The Rothschild’s giraffe, also known as the Ugandan Giraffe or Baringo giraffe, is one of the most interesting Big Game animals you’ll find on Uganda’s northern savannah plains.
The world’s tallest animal (up to 5.5m) towers above any animal and most plants and is one of the most exciting spectacles on the plains. The giraffe’s long neck gives it a slightly ungainly appearance when it ambles; giraffes look decidedly absurd when they adopt a semi-crouching position to drink.
New genetic work has suggested there could be four distinct species of giraffes (Fennessy et al., 2016; Winter, Fennessy, & Janke, 2018). The researchers propose that four new species of giraffes should be recognized as follows:
- the southern giraffe (G. giraffa), in South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana,
- the Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi) in Tanzania, southern Kenya, and Zambia
- the reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata) in northern Kenya, Somalia, and southern Ethiopia
- and the northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), in isolated groups
across central and West Africa.
They also propose one subspecies, the Nubian giraffe (G. camelopardalis camelopardalis), in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, and western Kenya. The Nubian giraffe is proposed to be a distinct subspecies of the northern giraffe and encompasses what today we classify as the Rothschild’s giraffe (G. c. rothschilidi).
In 2010, the Rothschild’s giraffe was classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species (Fennessy & Brenneman, 2010) based on a population count at the time of <1,100 individuals remaining in the wild, no single population containing >250 mature individuals and confinement to just eleven isolated populations.
Since 2010, the population in Uganda was found to be higher than expected, resulting in the removal of the Endangered classification and a new assessment is currently underway. G. c. rothschildi has previously been considered genetically unique enough to be considered a separate species (Brown et al., 2007); yet other studies have reported that it is so similar to the
Nubian giraffe G. c. camelopardalis should be considered a population of that subspecies (Bock et al., 2014; Fennessy et al., 2016).
Disagreement is evident among researchers, but the currently accepted nomenclature and taxonomy of the Rothschild’s giraffe is as one of nine subspecies (Muller et al., 2016)
At present more than 1,550 Rothchild’s giraffe occur in Uganda. It is rare elsewhere in its former range but very common in the northern part of Murchison Falls National Park, Kidepo Valley, Lake Mburo, and very recently (2019) translocated to Pian Upe Game Reserve.
The world’s tallest animal (up to 5.5m) lives in loosely structured mixed-sex herds, typically numbering between five and 15 animals. As herd members may be dispersed over an area of up to 1km, they are frequently seen singly or in smaller groups, though enormous aggregations are often seen in Uganda.
Rothschild’s Giraffe is the world’s tallest mammal. Male giraffes (bulls) stand a total of 5.7 m from the ground to their horns: 3.3 m at the shoulders with a long neck of 2.4 m. Female giraffes (cows) are 0.7 to 1 m shorter than bulls.
Bulls weigh up to 1,930 kg, while cows can weigh up to 1,180 kg. At birth, giraffe calves are 2 m tall from the ground to the shoulders. Newborn giraffes weigh 50 to 55 kg.
Both male and female giraffes have spotted coats. The pattern of the coat varies and is an aide for camouflage with the different habitats.
The nine giraffe subspecies have various skin patterns. The patches on a giraffe coat can be small, medium, or large.
Giraffe coats are sharp-edged or fuzzy-edged; small, medium, or large; or yellow to black. The skin pattern for an individual giraffe is constant throughout the giraffe’s life. With the changing of season and health, they may alter their coat color.
Rothschild’s Giraffe has long, sturdy legs, with their front legs longer than their back legs.
Giraffe necks contain seven elongated vertebrae, the same as humans. Giraffes have a steeply sloping back from the shoulders to the rump. Their tails are thin and long, measuring about 76 to 101 cm in length. A black tuft at the end of the tail whisks away flies and other flying insects.
Giraffe horns, called ossicones, are bone protuberances covered with skin and fur. Female giraffe horns are thin and tufted; male giraffe horns are thick, but they smoothen their hair by sparring. A medium-sized horn is common in males and females, while males can grow a second pair behind the first pair of horns.
The eyes are enormous, and their 45 cm long black tongue grasps prickly food from the very tops of trees.
Rothschild’s Giraffe feed on leaves, flowers, seedpods, and fruits in areas where the savanna floor is salty or full of minerals. They eat soil as well. They are ruminants and have a four-chambered stomach. Chewing cud while traveling helps to maximize their feeding opportunities.
These giants with giant features have long tongues, narrow muzzles, and flexible upper lips to help obtain leaves from the tall trees while browsing. They use many tree species for browse, including Acacia senegal, Mimosa pudica, Combretum micranthum, and Prunus armeniaca.
Their primary food is the leaves from Acacia trees. Giraffes browse by taking the branches in their mouths and pulling away the head to tear away the leaves. Acacia trees have thorns, but giraffe molars crush the thorns.
An adult male giraffe can consume up to 66 kg of food for one day. However, in poor-quality areas, a giraffe can survive on 7 kg of food per day.
Male giraffes typically feed with their head and neck utterly outstretched to the shoots. Their fodder is from the underside of the high canopy.
Female giraffes feed at body and knee height, feeding on the crown of lower trees or shrubs, and are particularly selective when feeding. They choose foliage with the highest nutritional value.
Rothschild’s giraffe behavior
Rothschild’s Giraffe is a social animal living in loose, open, unstable herds varying from 10 to 20 individuals, although researchers have observed herds of up to 70.
There is no significant rule for joining or leaving a herd; individual giraffes join and leave the herd at will. Herds can include all females, males, females with young calves, or mixed genders and ages.
Female giraffes are more outgoing than male giraffes. On Uganda safari in Murchison plains, one can often observe isolated introverts.
Giraffes feed and drink during the morning, evening, and rest at night while standing up but can occasionally lie down. When sleeping, the head lies on a hind leg, with the neck forming an impressive arch.
They remain in a fully upright position when resting lightly, with half-closed eyes and ears continuing to twitch. During the hot midday, giraffes usually chew their cud, which can occur during any part of the day.
Adult male giraffes establish dominance hierarchies by sparring, which involves two individuals standing stiff-legged and parallel.
The males march in step with one another with their necks horizontal and looking forward. They rub and intertwine their necks and heads, then lean against each other to evaluate their opponent’s strength.
“Necking” occurs when two giraffes stand alongside each other and swing their heads at the other giraffe. They aim their horns at their opponent’s rump, flanks, or neck. A hard enough blow can knock down or injure an opponent.
Rothschild’s Giraffe is a fast-moving mammal, reaching impressive speeds of up to 60 km/h. They can sprint for considerable distances.
They are non-territorial. Giraffe home ranges vary from 5 to 654 km2, depending on food and water availability.
Rothschild’s Giraffe is also a great host to troublesome ticks. Very often on Uganda safari, you see Oxpecker birds (Buphagus africanus) resting on the backs and necks of giraffes, removing the ticks from the giraffe skin. There is an impressive mutually beneficial relationship between giraffes and oxpecker birds.
Rothschild’s Giraffe is rarely heard and is usually considered a silent mammal.
Giraffes communicate with one another by infrasonic sound, though they sometimes vocalize to one another by grunts or whistle-like cries. Some other communication sounds for giraffes are moaning, snoring, hissing, and flutelike sounds.
When alarmed, giraffe grunts or snort to warn neighboring giraffes of the danger, mother giraffes can whistle to their young calves and search for their lost young by making bellowing calls. The calves return their mother’s calls by bleating or mewing.
While courting an estrous cow, male giraffes may cough raucously.
Rothschild’s Giraffe vision relies mainly on their height, allowing giraffes continual visual contact while at great distances from their herd. The acute eyesight of giraffes can spot predators at a distance to prepare to defend themselves by kicking. Individuals within a herd may scatter widely across the grassland searching for good food or drink and only cluster together at good food trees or if threatened.
- Multi-locus Analyses Reveal Four Giraffe Species Instead of One. A.J. and J.F. conceived, designed, and financed the project. J.F. and P.E. collected samples. T.B., F.R., V.K., M.V., and M.A.N. produced and analyzed the data. U.F. aided the systematic interpretation. A.J., J.F., and U.F. wrote the manuscript with input from all authors.
- Raw, Zoe. (2018). Rothschild’s giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi (Linnaeus, 1758) in East Africa: A review of population trends, taxonomy and conservation status. African Journal of Ecology. 57. 10.1111/aje.12578.
- 2005. “Animal Fact Sheet” (On-line). Reticulated Giraffe. Accessed November 19, 2005 at http://www.zoo.org/educate/fact_sheets/savana/grffe.htm.
- UWA NUBIAN GIRAFFE. ugandawildlife.org
- Three subspecies of the Northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) occur across Eastern and Central Africa. https://giraffeconservation.org/giraffe-species/northern
- Narrative: Tanya Dewey, Sarah Maisano, Kalamazoo College, Ann Fraser, Kalamazoo College, Animal Diversity Web.
- Bradt Travel Guides, Uganda, By Philip Briggs, Andrew Roberts. https://amzn.to/372YK7p