party will generally back down. When a female becomes pregnant, a single calf is born after a gestation period of 457 days. The female gives birth standing up, with the 100 kilogram baby unceremoniously dropping a distance of around 1.5 meters to the ground. Within half an hour the infant is on its feet and within ten hours after birth can run alongside its mother. These young ones are preyed on by the big cats – lions, leopards, cheetahs – and hyenas and only about half of all giraffes born make it to adulthood, with healthy individuals living up to 25 years.

Although no two individuals will have the same spotted pattern, it has been noted that giraffes from the same area do look similar. While at one time giraffe populations were diminished by hunting, human development and disease, conservation efforts have proven successful and they are a prominent feature on private and government game reserves throughout South Africa.