Giraffes—Lofty, Long-Legged, and Elegant

BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN KENYA

THE gray granite boulders felt moist and cold in the early dawn. We had nestled ourselves among these big rocks with a tin cup of hot tea in hand and our eyes fixed on the African veld below. * Our patience was rewarded. In the soft glow of the morning light, a herd of giraffes—lofty, long-legged, and elegant—ambled across the plain. Moving as if in slow motion, they strode gracefully on stiltlike legs, their long curved necks swaying like the masts of sailing ships in the wind. We could barely breathe. The sight was so beautiful!

Undisturbed by our presence, they turned as one into a grove of lush acacia trees and reached up into the heights of the thorny branches. Delicately and with care, the gentle giants plucked tiny green leaves with their long tongues. There, high above the ground, they pushed their heads into the midst of a colony of weaverbird nests and browsed unconcerned. The birds roundly scolded the long-necked intruders. Startled by the noisy rebuff, the herd moved quietly and with dignity to other trees.

Swift and Graceful

Anyone who has seen these creatures with their necks poking out of a zoo enclosure may find it difficult to visualize their true beauty and grace as they run wild and free in the African bush. The giraffes’ movements are graceful and flowing. As they gallop across the open grasslands, their delicate, almost fragile, appearance makes it seem as if they could stumble on the slightest obstacle and topple over. On the contrary, a large male giraffe weighing up to 2,800 pounds [1,300 kg] is a surefooted and agile runner and can reach speeds approaching 40 miles [60 km] per hour.

This fascinating creature is found exclusively  in Africa. Its gentleness and peaceful nature make it delightful to behold. The giraffe’s face can be described as unique and even charming, with long, narrow ears and two small horns topped with velvety tassels of black hair. Its eyes are very large and dark, protected by long, curling eyelashes. When the giraffe gazes into the distance from its lofty vantage point, its face has the appearance of inquisitive innocence.

In ancient times the giraffe was appreciated and valued for its pleasing appearance and its shy, quiet, nonaggressive manner. Young giraffes were presented to rulers and kings as gifts symbolizing peace and goodwill between nations. Today faded portraits of giraffes can still be seen in ancient African rock paintings.

Standing Tall

The giraffe is the tallest of all animals. From hoof to horns, mature males can reach over 18 feet [5.5 m] in height. In ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the giraffe represented the verb “to predict” or “to foretell,” denoting its formidable height and ability to see afar.

Standing among mixed groups of zebras, ostriches, impalas, and other African plains animals, the giraffe acts like a watchtower. Its height and excellent vision enable it to see into the distance and detect any approaching danger early. Thus, its towering presence no doubt imparts a measure of security to the other animals.

A Marvel of Design

The giraffe is superbly designed for browsing in the uppermost branches of tall trees, well beyond the reach of all other animals except the elephant. The unique design of the prehensile upper lip and flexible tongue enable it gently to pull the leaves off branches that are studded with barbs and needle-sharp thorns.

Giraffes may consume up to 75 pounds [34 kg] of vegetation a day. Although  they can eat many different types of greenery, they prefer the thorny acacia trees that dot the African plains. A bull giraffe can stretch its tongue out 17 inches [42 cm] in search of food. The giraffe’s neck has extraordinary flexibility. This allows the giraffe to turn and tilt its long head at amazing angles as it maneuvers delicately through the upper boughs of the trees.

Reaching high is easy for the giraffe, but drinking water is another matter. When it approaches a water hole, the giraffe must slowly spread its front legs apart and then bend both knees in order to reach the water. In this ungainly position, the giraffe stretches its long neck to the limit before it can drink. Fortunately, the giraffe doesn’t need to drink frequently, as it often derives enough moisture from the succulent leaves in its diet.

The neck and flanks of the giraffe are painted with a beautiful network of narrow white lines forming a latticework of leaflike patterns. Colors vary from a golden tan to a rich chestnut brown and even black. As the giraffe ages, its colors darken.

Family Life

Giraffes are social creatures, moving in loose herds numbering from 2 to 50 animals. A pregnant female will carry her calf for a gestation period of from 420 to 468 days before giving birth to a six-foot-tall [2 m] baby. At birth, the calf literally drops more than six feet [2 m] to the ground, headfirst! But in 15 minutes the baby, uninjured, wobbles to its feet and is ready to nurse. After two or three weeks, the calf instinctively begins to nibble on the tender tips of acacia branches and soon gains enough strength to keep up with its mother’s long strides.

A baby giraffe is a splendid miniature of its parents. Short by giraffe standards, it is taller than most men. Standing inquisitive and unafraid under the watchful eyes of its towering mother, the calf is a delightful sight.

During the birthing season, baby giraffes are gathered into nursery groups, where they spend the day resting, playing, and observing what is going on around them. A newborn calf grows unbelievably fast. In six months a calf can grow as much as three feet [1 m], and it can double its height in a year. In just one week, a calf may grow as much as nine inches [23 cm]! A mother giraffe is very protective, and although she allows her calf to wander some distance away, her excellent eyesight enables her to maintain visual contact with her baby.

With its outstanding size, agility, and speed as well as its superior vision, the giraffe has few enemies in the wild other than lions. Yet, it is man who has hunted and killed this beautiful creature in great numbers. Relentlessly pursued for its lovely hide, tasty meat, and  long black tail hairs—which some believe possess mystic powers—this peaceful animal now faces an uncertain future. Once abundant in many parts of Africa, the giraffe is now relatively safe only within the boundaries of game parks and sanctuaries where it is protected.

Today visitors on an African safari can still thrill to the sight of long-necked giraffes running free over the vast grassy plains. There they can be seen browsing in the heights of thorny acacia trees or just staring into the distance in typical giraffe style. This splendid creature, with its oddly beautiful shape and gentle nature, is truly a marvel of design—another evidence of the creative genius and unique personality of the almighty God, Jehovah.—Psalm 104:24.

[Footnote]

^ par. 3 The widespread small, rocky hills on the open African plains are called kopjes.

[Box/Picture on page 18]

A LONG-NECKED MIRACLE

The giraffe’s odd body shape and huge size should present problems—or so one might think. With the giraffe’s great height and long neck, regulating the flow of blood to all parts of its body would seem impossible. When the giraffe lowers its head to the ground, for example, the pull of gravity should cause a surge of blood to rush to the head, flooding the brain. As the giraffe raises its head, its blood should rush back down to the heart, causing the animal to lose consciousness. However, this does not happen. Why not?

The giraffe’s circulatory system is truly a miracle of design, ingeniously custom-made to serve the animal’s unique shape and body size. The heart itself is exceptionally large and must pump hard to send blood to the brain, situated as much as 10 to 12 feet [as far as three and a half meters] above it. Beating up to 170 times per minute, the three-inch [7 cm]-thick walls of the muscular heart produce a systolic pressure that is almost three times that of a human. To handle such a force safely, both the carotid artery, which carries blood to the brain, and the jugular vein, which returns blood to the heart, need to be large. Indeed, these blood vessels are over an inch [2.5 cm] in diameter and are reinforced with tough elastic tissue, making them flexible and strong.

When the giraffe lowers its head, valves in the jugular vein prevent blood from rushing back to the brain. At the base of the brain, the large carotid artery runs into another wonderfully designed device that has been called the extraordinary net. Here the heavy flow of blood to the brain that results from the lowering of the giraffe’s head is slowed by being directed into a special network of tiny blood vessels that regulate blood pressure and protect the brain from a forceful surge of blood. The extraordinary net expands when the head is lowered and contracts when the giraffe raises its head, thus countering the greatly reduced blood pressure and the danger of blackout.

The giraffe’s neck is also a marvel of design. Scientists were surprised to discover that the giraffe’s amazingly long neck contains the same number of vertebrae as does that of a mouse or most other mammals! However, unlike most other mammals, the giraffe has elongated vertebrae designed in a special ball-and-socket formation, providing remarkable flexibility. Thus, the giraffe is able to bend and contort its neck to groom all parts of its body or delicately reach up into the high boughs of a tree to feed.