Our first giraffes
Giraffes have drawn long looks from San Diego Zoo guests since 1938. Lofty and Patches were the Zoo’s first giraffes, arriving from Africa with much fanfare. Loading their crates off the ship and onto the truck for the long journey from New York to San Diego was quite a production, and upon their arrival here 10 days later, the giraffes refused to leave their traveling crate. Finally, some one offered them onions, and these veggies accomplished what nothing else could do. To this day, onions serve as a special treat for our giraffes!
Giraffes at the Zoo
The Zoo currently has a small herd of Masai giraffes that shares the exhibit in Urban Jungle with the much smaller Nubian Soemmering’s gazelles, adding interest for the animals and our guests. The Safari Park is home to reticulated and Uganda giraffes; they share their field exhibits with a variety of antelope and rhinos, among other species, just as they might in the wild. Six-foot-tall (1.8 meters) feeding stations are ideal for giraffe calves—they can reach the food, but their antelope and rhino neighbors can’t.
Giraffes at the Safari Park
One of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s keepers says, “Telling the giraffes apart is like cloud watching. The longer you look at them, the more you’ll notice unique shapes in their spot pattern. And that’s how we tell them apart.” As the Safari Park has a large herd of Uganda giraffes (currently 16!), keepers photograph unusual characteristics of each one and keep the photos in a book in their keeper truck for easy reference. For example, Yanahmah has horns that bend inward—none of the others have horns that bend that way; Chinde has a very dark coat and an asterisk-shaped spot on her neck; Shani has a heart-shaped spot on her neck; Juma has a down-pointing arrow on his right rump; Mypooki has a “butterfly” on her hindquarter.
Several years ago, it was suggested that, in their native ranges, many giraffe subspecies had begun to hybridize due to shrinking habitat—including the Uganda and reticulated subspecies, the two types we have at the Safari Park. Although some zoos chose to allow the two subspecies to crossbreed, we decided to keep ours separate. Now, the International Giraffe Group recommends not mixing the two subspecies; as Uganda giraffe populations dwindle, it’s important to preserve their genetic diversity in zoos.
In many African countries, giraffe populations are slowly decreasing because of habitat loss and competition with livestock for resources. As a result, the future of giraffes is dependent on the quality of the habitat that remains. Although their numbers have decreased in the past century, giraffes are not currently endangered, but listed as “lower risk.” Humans do not fear them, and they are not killed for any folk medicine remedies. Giraffes do not compete for food with livestock such as sheep and cows, nor do they eat farmers' crops.
There are some subspecies that are in trouble, though. On August 10, 2010, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared that the Uganda giraffe is an endangered subspecies. While it has historically lived in western Kenya, Uganda, and southern Sudan, the Uganda giraffe has been almost totally eliminated from most of its former range and now survives in only a few small, isolated populations in Kenya and Uganda. We are proud to say that as of September 2012, we have had 140 Uganda giraffe births.
The population of reticulated giraffes has dropped by an alarming 80 percent in just 10 years, most likely due to poaching. They are no match for humans with guns; giraffes are shot for their meat, hide, bone marrow, and tail hair. The rest of the giraffe species have not become endangered for a number of reasons. Fortunately, Kenya is starting a giraffe conservation program for the three subspecies found there: reticulated, Uganda, and Masai giraffes.
San Diego Zoo Global supports a community conservation effort in northern Kenya that is finding ways for people and wildlife to live together. At the San Diego Zoo, we have a giraffe-feeding patio where high-fiber biscuits can be purchased and fed to the giraffes. The money raised through the sale of the giraffe biscuits funds the community conservation initiatives we support in Africa.