Giraffes – new perspectives on a ‘well-known’ species from ZSL

Recently, I attended a really interesting event at ZSL led by 4 experts covering interesting conservation and biological updates in Giraffes around the world.


It was split up into 3 sections; the first covering stress and sleep patterns in captive giraffes, the natural history of giraffes in the wild, and then their subsequent conservation in the wild.  The biggest shock of the evening was finding out that giraffes, despite being listed as least concern on the IUCN Red List, are in fact in fewer numbers that elephants and chimpanzees – species considered threatened and endangered.  So why is that giraffes are so at risk of extinction?


To begin this discussion it is important to highlight that giraffe still have such limited research and datasets covering their natural history, which means there is still so much unknown about this iconic species.  Often covered in animation and film as an abundant species, and even humorous with its ungainly walking and it’s strange long neck, it is indeed a very complex individual where research is only just touching the surface.  One of the major issues facing giraffe biology is the only recent distinguishing of different subspecies.  Giraffe was originally considered one species, with 9 sub species, but with follow up research into morphology, behaviour, and DNA sampling, it has now been concluded that they are indeed 8 separate species altogether – but the confusion over calling this a sub-species is a result of the ease of interbreeding between species to produce fertile offspring; one of the main definitions of determining a species in the past.


Thornicroft's Giraffe

Thornicroft’s Giraffe

Masai Giraffe

Masai Giraffe

Male Southern Giraffe

Male Southern Giraffe

Male Rothchild's Giraffe

Male Rothchild’s Giraffe

Infant Reticulated Giraffe

Infant Reticulated Giraffe

West African Giraffe

West African Giraffe

Fred Bercovitch of Kyoto University, studied the behaviour and ecology of the Thornicroft’s giraffe endemic to Zambia and was able to confirm many different facts about the species.  Giraffes have individual patterns, that will remain consistent to adulthood, with only males darkening from brown fur to black when a fully mature bull.  Although giraffes can often be found in herds/groups, it is mainly females that have this formation – and more likely to be with kin and play mates (those born at similar times and locations).  However, a herd can be mixed and can vary from day to day, never staying the same for long periods of time.  Whereas in males, it is known that 70% are solitary roamers, as a result of their Roaming Reproductive Strategy. This means that they will roam from herd to herd searching for sexually viable females – determined by prodding the females behind, stimulating urination and then tasting this to determine reproductive status.  When it finds a suitable female, it will mate guard her, like a statue, until she is receptive and mating can be incredibly brief!


All of this was highly interesting, but soon led toward the bigger pressing discussion of giraffe conservation.  The numbers of reticulated giraffe are thought to have decreased by 80% in the last 15 years, similarly reflected in other giraffe species across Africa.  Human activity is responsible for this decline, including loss of habitat and climate change.  However, the biggest threat to this species is the use of them as bush meat.  It seems likely that there would be better sources of meat in areas of East Africa, however, the giraffe is known to taste good and its sheer size is enough to feed an entire village.  The prevention of this activity is difficult when faced with severe famine and human suffering at such an unprecedented scale.  Unfortunately, the conservation of this species is largely unreported and unrecognised.


Zoos can sometimes be considered a method of conservation, but with controversial opinions of animals in captivity and managing the studbook of this vastly diverse species, many cases of unfortunate press have hung around then, the most obvious being Marius Gate.  This was the case of juvenile giraffe being euthanized due to their not being enough room in the room for another male.  It has not been confirmed why it was not possible to move this male to another zoo, perhaps this was not economically viable, or there was no surrounding zoo housing this particular giraffe species, also requiring a male.  Giraffes do breed well in zoos, and have relatively short gestation periods, that allow them to be fertilised just 100 days after giving birth.  There are many issues around reintroduction, and its viable success, but again not enough is known about the species to consider improving the methods or delivery.  So Giraffes remain in zoos for the purpose of education – but our interest does not stop here, as it is vital that standards of animal welfare are met for those in captivity, and a really interesting study done by Florian Sicks into REM sleep patterns and stress in giraffes was so successful in this area, that it actually enabled them to save a sick juvenile from death.  The sleeping patterns of a normal calf were intermittent periods of 5 min of REM sleep per night, and noted in another giraffe calf that died after just 6 days, the REM periods were a lot longer.  When this lengthy REM pattern was spotted again in her brother, the vets were alerted and immediately separated him from his mother, bottle fed and monitored, only for its REM sleep pattern to return to normal – effectively saving its life!  This incredible research is just a small area of the work going into studying welfare and the biology of this fascinating species, and hopefully will help in some way to lengthen the lives of these animals.


I am truly grateful to ZSL for putting on these fascinating lectures and can only hope they continue further!


(All Images from ARKIVE website)


About wilsoemi

A 1st Class Biological Sciences graduate, with a Masters degree in Conservation Biology. Dedicated to nature and conservation, with over three years voluntary experience in environmental and conservation charities and NGO's. Currently working for the World Society for the Protection of Animals and volunteering for London Wildlife Trust.
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