A Giraffe’s head sticks out from the surrounding bushes – I can observe how the animal concentrates on the feeding process. Cleverly, it plucks the leaves with its long, blue tongue from between the pointed thorns of the acacia trees. The head swings in my direction. Gentle, tall, dark eyes look at me curiously.
The animal does not get distracted for long and continues feeding. After all it has to manage an intake of 30 kg of greens per day. The head on the long neck swings back to the branches.
Giraffes are the tallest mammals living on Earth. Male animals grow up to six meters and females up to four and a half meters high. Their weight is also considerable: males weigh up to 1,600 kg, females up to 830 kg.
Seven vertebrae only
What fascinates me most about giraffes: their cervical spine supports the head on only seven vertebrae. Not surprising, therefore, that the entire physique affects the circulation. The heart of a giraffe is enormously powerful because it has to pump blood into the distant brain and into the long legs.
Drinking is an enormous challenge for the animal. It has to bend down at the waterhole. To accomplish that it has to straddle its legs. It cannot move quickly in this position – it could not equalize the pressure difference fast enough and might even pass out. Going for a drink makes it vulnerable to big predators like lions. In order to stay safe the animal eyes its environment suspiciously before it gives in to its thirst and starts drinking. The approach may take up to 10 minutes or more until it is convinced that drinking is safe enough.
Good in defending themselves
Although giraffes look very meek, they can be well-fortified. The cloven-hoofed animals use their front hooves to kick hard at their attackers. Recently, a man was fatally injured at the head by a giraffe bull while filming on a private ranch. The animal hit the cameraman so badly with its head that the man suffered a lethal injury due to the collision. Usually the males duel in the mating season. They hit their head against the neck of their opponent. The fighting is at times so violent that one of the opponents can go down unconscious.
But the giraffes around me remain peaceful and gentle. The large group of more than 20 animals does not allow my presence to disturb them. A few cocky youngsters gallop through the dried river bed not far in front of the vehicle. I appreciate the gallop – to me it is surprisingly graceful considering the fact that they have to balance their weight and body height. Today the pattern of the animals’ beautiful fur stands out against the deep blue Namibian sky.
A tough landing
The birth of giraffe calves is fascinating, too. Usually, a giraffe gives birth to only one calf. The birth takes place while the giraffe is standing. The calf falls down from a height of two meters. The landing is quite a rough start into life. At birth, it weighs about 50 kg and is 1.80 meters high. After about an hour it can stand on thin and still shaky legs. After a few hours it explores its environment and is introduced to the group after a few days or weeks.
Today, giraffes live mainly in the grass savannahs of southern and eastern Africa. Over the last 30 years, their numbers have dropped by 40%. The animals are on the red list of the IUCN. Meanwhile, about 60,000 giraffes only are said to be left. Responsible for the decline of these impressive animals are humans in their drive of expansion. Giraffes are often hunted illegally. Their habitats are destroyed by agricultural activities, mining or new settlement areas. Political unrest contributes to the situation as well as the consumption of giraffe meat or the use of their skins.