Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)


Giraffa camelopardalis (Linnaeus, 1758)

Photo: Doug Lee


IUCN Conservation Status:

Lower Risk, conservation dependent (LR/cd)

The majestic grace of the giraffe, the tallest animal on Earth, makes it one of the animals most appreciated by tourists. This megavore has a head height exceeding five metres, three antlers, three blood systems and split hooves. The name giraffe is derived from the Arab word "xirapha" meaning "fast walking". The species name refers to "camelo" after the appearance of the sub-Saharan camel Camelus bactrianus and "pardalis" the rosette skin pattern of the leopard Panthera pardus. The Afrikaans name encompasses both the appearance of the camel and the action of a galloping horse.




Fossilized remains show that the modern giraffe originated in north-eastern Africa in the Miocene 10 million years BP, from the larger pre-ancestor Samotherium africanum followed by Bohlinia sp. From here it dispersed into southern Eurasia during the Pliocene seven million years BP. The African lineage comprised five spcies, Giraffa gracilis, G. pygmaea, G. stillei, G. jumae and G. camelopardalis.

There are only two related, living genera in the family each with one species: the giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis and the okapi Okapia johnstoni of Zaïre. 

There is no sub-speciation in the okapi but the giraffe has nine subspecies:

  • Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa the southern giraffe of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and eastern Botswana, that later hybridized with G.c. angolensis and spread to South Africa
  • G.c. angolensis the Angolan giraffe of Botswana, Namibia and Angola
  • G.c. thornicrofti Thornicroft‚Äôs giraffe of the Luangwa Valley in northern Zambia
  • G.c. tippelskirchildi the Masai giraffe of Tanzania and southern Kenya
  • G.c. rothschildi Rothschild‚Äôs hybridised giraffe of Uganda and western Kenya
  • G.c. reticulata the reticulated giraffe of Kenya, southern Ethiopia and eastern Uganda
  • G.c. cottoni the kordofan or northern savannah giraffe of Sudan and Central African Republic
  • G.c. peralta the West African giraffe found in an area stretching from Mali to Niger, the Central African Republic, southern Chad and southern Sudan, and formerly across the Sahara
  • G.c. camelopardalis the Nubian giraffe from eastern Sudan and Eritrea

The South African giraffe is not a pure sub-species but is a hybrid of G.c. giraffa and G.c. angolensis. Khoi rock art of giraffe found recently at Graaff-Reinet and Queenstown confirmed its past distribution in the Eastern Cape.

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A large mega-herbivore reaching a maximum head height of 5.5 m, with a record of 5.88 m. A very long tongue of 45 cm is an adaptation for its specialised browsing behaviour. Very old bulls become smelly due to a musk secretion that gives the meat a bad taste. At 16 mm the giraffe has the thickest skin of all living land animals, the next being the elephant and hippo at 9 mm. Skin colour changes with age from a light yellow-brown at birth, to a cinnamon brown at adulthood and then to either a dark cinnamon brown, a faded creamy yellow-brown or dark black-brown at post-maturity. 

Subspecies are identified by regional differences in the pattern and colour of the mosaic blocks:

The immense difference in height between the feet and head of giraffe requires a major blood system adaptation. The heart, pumping at 120/80 mm Hg, cannot cope with the excessive pressure required to push the blood from 1.7 m above the ground to a head height of 4.8-5.5 m. In order to pump blood up to the head, the neck artery artery jugularis is muscular and functions autonomically contracting and increasing the blood pressure to 260/160 mm Hg. As the small capillaries in the brain cannot tolerate this increased pressure, a network of intermediate arteries known as a reté mirabilia exists at the base of the head. This reduces the high neck pressure to normal before the blood enters the brain. This pressure exchange prevents black-outs when giraffe lower their heads to drink and then pull fully upright when sensing danger.

Comparison To Man


Official registries do not class giraffe as trophy animals as they lack true keratinous horns. Both males and females have fixed horns of fully developed bone growing from the frontal-skull plate that are covered with epidermal skin. The horns occasionally break off and do not re-grow. The horns of bulls are thicker and have less hair on the tip than cows. Calves are born with fully developed horns with furry hair plumes. In bulls, the front part of the frontal skull plate thickens with age to form a third horn-like boss.

Habitat requirement

Giraffe inhabit large ranges of dry and semi-arid sub-tropical savannah environments varying from open to closed woodland and dense shrub-thicket. Vegetation communities dominated by Acacia trees are preferred but forests are totally avoided. The Kalahari savannah and the rocky deserts of the Richtersveld, Kaokoveld and the Chommas Hochland in Namibia form part of the former distribution range. Giraffe can survive several days without drinking water which allows them to travel long distances in desert. Short, cold spells of -9°C can be tolerated but severe mortalities occur if they are prolonged. Giraffe avoid entering water and will not cross rivers.


Feeding & Nutrition

Most activity takes place during daylight hours, early evening and moonlit nights. Giraffe have an average roaming distance of 3-6 km per 24 hour cycle in savannah bushveld, and up to 23 km in a desert environment. They are exclusive browsers that utilize leaves, young shoots and twigs from a large variety of trees and shrubs. Dicot forbs account for 1.5% of the dietary intake and grass 0.5%. When available, flowers, pods and fruit are preferred. During moist growing seasons, feeding is mostly restricted to deciduous tree and shrub species.

During early, dry winter months giraffe survive on less palatable evergreen trees and shrubs along the water courses of smaller drainage lines and, at the end of winter, on unpalatable evergreen trees of riverine thicket associated with larger rivers. In dry winter months up to 15% of the total dietary intake consists of hard roughage such as twig material. The diet is selected to ensure a continued intake of 14-19% dried matter crude protein throughout the year. Mortalities occur when the crude protein concentration of the diet is <12%. Daily giraffe consumption is 8-12 kg dried matter or 20-30 kg wet plant material per sub-adult, 18 kg dried matter or 45 kg wet matter per adult cow and 19 kg dried matter or 48 kg wet matter per adult bull. When water is available they will drink up to 47 litres per day.

Social structure

The home range is not permanent as a giraffe herd will migrate in search of new food resources during an extreme drought. Territorial behaviour does not exist as adult bulls are solitary nomads and wander between breeding herds. Cows and sub-adults form breeding herds of 4-25 individuals and, although large herds can occur, they are uncommon. A herd of 239 was recorded in the Serengeti and herds of 48, 68 and 72 in the Kruger National Park. A herd is defined as a group where all individuals keep in direct eye contact with each other and move at the same pace, in the same direction for a simultaneous purpose such as roaming, drinking or avoiding danger. Giraffe lack a fixed family bonding and herds do not have a hierarchy of dominance. The sporadic forming of mass herds is only temporary and allows an interchange of individuals and the restructuring of breeding herds. Sub-adult bulls form small bachelor herds of 2-5 individuals until the age of eight when social maturity is reached and they become nomads.

The normal population structure is 55% adults, of which 13-22% are bulls; 23-41% are cows, 38% are sub-adults of both sexes and 7%, calves. The birth ratio of calves is 60% male to 40% female and the calf mortality before 18 months, 55%. A calf has a birth mass of 60-90 kg and a head height of 1.5-1.8 m. It begins browsing two weeks after birth and reaches adult body size between 5-7 years. Twin calves occur frequently.

Photo: Doug Lee


Susceptible to anthrax, hartwater and rinderpest. They may be carriers of foot-and-mouth disease but clinical symptoms are not exhibited. A viral infection causes warts on the skin. Although these are not inherently dangerous they may become infected if pecked or ripped open by redbilled oxpeckers Buphagus erythrorhynchus. The body build of a giraffe makes grooming difficult and results in heavy tick infestations.

Information Table


Giraffe Information Table
Adult body weight
Adult shoulder height
Expected longevity
Age of sexual maturity
Age of social adulthood (1st mating)

1st calf born at

Calving interval

Post maturity age (last mating)
Rutting season
Year round
Calving season

Year round (60% Mar-Jul)
Weaning age months
Gender ratio: Natural (all ages)
Gender ratio: Production (all ages)
Mating ratio: Natural (adults)
Mating ratio: Production (Adults)
Re-establishment: Absolute minimum number needed
Re-establishment: Smallest viable population size
Spatial behaviour: Home range
Spatial behaviour: Territory range
Large stock grazing unit (adult):
Dietary ratio (grass):
1.6 per animal (1% of diet)
1.3 per animal (1% of diet)
Browsing unit (adult):
Dietary ratio: (browse):
4.1 per animal (99% of diet)
3.8 per animal
(99% of diet)
Maximum stocking load
12 animals per 1000 ha (at 450 mm annual rainfall)
Minimum habitat size required
Annual population growth 7-16% (Mean 12%)
Optimal annual rainfall
400-600 mm
Optimal vegetation structure:
Grass height:
Woody canopy cover:


0-85 cm


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