This month, we look upwards — up to the tallest animals to walk planet earth. One of Africa’s most iconic creatures is also one of its most threatened, trying to find its place in an increasingly precarious world. But it would be wrong to distil them to victims; they are singular, complex, quirky animals that deserve our respect and reverence. They remind us of the magic that nature is capable of creating.
This month, meet the giraffe.
– Angela Sheldrick
Giraffes, The Long-Stemmed Flowers of Africa
I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the giraffe, in their queer, inimitable vegetable gracefulness, as if they were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers slowly advancing.
– Karen Blixen, Out of Africa
Giraffes are indeed the rare, long-stemmed flowers of Africa. Few sights make me singularly feel so at home, so immersed in the heart of Kenya, than these other-worldly creatures. But their ethereal form belies a charming eccentricity. Anyone who has ever known a giraffe will agree: They are quirky beyond measure. Just like each giraffe has a unique spot pattern that is entirely their own, they also have completely individual personalities. But before I delve into the giraffes I have been lucky enough to know firsthand, a step back to focus on the species as a whole.
When Karen Blixen wrote the above words nearly a century ago, giraffes were a ubiquitous sight across the continent. But the passage of time has not been kind to the species, sending their population into massive decline. In the past 30 years, their numbers have decreased some 40 percent. Giraffes face threats on all fronts, from habitat loss to poaching. At home, their environment is disappearing; abroad, giraffe hide, bone, and body parts have all become prized trophies. Bushmeat poaching is another grave threat; poachers have taken to hiding snares in their favourite trees, catching giraffe as they browse.
Our field veterinary teams witness the plight of the giraffe firsthand. SWT/KWS Mobile Vet Units work across Kenya to treat ill and injured animals in situ. In the past five years, the number of giraffes attended to has increased more than 400 percent, from 23 in 2017 to 121 in 2022. Of the giraffes treated last year, natural causes made up just 18 percent of cases. Snares emerged as the greatest culprit, accounting for more than 30 percent of all cases.
Due to their unique anatomy, giraffes are a real challenge to treat. They are blindingly quick, which makes them difficult to dart without aerial support in the Tsavo bush terrain. The limbs that make them so striking are also a liability, for themselves and those treating them: Their long, slender legs are prone to breaks, while an equally long neck is vulnerable to whiplash. Fragile as they are, these limbs are also lethally powerful — a well-aimed kick or neck swing can have fatal consequences for anyone in their range.
To further complicate proceedings, anaesthetising a giraffe comes with a litany of complications, and they cannot be put under completely. With their long necks, oxygen delivery to the brain would be lethally low. The neck must be positioned just so, or else they run the risk of airway obstruction or a fatal cramp. In addition, their propensity to vomit or regurgitate could lead to fatal aspiration pneumonia. The treatment is done at rapid speed in order to minimise the time in which the giraffe is on the ground and avoid the complications associated with prolonged recumbency.
Instead, giraffes are mildly sedated and manually restrained for the duration of the treatment. This is a vertiginous feat, requiring speed and coordination. After the veterinarian darts the patient, we wait for anaesthesia to set in and then ground teams move in. Using ropes, they guide the patient to the ground, taking great care with its long, slender limbs. As soon as the giraffe is recumbent, the anaesthesia is reversed. For the duration of treatment, several rangers hold the giraffe’s neck, ensuring it remains straight, safe, and on the ground. Giraffes swing their necks to leverage themselves to their feet, so this is a vital aspect of the operation.
After the ailment is attended to, the neck is released. All well, the giraffe swings itself to standing and strides off into the wilderness, while the team finally takes a pause and a deep breath after their high-octane sprint of a treatment.
Giraffes lead socially oriented lives, although they don’t share the strong family ties of elephants. Females raise their young together in fluid groups, while males join bachelor herds once they reach adolescence. Adult males lead largely solitary lives, establishing mating dominance through ‘necking.’ This is a formidable sight to behold, as the giraffes deliver sledgehammer blows to each other using their powerful necks. This is also an easy way to identify the gender of a giraffe: Females' ossicones (horns) are more dainty and tufted, while males' are usually bald, as a result of frequent necking.
After a 15-month gestation period, females give birth standing. Calves drop into the world quite unceremoniously and continue with blistering momentum. Estimates say that baby giraffes grow as much as 2.5 centimetres each day. Fully grown, males can stand 5.5 metres tall, while females are a bit shorter. (Shorter, of course, being relative.) All well, they can live well into their twenties.
Of course, fate sometimes intervenes and young calves are left orphaned. Such was the case with Kiko, who stands out as one of the most colourful characters to pass through our Nairobi Nursery. In 2015, KWS rangers found a tiny, days-old reticulated giraffe on the boundary of Meru National Park. While the fate of his mother remains a mystery, we can surmise, given the pervasive human-wildlife conflict and snaring in the area.
Kiko arrived as a little bundle, his round eyes curiously taking it all in. Before long, he ruled the roost at the Nursery. It was Kiko’s way or nothing — he wavered between affectionate and obstinate, doing exactly what he wanted, which was usually the opposite of what anyone else wanted.
Kiko’s beleaguered human-elephant family were given the real runaround on a daily basis. Some mornings, he shadowed the orphaned elephants into the forest, taking delight in the ire it caused the mini matriarchs. Other days, he remained glued to the compound, swooping his neck into Nursery Head Keeper Edwin’s office or checking on the mechanics in the workshop. One night, a lioness somehow managed to scale the 16-foot posts of his night stockade. A Keeper bravely intervened, saving Kiko’s life. Far from being traumatised by the ordeal, our contrary boy remerged with his spirit undamped.
We always knew that Kiko’s next step would take him away from Nairobi, as Nairobi National Park does not have a resident population of reticulated giraffes. In 2020, he moved up to Sirikoi, which abuts Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Kiko, who always loved making a splash, turned heads during the entire eight-hour journey north. We worried how he would handle the drive, but Kiko peered placidly out of his custom moving box, as if extended road trips were an everyday occurrence! I am happy to report that, three years on, Kiko is thriving in Sirikoi and really embracing his wild side.
The following year, a new orphaned giraffe unexpectedly entered our midst. In November 2021, we received reports of a lone infant Maasai giraffe who was trying to insert herself into a herd of zebras. Our SWT/KWS Burra Anti-Poaching Team went to investigate and, sure enough, discovered a tiny speckled neck peeking out atop a sea of stripes. They trailed her for a full day to be absolutely certain that she was an orphan. While the zebras accepted her presence, she was deeply vulnerable in the heart of Tsavo lion country. If she was to survive the night, KWS determined that a rescue was in order.
Twiggy, as we named her, is now growing up at our Kaluku Neonate Nursery. In contrast to Kiko, she is a reserved, peaceful girl. Whereas Kiko seemed to delight in causing a big splash, Twiggy is all about harmony. She is constantly surrounded by a clique of tiny admirers, from Harvey and Rodney the duikers to Nini and Lana the gazelles. They spend countless hours together, browsing quietly — she in the tall acacia branches, they in the ground-level grasses.
While Twiggy seems to enjoy their company best, she also makes time for the larger orphans. Promptly at 11 o’clock, when Apollo the rhino starts his mud bath, she ambles over to observe proceedings. She then remains while the elephants have their midday milk bottles and wallow. Twiggy doesn’t have milk at this time, nor does she partake in the mud bath, which makes her dedication to this social engagement all the more remarkable — she shows up every day simply because she enjoys being part of it.
As Twiggy shows us, giraffes are creatures of habit. In the wild, they are dependent on their favourite browsing trees, which makes them quite easy to target. While they are terribly vulnerable outside protected areas, parks like Tsavo — where Twiggy will call home, in the fullness of time — provide sanctuary for the species. In the 2021 census, the Tsavo ecosystem was home to 4,314 giraffes, which marked healthy population growth.
Giraffes are the sentinels of the wild. Other species look up to them — quite literally. Standing head and shoulders above the rest of the natural world, they are uniquely positioned to see hidden threats on the horizon. Ground-level herbivores pay attention to giraffes, knowing they will signal if danger is approaching. But for all their stoic elegance, they are also delightfully ungainly, as anyone who has ever seen a giraffe splay down for a drink can attest to. This incongruity makes them all the more endearing.
The sentinels of the wild need our help. While nature has carefully honed them to survive in the wild, and support the survival of countless other species in the process, the one threat they cannot stand up to is the human threat. It is up to us to save these stately creatures, ensuring their reign continues over the African wilderness.
Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up here.