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Celebrating World Giraffe Day

Celebrating World Giraffe Day

Giraffes are the tallest animals on earth. Males can grow up to 5.5 m tall and weigh nearly 2 tonnes. Despite their long necks, they have the same number of vertebrae as human necks (seven). Their vertebrae are just much longer (25 cm each). Their long necks allow them to browse the highest and sweetest leaves, especially those of Acacia trees.

Why do giraffes have such long necks?

There are different theories of why giraffes have such long necks. One theory is that males with longer and stronger necks win more fights and mate with more females. However, new evidence supports the original theory that giraffes developed long necks to feed on leaves that other browsers cannot reach (1).

Giraffe hearts

Having such a long neck comes with its challenges. Have you ever felt dizzy after getting up too quickly? When you stand up from lying down, your heart rate has to increase, and your blood vessels need to narrow to improve your blood pressure to get your blood to your brain. Sometimes, especially if you are a little dehydrated, your body cannot respond fast enough to this change in posture, and you feel a little dizzy. Imagine you were a giraffe bending down to drink water and then picking up your head again.

A giraffe’s heart has exceptionally thick muscle walls (2). Tight skin and muscled veins prevent blood from pooling in their feet. When a giraffe drops its head to drink water, one-way valves in its veins prevent blood from rushing back into its head. Luckily, giraffes do not need to drink that often and get most of their water from their food.  

Conservation status, taxonomy, and threats

Listed as vulnerable (3), giraffes are widespread in southern and eastern Africa, with a few small populations in central Africa and a single population in Niger in west Africa. There are estimated to be about 120,000 individuals across their entire distribution (4). Giraffes face threats, e.g. habitat loss, civil unrest, poaching, and ecological changes, such as drought and climate change.

How many species of giraffe are there?

There has been a lot of debate over how many giraffe species there are, both because of genetic differences and differences in coat patterns between different populations. The last IUCN report (2018) listed giraffes as one species with nine subspecies (3). Since then, different evaluations have claimed anything from one to nine species (5,6), each with its conservation status. For example, the southern giraffe occurs in large numbers throughout South Africa and makes up almost half of all giraffe numbers (4). In contrast, only 6,000 northern giraffe individuals live in scattered populations of less than 2,000 each.

Conservation initiatives

While different populations face different threats, giraffes’ most critical conservation strategy is to protect their habitats, including securing and fencing protected areas and preventing human encroachment in giraffe habitats. Other essential conservation initiatives include anti-poaching programmes, public awareness and education, and conservation research.

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation is active throughout the giraffe distribution range in several conservation initiatives, including those mentioned above: translocating giraffes to reintroduce them into suitable areas or to grow existing populations; research and veterinary work; population monitoring that contributes to giraffe status assessments; and GPS tracking of giraffes (7). In 1996, there were only 50 West African giraffes left, but conservation efforts of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the Government of Niger have increased this number to 600 (8). This inspirational success story gives hope for the future of giraffe species and subspecies.

Preserving giraffes for the future

Giraffes are fascinating animals inside and out. We are responsible for ensuring that our children get to marvel at their beauty in years to come. While some populations are thriving, other unique populations are reduced to small fragments. The most critical aspect of protecting them is protecting their natural habitat. The success story of the West African giraffe in Niger shows that conservation efforts can increase giraffe numbers and stabilise declining populations.

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References

1.      Cavener DR, et al. 2024. Sexual dimorphisms in body proportions of Masai giraffes and the evolution of the giraffe’s neck. Mamm Biol.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s42991-024-00424-4

2.      Hargens AR, Pettersson K, & Millard RW. 2009. Giraffe Cardiovascular Adaptations to Gravity. Endothelial Biomedicine, 99–106. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511546198.013 

3.      Muller Z, et al. 2018. Giraffa camelopardalis (amended version of 2016 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T9194A136266699. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T9194A136266699.en

4.      Brown MB, et al. 2021. Conservation status of giraffe: evaluating contemporary distribution and abundance with evolving taxonomic perspectives. Imperiled: the encyclopedia of conservation, 471-487.

5.      Bercovitch FB. 2020. Giraffe taxonomy, geographic distribution and conservation. African Journal of Ecology. http://doi.org/10.1111/aje.12741

6.      Coimbra RT, et al. 2021. Whole-genome analysis of giraffes supports four distinct species. Current Biology, 31(13), 2929-2938.

7.      Giraffe Conservation Foundation. 2024. Programmes & initiatives. https://giraffeconservation.org/programmes/

8.      Giraffe Conservation Foundation. 24 January 2020. West African giraffes are going from strength to strength. https://giraffeconservation.org/2020/01/24/news-from-niger/

About the Author:
Picture of Arista Botha

Arista Botha

Arista Botha is a freelance scientific writer with a background in research. She has a master’s in wildlife conservation physiology and several scientific publications. Arista worked as an associate research officer at the University of the Witwatersrand for five years while registered for a PhD. Instead of completing her PhD and pursuing an academic career, she became a writer. Her key areas of interest include wildlife, ecology, and the conservation of plants and animals.

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