A short word about tall giraffes…

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Text Jacqueline Asheeke | Photographs Paul van Schalkwyk

Resplendent in a reticulated patchwork of sepia, amber and beige, these sinuous goliaths weighing in at as much as 1 360 kilograms (3 000 pounds), tower above Etosha’s thorny acacias, brandishing their super-long willowy necks, staring at you curiously through their gleaming drop-dead-gorgeous eyelashes

Y es, there are plenty of these delightfully strange-looking creatures in the Etosha National Park, but I have to admit that on my many visits there I was usually absorbed by a pride of awe-inspiring lions, a dashing cheetah with her cubs in tow, a huge elephant herd led by a female with enormous tusks, hordes of springbok, thousands of zebra or a rhino or two sporting dangerous­-looking horns. On top of all that wildlife, there is the vast, pristine and soulful Namibian landscape that simply takes your breath away. Somehow, with that sensory overload, I missed out on really appreciating the tall, willowy, awkward, long-necked giraffe.

I guess it sounds somewhat implausible that you would ‘miss’ seeing these sepia, amber-and-beige patchwork goliaths as they tower above the acacia trees to eat the tasty leaves at the top, or spread their front legs wide to dip their heads into a waterhole for a refreshing drink.

Allow me to make amends for my admiration oversight and extol the virtues of the giraffe. It always makes me giggle to see these animals continue their chewing while they turn their heads to watch us sitting in our cars watching them. You can imagine them saying to each other as they observe us: “What kind of stupid-looking animals are those?”

Giraffes are really huge (no kidding). When you see one up close, you can really see that they are enormous! Males can weigh up to 1 360 kilograms (3 000 pounds) and are up to 5.5 metres (18 feet) tall, with the females coming in at a whopping maximum of 681 kilograms (1 500 pounds) and growing to be about 4.3 metres (14 feet) tall.

When they ‘run’ across a road into the thicket, they have to lurch their long necks back and forth just to pick up enough momentum to gain speed. For a giraffe, running must be quite a bother; it looks like torture when they do it.
All giraffes have those strange horns at the top of their heads. What we tourists call ‘horns’, the scientists call ossified cartilage or ‘ossicones’. The male ossicones are thick and bald at the tips, while the female ones are usually thinner and covered with fur tufts. Mostly, sightseeing folks wouldn’t see the top of the giraffe’s head, so you might not be able to tell which sex the animal is in that way, but looking at the size of the horns will tell you if it’s a male or female giraffe.

Giraffes have a sturdy heart to pump their blood all the way up their long necks to their brains! And a blood pressure of 280/180! But did you know that they have the same number of vertebrae as a human? That fact shocked me somewhat. I would have thought that the long neck meant a longer spine! Go figure.


The tongue of a giraffe can be as long as 45 centimetres (17.7 inches)! They whip it around the long spiny, sharp needles of the acacia trees to get their leafy meals. Personally, I love the long giraffe eyelashes. Some of us ladies who search for darkening, lengthening mascara should be jealous of those giraffe girls’ eyelashes!

Giraffes can live for up to 25 years in the wild. The healthy adults usually have nothing to fear from predators, but the young babies can be eaten by lions and hyaenas. One would think giraffes are rather peaceful, harmless souls. But, as is normal in the wild, the males fight each other for dominance in the herd. They don’t use their hooves or horns, however – they use their necks. Yep… strange as that may sound, they hit each other by swinging their head and necks and striking the other guy’s head and neck. I guess that whoever hits the hardest, wins.

Giraffes carry their young for between 14 and 15 months. Just the thought of this makes me have phantom maternity backaches. Being pregnant for nine months is quite long enough, thank you. I was in Etosha during the rainy season when the giraffes usually give birth. The adorable little ones were all over the place. How sweet they looked! They were mini-­giraffes with long necks in proportion to their tiny (relatively speaking) bodies.

I heard on one of the nature television shows that females in a giraffe herd give birth at around the same time to help curb the effects of predation on the overall herd population. As sad as it sounds, the lions can eat only so many baby giraffes in a given period (lion cubs need to eat too). So, Mother Nature is quite smart to make it possible for giraffes (and indeed, all herd animals) to have their babies at more or less the same time. This way, most young giraffes survive to adulthood, keeping the herd healthy.

Are you now intrigued just a little bit about giraffes? When next you’re in Etosha or in one of the Na­mibian communal conservancies with abundant wildlife, pay some respect to those long-necked wonders. Bring along your camera and go admire giraffes. I know that from now on, I will.

This article was first published in the Flamingo May 2011 issue.

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