1902 Encyclopedia > Giraffe


GIRAFFE (Camelopardalis giraffe), a mammal belonging to the ruminant group of the Artiodactyle Ungulates, and the single living representative of the family Camelopardalidae. Intermediate between the members of the deer and ox families, the giraffe differs from both in having neither true horns nor antlers. It possesses however two solid, bony, and persistent appendages, attached partly to the frontal and partly to the parietal bones ; and not to the like the processes of the later, are distinct bones, separable, at least in the young animal, from those of the forehead. These horn-like peduncles are completely covered over by the skin of the forehead, and are terminated by a tuft of bristles by a thickening of the bone, sufficiently prominent in the male to have been frequently described as a third horn. The giraffe is the tallest of existing animals, meaning usually from 15 to 16 feet high—the females being somewhat less—but attaining in the largest examples a height of 18 feet. This exceptional elevation is chiefly due to its great length of neck and limb, the cervical vertebrae, although only seven in number as in other mammals, being in this case exceedingly long. Its body proportionately short, measuring only 7 feet between the breast and rump, and slants, rapidly towards the tail—a peculiarity which has given rise to the erroneous impression that the fore legs of the giraffe are longer than the pair behind. Its feet terminate in a divided hoof, which, says Sir Samuel Butler, "is as beautifully proportioned as that of the smallest gazelle"’; and the accessory hoofs found in most ruminants are entirely awanting. Its head is small, its small, its eyes large and lustrous ; and these, which give to the giraffe its peculiarly gentle appearance, are capable of a certain degree of lateral projection, which enable the creature without turning its head to see around and to a certain extent behind it. The elevated eyes of the giraffe thus enjoy a wider range of the giraffe thus enjoy a wider range of vision that those of any other quadruped. Its nostrils are provided with a peculiar mechanism muscles, by which they can be opened or closed at will, and the animals is thus enabled to avoid the injurious effects of the sand storms which occasionally pass ove its native haunts. Its tongue is remarkable for its great length, measuring about 17 inches in the dead animal, and for its great elasticity and power of muscular contraction while living. It is covered with numerous large papillae, and forms, like the trunk of the elephant, an admirable organ for the examination and prehension of its food. The appearance presented by the giraffe, to which it owes its name through the Arabian Xirapha, is greatly heightened by the orange-red colour of its hide, mottled as it is all over with darker spots ; while in its long tail, ending in a luxurious tuft of dark-coloured hair, it possesses an admirable fly-whipper, without which it would probably be impossible for the giraffe to maintain its ground against the seroot fly and other stinging insects of central Africa. It lives on open plains in the neighbourhood of low woods, high forest being scrupulously avoided, as depriving it of the extensive prospect which forms its chief defence against the attacks of its two enemies—the lion and man. It feeds almost exclusively on the foliage of trees, showing a preference for certain varieties of mimosa, and for the young shoots of the prickly acacia, for browning on which the prehensile tongue and large free lips of the giraffe are specially adapted. It is gregarious in its habits, living in small herds rarely of more than twenty individuals, although Sir S. Baker, who hunted it in Abyssinia, states that he has seen as many as a hundred thus herding together.

There probably no animal more difficult of approach than the giraffe, owing to that exceeding wariness which prompts it to place sentinels to give the herd timely warning of approaching danger, as well as to its ability, from the elevated position of its eyes, and the openness of the ground it frequents, to see danger, and from its keenness of scent to smell it from afar. It is a fleet though by no means graceful runner, its awkward, shambling gait being due to its moving the fore and hind legs of the same side simultaneously. In hunting it on horseback the rule to be observed, according to the traveler already mentioned, is to press the giraffe that instant he starts ; "it is the speed that tells upon him, and the spurs must be at work at the very commencement of the hunt, and the horse pressed along at his best pace ; it must be a race at top speed from the very start, but should the giraffe be allowed the slightest advantage for the first five minutes the race will be against the horse." In pursuing it thuds on horseback the experienced hunter avoids too close an approach to the creature’s heels, a blow from which he has probably learnt to regard, with Dr Livingtone, as leaving little to choose between it and "a clap from the arm of a windmill." Although trusting for safety to flight, it will, when brought to bay, even turn upon the lion ; and not seldom does it defend itself successfully against his attack by the vigorous blows of its powerful limbs. It is, however, powerless against the "king of beast" when taken unawares, and with this object the latter lies in wait by the banks of streams, and springs upon the giraffe as it seeks to quench its thirst. In captivity it is said to make use of its skin-covered horns as weapons of defence, giving impetus to the blow, not by depressing and then elevating the head, as in the butting of an ox or sheep, but by a sidelong swing of its muscular neck. The skin of the giraffe is in many parts so thick that the bullet of the hunter often fails to pierce it, the surest method of hunting it being that pursued by the Haman Arabs of Abyssinia, who run it down, and when galloping at full speed cut the tendons of its legs, ord "hamstring" it, as this operation is called, with their broadwords, and thus completely disable it.

The giraffe is only found wild in Africa, which it ranges throughout the open country of Ethiopia as far south as the confined of Cape Colony. Until about fifty years ago it was almost totally unknown in Europe ; it is now, however, to be found in most of the European zoological gardens, where it appears to thrive as well on corn and hay as on the mimosas of its native haunts. It also breeds freely in confinement, so that it may now be regarded as acclimatized in Europe. The giraffe family was more largely represented and enjoyed a wider distribution during the Miocene period, fossil remains of extinct species having been found in Greece and the Siwalk Hills ; while an allied genus, Helladotherium, with less neck and more body than the existing giraffe, extended during the same period from the south of France to north-west India.

The skin of the giraffe forms, a valuable leather material, that made from the thicker parts being in special request for sandals ; its flesh, according to Sir S. Baker, was, when roasted legs are valued by the Arabs as thread for sewing leather, and as strings for their musical instruments ; while its leg bones, which differ from those of other ruminants in being solid, are largely used in England in the manufacture of buttons and other articles of bone.

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