The South African giraffe population is estimated at approximately 12,000 individuals in the wild.
The South African giraffe’s long neck helps them avoid other animals who could compete over food, because not many animals can reach the branches that the giraffes reach. However, in order to make sure that they don’t have competition, giraffes have also specialized in eating the thorny acacia tree branches prevalent throughout the African savannah. Their muscular, long tongues (which can reach up to 50 centimeters in length) and the large quantities of viscous saliva they produce help protect their mouths while they chew the thorny branches. However, despite the lack of competition, giraffes still need to cross vast distances to find enough food. Adult giraffes need dozens of kilograms of food, since the weight of an adult male giraffe can reach two tons, and an adult female giraffe can also weigh over a ton. Giraffes search for food in groups called “towers”, whose makeup can often vary.
To earn the right to join a tower of females, males fight each other and attempt to overcome their rivals. During the fights, giraffes use their long necks and butt against each other. They strike with their necks or their heads, which are armed with horns. Yes, giraffes have horns, like their relatives from the bovine and deer families. Giraffes’ horns are actually bony protrusions that extend from their skulls, which are covered in skin. The ends have a tuft of hair. The have between two to five horns. For self-defense, the giraffes actually kick their attackers. Despite the giraffes’ large size, they are sometimes attacked by lions, though the lions are taking a big risk when they attack, since one well-placed kick could kill one of them. To increase their chances of capturing a giraffe, lions try to attack them when they are at their weakest – when they are drinking. Giraffes are dependent on water, but with their unique design, which gives them front legs that are longer than their hind legs, drinking is a challenge. To reach the water, giraffes need to spread their front legs, and you can just imagine how widely they need to spread their legs. Then, they lower their heads. In this position, it’s hard for them to kick, or even run away. For this reason, when giraffes approach water to drink, they often do so taking turns. Some giraffes drink while others keep watch over the area. Since the giraffes’ most developed sense is their sight, and their head can reach up to five or six meters high, they can make out predators at great distances. Another of the giraffe’s weaknesses is sleeping – so they almost never sleep. Giraffes sleep for no more than a half hour during the day, and even this short amount of sleep is subdivided into a number of deep sleep cycles.
If they aren’t hunted, giraffes can live for up to 25 years. They are 180 centimeters at birth, and weight about 100 kilograms. They are born after a gestation period of 15 months. Females reach sexual maturity at the age of four, but males will have to wait until they are much older until they mate for the first time, since older males would beat them in a fight at that point.
Even though only one species of giraffe exists, we know of six to nine subspecies which differ in their colors and their fur patterns (some researchers believe that the subspecies are actually separate species). At our zoo, we have a South African giraffe. This subspecies is therefore included in the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria’s reproduction program, and we are proud of our contribution to the efforts to breed this species. The original tower of giraffes came from a nature reserve in South Africa, and consisted of five individuals – two males and three females. Thankfully, they produced many offspring, which were raised at the Zoo, and sent to other zoos in Israel and abroad (to Singapore).