The Gentle Giants!!!- Article by Gareth Jones
THE GENTLE GIANTS OF NNP
Looking down from the wall of the Athi dam, we watched as a large herd of giraffe lined up to drink out of a stream just below the dam. They seemed to prefer fresh running water or fresh rainwater. It is quite a difficult and awkward action for a giraffe to bend down and drink. Giraffes only need to drink once every few days. Most of the water comes from all the plants they eat.
Giraffes continue to amaze me, their incredible height is very impressive, especially when parking near to a large male. Most of the time giraffe are truly gentle giants, however, there are times when they can be very aggressive to fight and defend. Males, in particular, are known to have brutal fights that can last for hours as they use their longs necks and horny tufts to strike each other with a tremendous sledgehammer like force. It has been recorded that on occasion the losing male giraffe can even be killed in a fight. Even females can be almost fearless when defending their young calf from hunting lions. Just one well-timed and accurate kick from a giraffe is enough to kill a lion. But as I already mentioned they are gentle most of the time & it is a precious sight to witness a mother loving and feeding her calf.
It is interesting to note that in their very long neck there are only seven vertebrae, the same as humans. Fully grown giraffes stand 4.3–5.7 m (14.1–18.7 ft) tall, with males taller than females. The tallest recorded male was 5.88 m (19.3 ft) tall. The average weight is 1,192 kg for an adult male and 828 kg for an adult female, with a maximum weight of 1,930 kg recorded for a male. Despite its long neck and legs, the giraffe’s body is relatively short. Located at both sides of the head, the giraffe’s large, bulging eyes give it a good all-round vision from its great height. Giraffes see in colour and their senses of hearing and smell are also sharp, with muscular nostrils that can close to protect them against sandstorms and ants.
The coat has dark blotches or patches (which can be orange, chestnut, brown, or nearly black in colour) separated by light hair (usually white or cream in colour). Male giraffes become darker as they age. The coat pattern has been claimed to serve as camouflage in the light and shade patterns of savannah woodlands. Giraffe calves inherit some spot pattern traits from their mothers, and variation in some spot traits are correlated with neonatal survival. The skin underneath the dark areas may serve as windows for thermoregulation, being sites for complex blood vessel systems and large sweat glands. Each individual giraffe has a unique coat pattern. The skin of a giraffe is mostly grey. Its thickness allows the animal to run through thorn bushes without being punctured. The fur may serve as a chemical defence, as its parasite repellents give the animal a characteristic scent. At least 11 main aromatic chemicals are in the fur, although indole and 3-methylindole are responsible for most of the smell. Because the males have a stronger odour than the females, the odour may also have sexual function. Along the animal’s neck is a mane made of short, erect hairs. The one-metre (3.3-ft) long tail ends in a long, dark tuft of hair and is used as a defence against insects.
They have a unique and amazing design to control their blood pressure. The circulatory system has several adaptations for its great height. The heart, which can weigh more than 11 kg and measures about 60 cm long, generating approximately double the blood pressure required for a human to maintain blood flow to the brain. Therefore the wall of the heart can be as thick as 7.5 cm. In the upper neck, a rete mirabile (wonderful network) prevents excess blood flow to the brain when the giraffe lowers its head. Jugular veins also contain special valves to prevent blood flowing back into the head from the inferior vena cava and right atrium while the head is lowered. Another interesting fact is that giraffes only need 5 to 30 minutes of sleep in a 24-hour period! They often achieve that in quick naps that may last only a minute or two at a time.
A large giraffe fed on trees in the road, I watched as its long purplish tongue moved over long sharp thorns easily and without appearing to have any sort of pain. Their tongues are actually amazingly long and can be up to 500mm. It is purplish-black in colour, perhaps to protect against sunburn. They need such a long tongue in order to be able to wrap them around leaves when they feed. Baby giraffes have a very bumpy arrival when they are born, after living inside their mother’s womb for about 15 months. The moment of birth results in a drop of about 2 metres to the ground, hopefully, the mother selected thick grass to land on. Then the baby giraffe needs to “find its feet” quite quickly and start walking while rapidly strengthening its legs to be able to run. All baby herbivores are vulnerable to predators, so it is very important that they get mobile quickly. Sadly over a period of many years, I have personally seen or heard of lions killing a number of young giraffes. Lions tend to need to hunt in a larger pride with a few fully grown males in order to successfully attempt to hunt a mature adult giraffe.
Both male and female giraffes have two distinct, hair-covered horns called ossicones. Male giraffes use their horns to sometimes fight with other males, at certain times of the year to show their dominance and strength, and eligibility to mate with females. The strongest males hopefully have the strongest genes to ensure long term healthy survival of the species.
In areas that giraffe frequent, it is possible to observe the shape of their favourite trees as they prune them into a bell shape having a wide base and narrow tops, interestingly the bell shape is the length and slope of the natural reach of a giraffe neck. They are rather strange looking creatures, and I have clear childhood memories of singing silly happy songs with my parents like “Gerry giraffe he makes us all laugh….” Yes! I definitely think God had a “humour moment” when he created giraffes, they are so incredible and funny. To me, it appears God also showed us some heavenly humour when the giraffe was created, with its long neck and amusing expressions. A giraffe’s spots are much like human fingerprints. No two individual giraffes have exactly the same pattern, in the opinion of many people, such unique features in many creatures are a clear indication of the very detailed creative nature of God.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature currently recognises only one species, Giraffa camelopardalis, as the African species, with nine subspecies in various locations. Kenya is unique in that giraffes are found in quite a few locations in, mostly in National parks and Reserves, there are 3 species Rothchilds, Reticulated and Masai. The Masai giraffes are found in the Nairobi Park, currently, I believe there could be about 200 or more in the park. The Swahili name for a giraffe is “twiga”, is it co-incidence then that they eat so many twigs, or maybe mankind has not twigged yet? However, it should be noted that giraffes are another species that are being actively targeted by poachers for their meat and hides. Recently giraffes were added to the list of threatened species, with some subspecies even being listed as critically endangered.
Sometimes the Nairobi Masai Giraffes seem to have all the time in the world, just standing still, and often blocking the road for some time, therefore causing a “Jerrijam”, however, this type of jam is still much better than the city “traffic jam”. Giraffes are truly amazing and incredibly designed. Take time to visit the Nairobi National Park and appreciate the wonders of creation, including watching the gentle giants!