August 15, 2012

Wildlife Wednesday: Giraffe

It's Wednesday and that means it's time for another Wildlife  edition of this blog.  Ever since I was a little girl I always had a love for Giraffes.  There is just something about them that is so intriguing.  I hope you enjoy this Wednesdays Wildlife blog, all about the Giraffe.

The Importance of Giraffes in Past Culture

Like a number of animals throughout the ages-cats in Ancient Egypt being a prime example-giraffes have been revered and even worshipped by various civilizations.  As far as historians are aware, the first depictions of the giraffe as anything other than a grazing animal are from Africa.  That's no surprise, being their home continent, but the range of tasks for the giraffe may be a little surprising.  Neoliths cave drawings from around 10,000 years ago in modern day Niger suggest that the giraffe was used as a pet, traded between tribes and used as a religious symbol.  The giraffe dance was even performed to get rid of a headache.
As well as cats, the Egyptians also probably kept giraffes as pets and are known to have exported them to various Mediterranean ports.  There are drawings of giraffes in tombs in modern day Egypt.  Perhaps the Roman’s received one of these giraffes in Europe or perhaps they brought one back from Africa themselves, but both they and the Greeks were aware of, and collected, the Camelopardalis, as they called the giraffe.
With the ultimate collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the sophisticated Romans were no longer in a position to influence other Europeans who quickly abandoned any attempts to continue looking after giraffes.  They were still revered, however, in the Middle East and a giraffe is known to have been moved in 1414 from what is now Kenya, across the Middle East to Bengal (India) and finally on to China by the legendary Chinese explorer Zheng He.
Fifty years later a giraffe was brought to Florence in Italy and presented to Lorenzo de Medici, ruler of the Florentine Republic.  This was the first giraffe to be seen in Italy quite possibly since the days of the Romans at least 800 years earlier.  In the 19th century a Giraffe named Zarafa became something of a celebrity in Paris and was quite possibly the first time memorabilia was sold in connection with an African animal in Europe.

Giraffes continue to have a presence in modern culture. Salvador Dalí depicted them with conflagrated manes in some of his surrealist paintings. Dali considered the giraffe to be a symbol of masculinity, and a flaming giraffe was meant to be a masculine cosmic apocalyptic monster. Several children's books feature the giraffe, including David A. Ufer's The Giraffe Who Was Afraid of Heights, Giles Andreae's Giraffes Can't Dance and Roald Dahl's The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me. Giraffes have also appeared in animated films, as minor characters in The Lion King and Dumbo, and in more prominent roles in The Wild and in the Madagascar films. Sophie the Giraffe has been a popular teether since 1961. Another famous fictional giraffe is the Toys "R" Us mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe. The giraffe is the national animal of Tanzania.

The giraffe has also been used for some scientific experiments and discoveries. Scientists have looked at the properties of giraffe skin when developing suits for astronauts and fighter pilots. This is because the people in these professions are in danger of passing out if blood rushes to their legs. Computer scientists have modeled the coat patterns of several subspecies using reaction–diffusion mechanisms. The constellation of Camelopardalis, introduced in the seventeenth century, depicts a giraffe.

Eating Habit's of Giraffes
Giraffes are highly selective browsers, feeding primarily on a variety of leaves and branches, mainly from Acacia and Combretum Trees, however over a hundred different species may be eaten, depending on what is seasonally available, including:
  • Seedpods
  • Fruits
  • Flowers
  • Thorns
  • Climbing plants
  • Wild Apricot trees
In the wild, giraffes have also been seen to eat weaver-bird nests with young inside, and may chew on bones, perhaps to gain additional minerals.
Giraffes mostly like to eat early in the morning, with the males primarily eating upper parts of leaves while the females prefer to eat the lower parts. Giraffes can eat up to 65 pounds of leaves and twigs daily, although they can survive on just 15 pounds – an average of 16-20 hours per day are spent feeding.
Generally the giraffe requires less food than typical grazing animals because the foliage it eats has more concentrated nutrition and the giraffe’s digestive system is more efficient.
Thorns do not seem to be a deterrent to feeding as the giraffe’s long, prehensile, muscular tongue and tough lips and palate enable them to process thorny foods. A giraffe can also clean off bugs (like acacia ants) on its face with it’s long tongue.

Being a ruminant, it first chews it’s food, then swallows for processing and then visibly regurgitates the semi-digested cud up their necks and back into the mouth, to chew again. This process is usually repeated several times for each mouthful.
A most astonishing fact concerning their eating habits is that they don’t drink water very often and can live for a week without water.
Mating Habits
Courtship does not last long among Giraffes, a day at most. The male begins the courtship, although a female may occasionally show interest first and nudge the male.  When a male courts a female he follows her around and gives her cues he wants to mate. He may nudge her or wrap his neck around hers.  He will try to mount her many times before he is successful.  She usually walks a few feet away and thwarts his advances for awhile until she finally consents.  She is not playing hard to get, but is most likely awaiting a stronger, more dominant bull to come along and mate with.

Once the male mounts the female the intercourse is finished in about 60 seconds.  After intercourse the male leaves the female.  If conditions are correct she becomes pregnant and gives birth in 14 1/2 months.
Male giraffes do not stay around and help the female care for the baby.  This works well for the species, since baby giraffes need very little care after they are born.  They stand up and walk almost immediately after birth, and they stick close to all the adult females in the herd for saftey.
Baby giraffes stay very close to their mother for the first week of life.  They depend on their mother for food and protection. Babies are 6 feet tall and 100 to 115 pounds.

Giraffes mature at 3 to 5 years of age.  Adult giraffes are social and peaceful, and move in groups called herds.  They do not separate according to age or sex, as many animals do.  Giraffes live and reproduce for an average of 15 to 20 years if they aren't killed by predators.
20 Facts about Giraffes
1.  During mating season, the male giraffe nudges the female’s behind to induce urination. He then tastes the urine to see if the female is in heat.
2. Female giraffes give birth standing up, so the baby is dropped about six feet to the ground onto their head.  Baby giraffes weigh between 110 and 120 pounds and only suckle from their mother for the first month or so, after which they begin to eat the shoots, branches and leaves of the trees.

3. They are the tallest quadrupeds, reaching eighteen feet or more for males (the record for a giraffe shot by a hunter was nineteen foot, three inches tall) and sixteen feet for females.  Even a baby giraffe is taller than the average human at approximately six feet tall when born.
4. Giraffes are not mute but they rarely use their vocal chords as they don’t need to. Their monumental size lets them see and communicate readily with their eyes.
5. They have no tear ducts but have been seen to cry.
6. They have never been seen to bathe.
7. They can live to be almost thirty years but on average their life expectancy is between twenty and twenty five years.
8. In Africa you can still find giraffe meat on some menus.
9. One species of the acacia owes its name to the giraffe, and some seeds germinate only after passing through the giraffe’s digestive track.
10. There is some dispute as to how smart the giraffe really is, but an analysis of a giraffe’s brain formation showed it to have the highest development of nervous centre among artiodactyls (cloven-hoofed animals) – the index of a giraffe’s cerebrum is 29.5 compared with 20 in wild cattle and 14 in pigs.
11. The veins in a giraffe’s neck contain valves and a network of tiny veins, known as ‘rete mirabile’ to prevent blackouts when it lowers it’s head to drink. They act temporarily as collecting vessels which compensate for the pressure in the brain.
12. A giraffe’s heart can weigh more than 24 pounds and pumps approximately 16 gallons per minute.
13. The giraffe has twice as many blood corpuscles (blood cells) than humans do
14. Giraffes only reach a deep sleep for between 1 and 12 minutes.  In deep sleep the neck is bent backward like a handle, the chin touches the ground behind the tarsal joint of the stretched hind leg, and the lower jaw rests on the shank.
15. Usually giraffes rest standing up, flicking their ears and keeping one eye open alternately to keep alert as they to be ready to run away in an instant.
16. When catching a giraffe for a zoo exhibit or observation, care has to be taken not to chase them for too long, otherwise there is the risk they will have a heart attack due to their high blood pressure.
17. A giraffe’s tongue is like a hand (prehensile), about 24 inches long and black in colour.
18. The word ‘giraffe’ comes from an Arabic word, ‘zirafah’ which means “the tallest of all”.
19. Oxpeckers or tick birds will land on a giraffe and search for ticks or insect pests to eat. This helps both the giraffe and the bird.
20. Giraffes drink water if it is available but can go weeks without it. Otherwise they rely on the morning dew and the water content of their food. At the water hole, up to 12 gallons may be taken in at once.

Giraffe at Illinois Zoo starts taking contraceptive pill
The very notion of a giraffe being give the birth control pill is probably surprising to most of us but in fact it’s a fairly routine measure for zoos to take, in order to control the populations of animals born into captivity.
But in the case of Vivian, a nubile giraffe in the Peoria Zoo in Illinois, zoo officials wanted to put her on birth control to prevent her from mating with her male companion, Taji, because they were not deemed to be a good genetic match, according to Zoo Director, Yvonne Strode.  “We look at the whole population [of giraffes] in North America, and the ones that don’t have a lot of brothers and sisters and cousins are the valuable ones. We want to capture their genes.”  In fact all zoos in North America coordinate to maintain genetic diversity between animals.
In the case of Vivian and Taji, Taji’s genes were fairly valuable, whereas Vivian’s were not, therefore to prevent them from breeding, the zookeepers initially added an eight-pound serving of grain mixed with contraceptives to Vivian’s diet.  She cooperated by eating this for a while but then she stopped eating the full helping, which meant that the birth control was ineffective.
While the keepers looked for an answer to Vivian’s finicky eating habits, they had to separate her from Taji, the menagerie’s sexed-up male giraffe that had eyes for the spotted specimen since she arrived in November.  However a solution was finally found when they switched to a liquid birth control mixed with grain and wrapped in lettuce, which she seems to have accepted.
This means that the two giraffes can once again share an enclosure and officials at the zoo have said they hope to later acquire a third giraffe, another female, which will be a suitable match to mate with Taji.
Giraffe Conservation

The giraffe is in fact a protected species throughout most of Africa and the IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List, which details all rare species, classes giraffes as ‘conservation dependent’ which means that efforts are needed to ensure the survival of the species in the future.
Although the giraffe is listed as ‘low risk’, several of it’s nine subspecies are rare and under threat locally.  Like many of Africa’s large mammals, giraffes have declined in numbers and in range over the last century.  At one time, herds of over 100 giraffes were a common sight in the savanna regions across the continent.  In contrast today, concentrations like these only really now exist in East Africa, whilst the numbers of giraffes in western Africa have been more severely reduced.
However, for the most part, the giraffe population still has decent numbers that don’t pose a threat of extinction but this is in the main as a result of the conservation projects that are in place.  A giraffe’s prospect for survival are good for those living in national parks and game reserves, but for animals living outside these areas the future is less secure.  There are quite a few sanctuaries in Africa where these animals can freely roam without a threat. They have plenty of food and there’s no risk of their natural habitat being cleared away by humans for something better.  Of course it takes a lot of land, money, time, and effort to get these projects in place and many of them are there only thanks to government grants and private donations.
While there are quite a few types of conservation in place for the giraffes many feel that the funding and the time should be allocated towards other animals. However if you are interested in protecting giraffes there are a number of organisations in place dedicated to securing a future for the giraffe population in the wild, including the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the African Wildlife Foundation.
Are Giraffe’s an Endangered Species?
Certainly if you look at the decreasing numbers for the total giraffe population today compared to a decade ago, the answer to that question would be “Yes”.  In 1999, the IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) estimated that the total number of giraffes in Africa was in excess of 140,000.  Today, the GCF (the Giraffe Conservation Foundation) estimates that that number has decreased by 60,000 and with the exception of the Angolan, Cape and West African giraffes, the population of all of the other sub-species is unstable.
Poaching, the growth of the human population, loss and degradation of habitat are amongst the many reasons why the life of the giraffe is in such danger.  In many parts of Africa, giraffes have been slaughtered in large numbers due to illegal hunting practices for sport, to sell the hides, and even to consume the meat of these animals.  In the latter case, they do not do this in large numbers but only when deemed necessary, but you musn’t forget that many of the people in Africa are extremely poor, and giraffe meat maybe their only source of food.
There are of course many conservation efforts in place to protect giraffes, including putting pressure on the governing bodies of Africa to enforce stricter laws on those found taking part in harming or killing giraffes, such as imposing heavy fines or even jail time.  But what about those people who are killing the animals just so they can feed their children?  No-one wants to see them prosecuted so that is why many conservation groups are looking at alternatives to help them, including bringing in more cattle to be used for food.  This isn’t without it’s own problems because in the very dry areas it can be difficult to keep cattle alive and there is a concern that additional animals in the area will mean that there will be less food to go round for other animals, such as zebras.  There is also the fear that cattle close to a village will be an open invitation for predators to strike.
Giraffes in Captivity

The first obvious point about giraffes being kept in a zoo is that, unless you are fortunate enough to have been to Africa on safari, this is probably the only chance the majority of us will have to see these amazing animals in the flesh.  It is therefore no wonder that these animals attract a great deal of attention.  They are quite tame in captivity and because they are so gentle with people, in most locations they have enclosures that allow them to come right up to people and even to consume food out of their hands. This is of course something that you would never see in the wild!

The life span for giraffes in captivity is also increased, although not by much. In the wild they can live from 20 to 25 years and in captivity this can increase to 30 years.  However the biggest difference is that the young have a much better chance of living to adulthood in captivity as opposed to in the wild, where approximately half of them will be killed in their first year of life by predators.  In captivity they are able to become adults and to have offspring of their own.

Giraffes are also carefully monitored for any health concerns in captivity to give them the very best life possible.  Besides from predators, the next biggest killer of giraffes in the wild is viruses that develop in the water.  Giraffes consume lots of water at once which is why they are so harshly affected by such viruses but in captivity, the water is purified so it is rare to see them becoming ill or dying from such problems.

For most of us, the only place we are likely to see a giraffe is in captivity in a zoo or wildlife park, however there is often a criticism that giraffes can suffer in captivity and being confined to a small space they can exhibit abnormal behaviour that wouldn’t be seen if they were in the wild.

So what are the main differences between a giraffe allowed to roam free in it’s natural environment and one that is held in captivity?

The first thing is to do with the giraffe’s use of it’s tongue. In the wild, they have a need to use their long tongues all the time for feeding and drinking, so in captivity they need to do things with it to keep it occupied and you will often see giraffes licking the bars of their cage which some people find upsetting.

The next big difference is of course the giraffe’s diet whilst in captivity as they don’t have free access to grass, twigs, leaves, and fruits from the trees as they would do in the wild. 
Instead they are given a carefully balanced diet which offers them the level of nutrients their bodies need, such as alfalfa hay, pellets that have additional vitamins in them, crackers with plenty of grain and even tree bark in them, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
The other main concern people have about giraffes in captivity is that they lay down quite a bit which they seldom do in the wild (see our previous post ’10 Things You May Not Know About Giraffes).  Of course it is extremely time consuming for them to get to their feet which they wouldn’t have the chance to do in the wild before a predator could spring on them.

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