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Early written records described the giraffe as "magnificent in appearance, bizarre in form, unique in gait, colossal in height and inoffensive in character." Ancient cultures in Africa revered the giraffe, as some modern cultures do today, and commonly depicted it in prehistoric rock and cave paintings. Unknown outside of Africa, this animal so excited man's curiosity that it was sometimes sent as a diplomatic gift to other countries; one of the earliest records tells of a giraffe going from "Melinda", presumably Malindi, in Kenya to China in 1415. The animal was thought to be a cross between a camel and a leopard, a mistake immortalized in the giraffe's scientific name of Giraffa camelopardalis.
The neck is so long the giraffe must spread its front legs apart so its head can reach the ground to drink. It has unusually elastic blood vessels with a series of valves that help offset the sudden buildup of blood, and to prevent fainting, when the head is raised, lowered or swung quickly.
The giraffe's high shoulders and sloping back give the impression that its front legs are much longer than the hind legs, but they are in fact only slightly longer. The giraffe, as well as its short-necked relative the okapi from Central African forests, has a distinctive walking gait, moving both legs on one side forward at the same time. At a gallop, however, the gait changes, and the giraffe simultaneously swings the hind legs ahead of and outside the front legs, reaching speeds of 35 miles an hour. Its heavy head moves forward with each powerful stride, then swings back to stay balanced. Giraffes have "horns" not true horns but knobs covered with skin and hair above the eyes to protect the head from blows.
The reticulated giraffe of northeastern Kenya has large, chestnut-colored square patches defined by a network of fine white lines. The larger Baringo or Rothschild's giraffe of western Kenya and eastern Uganda has chestnut patches separated by broader white lines but no spotting below the knees. This species can have up to five horns instead of the usual two or three. The Masai giraffe of Tanzania and southern Kenya has irregular star-shaped brown or tan spots.
Giraffes are found in arid and dry-savanna zones south of the Sahara, wherever trees occur.
Although a relatively quiet animal, the giraffe is not mute. Giraffes bellow, grunt, bray in distress, moan and emit short flutelike notes. They have acute senses of hearing and sight, often alerting other animals to nearby predators.
Giraffes use a home range but are not territorial. The males are hierarchical and sometimes spar by standing side by side and lowering and swing their heads at one another. The blows can be so strong that their necks entwine. The practice, called necking, has sometimes mistaken as courtship between a male and female, but since it is performed only by males, of approximately the same size, it is probably a test of strength. Although females have been observed striking with their front feet to keep predators away from their young, male giraffes do not often do so when fighting.
When protected, giraffes can flourish in areas where food is abundant year round. Although they drink water when it's available, they can survive where it is scarce. They occasionally eat grass and fruits of various trees and shrubs, but their principal food source is the acacia tree. The tree's sharp horns do not seem to stop the giraffe, which has a long, muscular tongue specially adapted to select, gather and pluck foliage. The giraffe is a selective feeder and although it feeds 16 to 20 hours a day, it may consume only about 65 pounds of foliage during that time. It can maintain itself on as little as 15 pounds of foliage per day.
Nursery groups of young animals are left alone together during the day while their mothers feed. The 6 foot tall calf grows rapidly as much as an inch a day. By 2 months the young giraffe is eating leaves and at 6 months is fairly independent of its mother. A young giraffe can even survive early weaning at 2 or 3 months. Although few predators attack adult giraffes, lions, hyenas and leopards take their toll on the young. Scientists report that only a quarter of infants survive their first year of life.
Giraffe tails were highly prized by the ancient Egyptians, and still are in many African cultures. The desire for good-luck bracelets, fly whisks and thread for sewing or stringing beads have led people to kill the giraffe for its tail alone. Giraffes are easily killed and poaching, now more often for their meat and hide, continues today.
Despite its long neck, the giraffe has only seven vertebrae, exactly the same number as man and most other mammals. Even though giraffes are often seen together in groups, they do not form the complex social groups of many plains species. Theirs are loose associations, constantly changing in make-up.