Giraffes are found in most of South Africa’s game reserves outside of the relatively treeless Karoo. They’re not rare or endangered but they are fascinating, and not only because of their height. They have no hierarchy, they have inordinately long tongues and their babies drop two metres when born.

Did you know?

Sometimes giraffes pick up and mouth old bones to get at the calcium.

The giraffe stands head and shoulders higher than any animal on Earth. A tall specimen can measure 5.5 metres from hoof to head. But that’s not the only distinguishing characteristic of this distinctively African mammal.

Giraffes also have an unusually loose and non-hierarchical approach to social lives. Giraffes are very seldom seen alone because they clearly enjoy one another’s company, but there’s also no leader. They don’t co-ordinate their movements and no single giraffe calls the shots.

They’re sometimes spread out over a large area – their height allows them to see each other – and other times eight or more will cluster around one particular tree.

Giraffes have a clear love affair with acacias, winding their long dark tongues to pick out the nutritious leaves from among the fierce thorns. They’ll eat up to 34kg of leaves in a day.
With all those thorns, the love affair is clearly not reciprocated from the acacia’s side. Yet giraffes are thought to help with pollination and the seeds seem to grow better after having gone through their digestive tract.

These tall vegetarians may seem like softies, but they’re tough in unexpected ways. A newborn baby drops nearly two metres to the ground from the birth canal. This kickstart into life might explain why they can walk and run within hours of being born.

Giraffes have also been known to kill lions by kicking them. Their hooves are the size of soup-plates. And there are few creatures as protective as a mother giraffe.

The males have a peculiar way of sorting out their differences and issues of dominance. In a low-intensity wrestling match, they lean against one another to test weight and twine their necks – often while gazing peacefully into the distance. Then all of a sudden they’ll swing their heads away and back again, connecting with a thud. It’s very seldom a deadly fight, but some males have been known to lose consciousness.

They’re among the quietest animals in the bush, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make any sounds. Calves will sometimes bleat or make a mewing sound and cows that have lost their calves will bellow. They’ve also been heard to snort, moan, snore, hiss and make a high, strange fluting sound.

You can tell a male from a female giraffe by looking at the tops of their horns – females' horns will have tufts of hair growing from them, while males' horns are bald.

Their conservation status is classified as ‘least concern’ on the IUCN Red Data List, but giraffe numbers have sunk down in the last few decades. Still, they’re fairly easy to see in most South African game reserves and conservation areas outside of the Karoo.

Travel tips & Planning info

How to get here

Giraffes can be seen in most national parks and game reserves, notably the Kruger National Park and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park as well as the Pilanesberg National Park and the Madikwe Game Reserve, Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve and many private game reserves adjoining the Kruger National Park.

Best time to visit

It’s a little easier to see giraffes in winter (May to August) because the vegetation dies back a little. But if you want to see giraffe babies, come in early summer – September to December.

Get around

You’ll easily see giraffes while driving yourself around game reserves, or on guided drives and walks.

What will it cost

This depends on the game reserve or park that you choose.

What to pack

You may think you wouldn’t need binoculars for such a large and visible beast, but they do come in handy for checking for odd anatomical details – their purplish tongues, the little hairs on top of the horns, the oxpecker birds that often ride on them. And of course, don’t forget your camera. You’ll definitely want to capture this icon of the savannah.