June 19, 2017

By Martha Fischer, Curator of Mammals/Ungulates and Elephants, and Director of the Center for Conservation in the Horn of Africa

Who doesn’t love giraffes? Their grace, their markings that are as unique as human fingerprints, their long, tough tongues that can extend a foot or longer to navigate sharp acacia thorns, and even their hair-covered “horns” (called ossicones) – all these traits are endearing.  

Sukara, Lily and Ella Sukara, Lily and Ella

So endearing, in fact, that zoos around the world set aside the longest day of the year every year to celebrate the world’s longest-necked animal. Please join us on June 21st and help us celebrate World Giraffe Day!

Giraffes in Danger of Disappearing

Giraffes, with their long legs and necks swaying in a kind of slow-motion ballet, are regal and majestic. They are the tallest living land animal, with females reaching a height of 14 to 16 feet and males towering over us at 16 to 18 feet.

This enigmatic African animal has long had a secret: Recent genetic analysis suggests that the giraffe is not one, but four separate species: the southern giraffe, found mainly in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana; the Masai giraffe, of Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia; the reticulated giraffe, found mainly in Kenya, Somalia and southern Ethiopia; and the northern giraffe in scattered groups in the north central and northeastern parts of Africa.

All of these giraffe species have one important thing in common. They are all threatened with extinction and must be protected, with special attention paid to the northern and reticulated giraffe species, each with fewer than 10,000 individuals.Giraffes are already extinct in seven African countries, and the total number of giraffes in the wild has dropped from more than 140,000 in the late 1990s to fewer than 100,000 today.  

Why this decline? Habitat loss due to war, road-building, oil drilling, mining and agriculture have caused the loss of this species. In addition, in some areas giraffes are threatened by hunting and intense bush meat poaching. They are killed for their tails, which are used for marriage dowries, and their leg bones which are carved to look like ivory. Some Tanzanians are convinced that eating giraffe brains and bone marrow can cure HIV/Aids.  

Giraffes in Tanzania Giraffes in Tanzania

Your Zoo Cares about Giraffes in Africa

The Saint Louis Zoo has been working to save threatened species in the wild through its WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in the Horn of Africa, which supports field conservation of reticulated giraffes and other species in northern Kenya through the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). NRT is a community-led, non-governmental organization established 13 years ago by a coalition of local leaders, politicians and conservation interests. Its mission is to develop resilient community conservancies, which transform lives, secure peace, and conserve natural resources.

NRT’s 33 member conservancies work across 17,000 square miles of northern and coastal Kenya, developing locally led governance structures, operating peace and security programs, assuming leadership in natural resource management initiatives and protecting wildlife. Recently, NRT launched a two-year pilot project working with local pastoralists, who come across giraffes on a daily basis. They have been enlisted to gather data about giraffe herd movements, numbers, interactions and behavior that can be used to shape overall conservation strategies.  

In other parts of Africa, the Zoo is working with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the Sahara Conservation Fund in Niger to study and protect the endangered West African giraffe subspecies of which approximately only 550 remain in the world. 

The Saint Louis Zoo recently joined a consortium of accredited zoos who are working together to support giraffe conservation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Giraffe Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program. Through this collaborative effort, AZA zoos will work together in three neighboring countries – Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania – to support giraffe conservation activities across that region.

Baby giraffe at two weeks old. 2010 Baby giraffe at two weeks old. 2010

Our Giraffes

In St. Louis, the Zoo has been dedicated to providing great care to giraffes since 1935. Over the past nine decades, 43 giraffes have lived at the Zoo and 25 giraffe calves have been born at the Zoo—most recently in 2010.

The gestation period for a giraffe is 15 months, and they arrive not as small critters—but as big animals weighing up to 140 pounds or more and standing over six feet. One of the Zoo’s most dramatic arrivals came in 2008 when a 143-pound male was born outdoors on a Saturday afternoon with a crowd of more than 400 visitors looking on.

Today, the Saint Louis Zoo is home to three giraffes—all females: Sukari, age 13; Lily, age 5; and Ella, age 6. This summer, our giraffe trio will explore a newly renovated habitat, which is shared with ostriches and antelope. This spacious habitat gives our giraffes access to full grown trees for browsing and a custom-designed enrichment “tree,” designed and installed by the Zoo’s talented Special Construction Team and used by keepers daily to hang fresh cut browse and toys for the giraffes. 

Newly renovated giraffe habitat. Photo by Robin Winkelman Newly renovated giraffe habitat. Photo by Robin Winkelman

Sukari, Lily, and Ella are loved by the giraffe keepers. They receive the best care, and in some cases they participate in their own veterinary care through training. The giraffes’ home features a covered walkway that leads up to a TAMER®—a special area with keeper-operated sliding gates and uniquely flexible side walls that allow the giraffe keepers and vets to safely stand near the giraffes for health assessments. The giraffes walk through this area as they move from their private, behind-the-scenes home to their outdoor habitat. This area is where each giraffe can be weighed and each can participate in positive-reinforcement training that helps keepers and veterinarians perform healthcare procedures.

Giraffes are one of the least understood of Africa’s iconic large animals, and they need our help. Join us in celebrating the longest-necked animal on the longest day of the year – World Giraffe Day at the Zoo on June 21! Help us celebrate our trio of female longnecks, learn more about what is happening to giraffe populations in the wild, and most importantly, how you can help save giraffes from extinction. And come see them at the Zoo anytime. With all of us working together, we can save this wonderful animal for future generations!