Giraffa Camelopardalis. Five hundred years ago, we thought that giraffes were a hybrid animal: part camel, part leopard. This supposition probably came from observing their long neck and legs, coupled with the reticulated pattern of their skin. The name giraffe is derived from the Arabic word meaning, “walks swiftly”. And they do, with a kind of awkward grace. Pity I can’t upload YouTube footage. When they are on the move, they have a rocking motion, like a boat ploughing through a heavy swell. I am intrigued by the way they move their legs. It looks as though they move the right front and back leg together, then the other side. That can’t be right; they should fall over between strides. But they are remarkably stable.
The French philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, thought that acquired characteristics could be passed on to offspring. He thought that when the giraffe stretched its neck to reach the highest, juiciest leaves on a tree, its young would be born with longer necks. This was popular with the Soviet socialist theory that any social advancement is based on the efforts of past generations. It is contrary to the Darwinian theory of evolution, the survival of the fittest, which suggests that the upper classes have an inherited, genetic advantage not related to striving. Lamarck was discredited in the 1960s.
I see giraffes every day, usually in the bush, but sometimes they come to drink at the rivulet which is all that is left of the lagoon in front of the lodge. They wander about in family groups, sometimes as many as a dozen. When they cross the road, it can take 15 minutes. But that gives me time to sit in my car and watch. There is a high mortality among their young, as the adults can’t hold off determined predators like lions and wild dogs. They can give a hefty kick with their back legs, enough to wreck a car radiator. And there is an anecdote of a tourist being knocked out of an open safari truck by a giraffe swinging its neck up.
Young males joust to establish dominance. This is like slow motion wrestling. One giraffe leans onto the other, tries to get its head under the other’s neck and lift it up. It looks bizarre, especially when they agree to take time out, nibble a few leaves, then get back to wrestling.
Giraffes are browsers. They like to eat leaves from particular trees. They use a prehensile dark grey tongue to strip the leaves off the branches. I have been trying to catch the perfect photograph of a giraffe cleaning its nostrils with its 45 cm long tongue, but I am never quick enough.
The males have knobs on their foreheads which grow more prominent with age. Their skin markings get darker, too. The tufts of black hair on their horns look like shaving brushes.
When my eldest daughters were toddlers, they used to watch a old Merrie Melodies cartoon called “Nelly’s Folly”. It is about a singing giraffe, pronounced “gy-raf” in an American accent, who entertains her animal pals in the darkest African jungle. She is discovered by a hunter, who signs her up to sing in New York City. She sings a jingle for “Algonquin Rutabaga Tonic”, advertises long-necked sweaters and sings on stage. But she gets lonely and falls in love with a male giraffe in a zoo, but he is already married. The scandal ruins her career and she is reduced to singing in foreign films. She leaves show business, but her lover rejects her and she goes back to Africa.
Back in the bush, she cries as she sings a romantic song, and all her animal friends sob along with her. But then, a male giraffe joins in the song and they fall in love and live happily ever after. I used to well up with tears watching this with the children, but they didn’t.