One of my favourite animals seen when visiting South Africa was the tall, elegant South African Giraffe. Also known as the Cape Giraffe, Bob and I came across these gentle giants on several occasions as we toured Kruger National Park, and it was always a pleasure to sit and observe them.
Bob and I spent the hot, sunny days driving ourselves around Kruger National Park always in the hopes of seeing various species of wildlife. We were never disappointed. One afternoon, as we completed a loop south towards Mitomeni, Gayisenga and then north again to Skukuza, we came across, among other birds and animals, Elephants, Impalas, and this lovely trio of South African Giraffes going about its business with an air of serenity.
Giraffes are social animals that enjoy each others’ company, and usually it is related females with their young that travel together in a group. Males are nomadic and roam from one group of females to another, sometimes as a group of unrelated bachelors.
Giraffes prefer semi-arid savanna and open woodlands that provide scattered bushes and trees upon which to feed. They consume leaves, fruit, buds, twigs and flowers of woody plants with a preference for acacia trees. Given the threat of predation by Lions, Leopards, Hyenas and African Wild Dogs, one might wonder why Giraffes expose themselves on open savanna when feeding, especially when they have such an effective means of camouflage in the colour of their hide.
Even at close range, an adult Giraffe can essentially disappear behind reasonable leaf cover, but most foraging is done on the open savanna where a Giraffe stands a better chance of detecting approaching predators. The calves are hidden a distance away in among trees and bushes where their spotted coat blends with the flickering shadows and light of the woodlands.
It is not only a Giraffe’s height that is an advantage on the open plains but also the placement of its large, bulging eyes on the sides of its head. This means a Giraffe has almost an aerial view of its surroundings combined with all-around vision. Add to these skills excellent hearing, color vision, and a sharp sense of smell, and an adult Giraffe has a real advantage over its predators.
Bob and I were absolutely enamoured with these, the tallest terrestrial animals that could often been seen from a distance where their long necks and heads seemed to float above the tall grasses and shrubs.
There are four remaining species of Giraffes on Earth, and each can be distinguished from the other by the appearance of the spots on their bodies. Within any one species, individuals can be identified because the pattern of spots on each animal is unique just like our fingerprints or a zebra’s stripes or an African Penguin’s spots.
The skin of South African Giraffes is tan coloured which sets off the contrasting rounded spots. Females of the species have light brown patches whereas males have dark brown patches with the blotches in both genders getting smaller as they extend down to the hooves.
The other means of distinguishing a male Giraffe from a female is by looking at the horn-like protuberances or ossicones on top of the head. Female and young Giraffes have slender ossicones with tufts of hair on top, whereas a male Giraffe’s horns end in knobs that are bald on top. The Giraffe in the photo at the top of this blog story is a handsome male.
As Bob and I sat in our car at the side of the gravel road on this occasion, it was easy to imagine that some unseen Lion or Leopard was lurking in the long grass of the savanna, but the calm demeanour of the South African Giraffes gave no indication of a threat. It is rare that a Lion will attack a Giraffe given their intimidating size.
Male Giraffes are taller than females with the average height being 5.0 and 4.5 meters (16.5 and 14.8 ft) respectively. The 6-8 foot (2-2.4m) long neck accounts for much of a Giraffe’s height and is balanced by equally long legs. A Giraffe, with hooves that are 12 inches across and powered by those legs can deliver a fatal blow to a Lion.
A Giraffe’s tall height is a definite advantage when it comes to foraging, and its very long prehensile tongue adds another 18-21 inches to their ability to reach the most nutrient-rich browse in the upper reaches of acacia and mimosa trees. Acacia Trees have fierce thorns, but a Giraffe’s tongue can find its way around those and pull only the leaves, buds and twigs into the mouth where the stems are stripped clean.
Perhaps the neatest image I captured was of this pair of South African Giraffes that we saw in Africa’s oldest game reserve, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi. I just love how they were leisurely walking along the road in front of us and slowly disappeared over the crest of a hill. It was at that moment that I recalled one of our safari guides mentioning a Giraffe’s white ears. Highly visible on the savanna, the white ears let Giraffes see one another from as far away as 1 1/2 kilometres (1 mile). We sure didn’t need any help spotting this handsome couple of Giraffes, a male and female by all appearances judging by the size difference and colours of their hair.