Native to Africa, giraffes are the tallest land animals in the world. Their extreme height allows them to reach leaves that are too high for other animals to munch on. Historically giraffes were thought to be one species. However, recent research suggests four separate species and five subspecies. Therefore the conservation of each species is even more critical than before. Since the mid-1980s, the overall giraffe population has decreased by 40% due to habitat loss, land degradation, climate change, and illegal poaching. Several subspecies are on the IUCN Red List as critically endangered, and most others are either endangered or vulnerable.
Giraffe are scattered around 21 African countries. They have adapted to a variety of habitats including semi-arid desert, acacia woodland and savannah. Namibia’s main giraffe population is the Angolan giraffe. The majority live in Etosha and Damaraland but some are also found further south in the Namib Desert and the Kalahari.
Despite their extremely long necks, giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their necks as humans (seven). Males reach 5.5-6m, whereas females tend to be smaller, reaching 4.5m. Each subspecies of giraffe has its own pattern style and individual giraffes have a unique pattern similar to a fingerprint. The Angolan giraffe is the most common in Namibia, being lighter in colour than other species. Both sexes have horn-like protuberances on their heads called ossicones. Generally, females have tufts of hair on theirs, whereas the males are bald on top due to ritual fighting.
The social structure of giraffes is less defined than other animals but normally females form groups, together with their offspring, and males are more solitary or form bachelor groups when they get too old for their natal group. Males compete for dominance (and therefore mating rights) in a form of ritualised fighting called ‘necking’, swinging their long necks to deliver blows to their opponents’ bodies. They rarely sleep as this makes them too vulnerable to attack. When they do sleep it is for very brief periods.
They are browsers and particularly like the leaves and flowers of acacias. Their very agile, long tongues (up to half a metre) help them to tackle these thorny trees.
Pregnancy takes 15 months and newborn calves can walk within an hour of birth. It is not a comfortable way to be welcomed into the world as they drop about 1.5 metres! Calves rely on their mother’s milk for up to 9-12 months but start eating leaves at four months. Mothers are extremely protective of their young, if other animals get too close they will deliver a powerful kick that can be fatal. Even so, sadly only 50% of calves make it past their first year, often being attacked by lions, hyenas or leopards. After 15 months, male calves leave the herd but often young females stay.