The Giraffe

To me, giraffes are the symbol of Africa. Elephants and even rhinos can be found in Asia. Lions, leopards and cheetahs are not that different from pumas or jaguars found in the Americas. But if you look out your window and see a giraffe, there is only one place you can be: Africa. And chances are the giraffe will looking back at you with equal interest. They are very curious animals and it is quite common to see them stand and stare intently at anything that has invaded their world.

Giraffes are the tallest mammals in the world and their great height gives them access to leaves that no other ground dwellers (except elephants) can reach. Large male giraffes can reach food up to nineteen feet above the ground. Drinking and eating closer to the ground, however, is a more difficult matter, requiring giraffes to spread their front legs in an awkward manner that makes them vulnerable to attack. Thus, before drinking or taking advantage of a salt lick, giraffes scan the area quite carefully and make sure other members of the herd are nearby to act as lookout.

Giraffes spend most of the day browsing (eating leaves) and moving slowly through forested areas, using their sharp eyesight and lofty vantage point to keep track of other members of the herd. Their favorite food is the tender new leaves of the acacia trees. Although most species of acacia have vicious thorns that can reach more than two inches in length, the giraffes' leathery tongue and mouth allow them to munch away as if they were enjoying a tender salad.

Giraffes are rather docile creatures. Even contests among males to establish dominance rarely inflict any harm. Large males use their bony heads and five-inch horns to spar with one another. They also engage in a form of "neck wrestling" where they use their weight and long necks to push against one another and wrestle for position. When attacked by predators, however, such as lions or hyena, giraffes are capable of delivering a lethal kick, even off to one side.

There are several subspecies (or races) of giraffe. The most commonly seen giraffes are members of the Masai race. Their brown spots are typically very irregular, much like jagged leaves. In northern Kenya, however, it is possible to see the rarer and very beautiful reticulated giraffe, which has striking chestnut colored patches separated by distinct and narrow white lines.

Despite their size, giraffes can be surprisingly hard to notice. They make virtually no noise as they move through an area and their camouflaged skin hides them well in their chosen terrain. More than once I had the experience of noticing a giraffe among the trees and then suddenly realizing that there were actually a dozen or more scattered throughout the area.