9 Things to Know About Giraffes

Published 21 March 2017

Angela Griffin

Angela Griffin

It was a scorching hot morning in Namibia’s Etosha National Park and I was already sweating. The ground crunched beneath the wheels of our jeep, cracked and dry in the sun. We were on the lookout for leopards; they’re notoriously shy creatures, and so far we had had no luck. As leopards like to hide up trees, I’d been keeping my eyes turned upwards, but I hadn’t spotted much more than an owl.

Our safari guide was getting restless. He wanted to show us a leopard, but the leopards weren’t playing ball. And so he started to look around for other game. Suddenly, he slammed on his brakes without warning and reversed down the path, kicking a cloud of dust into our open-sided vehicle, which promptly stuck to my sweaty back. “There!” he whispered, pointing into the undergrowth.

Sitting giraffe

I strained my eyes, looking for the tell-tale spots of the leopard. I saw nothing. Just leaves and branches. “Look harder!” he insisted, “Next to the tree.” I tried as hard as I could, but my untrained vision couldn’t make out much among the foliage. He pointed again, guiding my head in the right direction, until I saw it, right there, sitting next to a tree.

“A giraffe!” I exclaimed, “I was expecting a leopard!”

“Not just any giraffe,” he countered, “a sitting giraffe”.

As I was to learn that morning, giraffes don’t sit very often, and this was quite a rare sight. But more importantly, there, no more than six metres in front of me, was the tallest mammal in the world, and I couldn’t even see it.

“Camouflage,” said the guide, “for such a large animal, they’re surprisingly good at it”. I had no idea.

What else didn’t I know about giraffes? I grabbed my guide’s species book and set about finding out…

Giraffe mother and baby

The tallest giraffe ever recorded was called George

While the average male giraffe stands at around 5.4m, the tallest ever recorded was a fine chap called George, who lived at Chester Zoo in the 1960s and reached a dizzying 5.88m tall. So tall in fact, that he had to duck to enter the giraffe house. Even newborn giraffes are taller than most people, averaging 1.8m tall.

Jumping baby giraffe

Giraffes can stand within half an hour of being born

Giraffes do almost everything standing up, even sleeping. They also give birth standing up, with the poor baby dropping around 1.5m to the ground with an unceremonious plop, breaking the umbilical cord. Constant threats from predators mean that it’s important for the baby to stand as soon as possible, which it does, albeit rather shakily, within half an hour of being born. It will start walking soon after, giving it every possible chance to escape danger.

Fighting giraffes

Giraffes use their necks to fight

Male giraffes use their necks to fight, swinging them at each other like swords in a practice called necking. If you’re lucky enough to see it, it’s a somewhat bizarre sight, with their necks contorting into strange shapes at unnatural looking angles. It’s also pretty brutal stuff, with continual neck slamming sometimes breaking their bones or even knocking them unconscious.

Giraffe close up

No two giraffes have the same spot pattern

Like our fingerprints, a giraffe can be identified by its unique pattern of spots. Although to the untrained human eye, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart, for a giraffe, the individual fur pattern on fellow giraffes helps it to work out who’s who. Furthermore, different giraffe subspecies display distinct patterns. For example, Masai giraffes have dark, jagged-edged spots, while Rothschild’s giraffes have large, rectangular markings with wavy edges and reticulated giraffes have neat, bold patches.

Giraffe with tongue out

Giraffes’ tongues average 50cm long

Giraffes use their tongues, which can reach up to 53cm in length, to feed on acacia trees. Giraffe tongues are thick and leathery to avoid cuts from this prickly tree, and are dark, almost black in colour, in order to prevent sunburn.

Running giraffes

Giraffes can run at speeds of 60kph

Giraffes’ front legs are a little longer than their hind legs, so when they run, they lollop forwards, in an amusing, slightly gangly kind of way. When they walk, they use both right legs followed by both left legs, but when running they use their front and back legs together, allowing them to reach 60kph at full speed, although they can’t keep this pace for long.

Giraffes drinking

Giraffes do the splits when they drink

Giraffes cannot bend their necks towards the ground and remain standing upright at the same time. Therefore, in order to drink water from waterholes, the giraffe must spread its front legs wide apart and drop its neck to ground level, ending up in an awkward, if adorable, position. It’s not known how the water defies gravity and travels up their throats to their stomachs, but it’s thought to be due to a sequence of pumps in their necks.

Giraffes don’t sleep much

Wild giraffes are at constant risk from predators, namely lions, and so they don’t sleep for long periods; sometimes just 10-30 minutes per day. In order to remain alert to danger they often sleep standing up, or at the most sitting, although they have been known to curl their necks around and place their head on their own backs, using themselves as a pillow.

Giraffe looks over Acacia tree

Giraffes can be spotted all over Africa

If you’d like try your chances at spotting a giraffe in the wild like I did, then you’re in luck. As the tallest safari animal they’re also (despite my experience) pretty easy to spot, and they’re found all over Africa. For a good chance of encountering one, try South Africa’s Kruger National Park or Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, where you might come across herds of up to 40 individuals. Alternatively, book yourself into Kenya’s Giraffe Manor, a boutique hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi, where the local Rothschild’s giraffes often stick their heads through the windows and try to steal your breakfast.

See a giraffe in the wild with one of Round the World Experts’ Africa holidays. Give our Africa Experts a call for further information and to book.

You might also like:

5 Things to Know About Elephants

10 Animals to Add to your African Safari Sightings Checklist

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