Did you know that there are three subspecies of giraffes in Kenya? I always thought that all giraffes were the same, but it turns out there are more than seven different subspecies across the world. Although they all generally look the same, with long legs and necks, there are a few subtle differences. Here is a brief outlook on each.
The Reticulated Giraffe
The Reticulated Giraffe is the most common. There are around 9,000 individuals in the wild across the world. These giraffes are common in the horn of Africa. In Kenya, they are more populous in the Northern part of the country. Also known as the Somali Giraffe, this subspecies has a particular coat pattern compared to the other two.
The reticulated giraffe has a coat pattern made up of deep red or brown spots that take an almost trapezoid shape. Bold, clear lines of white or cream then surround these spots. Their knees are dark brown. Their legs below the knees have dark brown spots with a more scattered look compared to their upper body.
Male reticulated bulls reach up to 18 feet in height. That is similar to three times the height of tall male human beings. They have small horns at the top of their heads, which they use mostly to play and fight. A reticulated giraffe is quite fast and can run up to 56 kilometres an hour.
Habitat and Diet
Like all other Kenyan giraffes, the reticulated subspecies lives in woodlands. They enjoy foraging on acacia trees. Their long necks allow them to enjoy a total monopoly over the tallest branches and leaves. They are surprisingly hardy animals that can survive up to weeks without drinking any water.
A reticulated giraffe has a long gestation period of about 15 months, which ends with the birth of one calf. The mother giraffe gives birth standing up. They then take care of their calves fiercely for the first few months before they integrate them back to the herd. The reticulated giraffe subspecies can viably interbreed with other Kenyan giraffes.
The Maasai Giraffe
The Maasai giraffe is the largest of the Kenyan giraffes and all other subspecies. They inhabit the central and southern regions of Kenya. Although they are more in the wild than the reticulated giraffes, (32,500 individuals) they are marked as endangered due to the high risk of poaching in the wild and predation in protected spaces. The Maasai giraffes have the highest mortality rates of all the Kenyan giraffes.
Unlike the reticulated giraffe, the Maasai giraffe has jagged brown pots that resemble pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or oak leaves. The lines between these spots are not as defined as the reticulated subspecies. However, like the reticulated giraffe, the spots go down to their ankles.
As earlier mentioned, the Maasai giraffe is the largest of the Kenyan giraffes in terms of height and body mass. A male Maasai giraffe can exceed 19 feet in height and weigh up to 2 tonnes. With this height, the Maasai giraffe becomes the tallest terrestrial animal in the world. Some male Maasai giraffes have a visible lump on their foreheads. Both male and female individuals have two ossicones (small skin-covered horns) at the top of their heads.
Habitat and Diet
Maasai giraffes are common in savannah woodlands. They enjoy eating from tall acacia trees with their 18-inch long tongue. However, they also eat flowers, twigs and barks along their 16-20 hour eating period. Like other Kenyan giraffes, the Maasai subspecies gets water from fresh vegetables and can survive weeks without direct drinking.
Maasai giraffes also have a 15-month gestation period with the reproduction of single calves. However, about 70% of these calves die within their first year due to predation. Female Maasai giraffes have babysitting groups where all calves in the herd stay together and get grooming from the young and adult females. Their average lifespan is 30-40 years.
The Rothschild’s giraffe, named after the famous zoologist Lionel Walter Rothschild, is the last kind of Kenyan giraffes. It is widespread in the Rift Valley region of the country. The most significant number of the Rothschild’s giraffe inhabits Baringo County, which led to the alias, Baringo Giraffe. Other spots to find this subspecies include Lake Nakuru National Park and the Crater Lake.
Without a keen look, you can easily confuse the Rothschild’s giraffe with the Maasai giraffe. However, they have some distinct differences. First, the spots on the Rothschild’s are much darker, bigger, and less jagged compared to the Maasai giraffe. The dividing lines are also bolder and take a yellow to cream shade as opposed to the white in reticulated giraffes. In addition to all these, the most significant difference between the Rothschild’s and Maasai giraffes is their legs. The Rothschild’s giraffe does not have spots from the knee down. Some people describe them as wearing cream socks.
The Rothschild’s giraffe is also significantly tall. Some males do reach the 19-foot mark. Unlike the other two Kenyan giraffes, the Rothschild’s appears to have five small horns at the top of their heads. The truth is that they have two like all others and the other three are lumps formed from calcium accumulations. They also have a powerful and sharp sense of smell.
Habitat and Diet
The Rothschild’s giraffe is perhaps the most protected of the Kenyan giraffes. They occur mostly in parks, and protected areas as opposed to the wild. There are only about 1500 individuals in the wild thanks to poaching, predation and interbreeding. In Kenya, they are common in Baringo and Nakuru Counties. They also live in some parts of Uganda. They eat acacia and other thickets as all other giraffes. They also show excellent tolerance for other animals.
Male and female Rothschild giraffes live in separate herds and only interact during mating seasons. Their gestation period can go to 16 months with the birth of a single calf. The mother giraffe is extremely protective of its calf for the first year. She teaches it via non-verbal and gentle methods during this period. Rothschild’s calves have a mortality rate of up to 50%.
Kenyan giraffes are all fascinating animals. Although they may appear to be the same, they each possess unique characteristics that set them apart. It is, therefore, essential to know each one individually. I hope you can now tell them apart next time you visit a park or conservancy.