In a recent poll of the most iconic animals in Africa, the giraffe surprisingly destroyed all its competition by an overwhelming margin. Nothing in the bush causes more oooh’s and aaaah’s than the elegant giraffe. Sometimes it reminds me of bonfire night in England where there are massive firework displays and the cacophony of explosions is complimented by the appreciative noises from the enthralled crowd. It is difficult to put one’s finger on the attraction of nature’s sky scraper but perhaps it is its uniqueness? There is nothing in this world like a giraffe. Its closest relative is the okapi which is only found in central Africa and seen by few. It is also an odd animal with a slightly elongated neck and stripes like that of the zebra down its rump.
If not its uniqueness, it must be its awkward, yet elegant grace. Those long legs move with consummate ease and enable the giraffe to travel at surprising pace even though its strange gait of moving both left legs and then both right legs makes it look rather unstable. The way that the neck rocks as it walks is mesmeric and I like to describe it as nature’s lava lamp. It seems to have the ability to de-stress people by merely watching it carrying out its business. If giraffes had jobs, the giraffe would surely be a counsellor or therapist! Men, women and children alike seem to melt in their presence and a dumb grin spreads unconsciously across their face as they loose themselves in this strange creation.
It is odd to think that such a graceful animal has a violent streak in it but one must remember that this is the wild and there are things to fight for: survival and genetic success. Giraffes are capable of killing with a single kick if defending themselves and many a lion has fallen foul to a skull shattering, flailing limb. The only way to ensure genetic survival is to find a mate and that must be achieved through dominance, and that means combat. As a giraffe ages, calcium is deposited on the skull to make it heavier, more robust and a more effective weapon. The thick ossicones (horns) that protrude from their heads are used to great effect as they are swung at their opponents with surprising force. Impacts can be savage and giraffe have been knocked unconscious in these exchanges before!
Yesterday afternoon, we were privy to watch a heated exchange between two young males as they vied for the affections of a nearby female. They stood side by side, jostling each other for position and swinging their necks with incredible ferocity. The flexibility of their necks defied belief as they wound up blow after blow like a medieval knights wielding a mace. Perhaps even more impressive though were the defensive manoeuvres as the combatants deflected and avoided each other’s club-like skulls. It was a strange spectacle to witness as we were torn between marvelling at the veritable ballet of the dancing necks, and shocked by the brutality of the exchange. The thuds rang out through the bushveld and winces of empathetic pain could be heard coming from the audience as their notion of a peaceful and docile animal were shattered.
Even after 7 years, I often see things that I have never witnessed before, and this exchange was no different. The two giraffe seemed to have different tactics; one preferred to swing downwards and concentrate on the flanks, whilst the other took the low road and swung upwards into the stomach like an uppercut. However, at one point, the latter giraffe got his head caught under the leg of his opponent and as he raised his neck, the other giraffe found himself in a rather ungainly position! It resembled the giraffe equivalent of yoga as the one giraffe balanced precariously on 3 limbs as his fourth was raised aloft by the other. The serious nature of the guests was suddenly replaced by amusement as the two struggled to free themselves as they stumbled through the undergrowth. After the incident, the combative nature of the exchange died down, perhaps both parties willing to compromise for now and rest their hyper extended limbs! I have never seen a giraffe do the splits and now that I have, the spectacle will stay with me forever!
It was a wonderful sighting full of intrigue and emotions as the guests got to absorb the beauty of the gentle giant, yet had to re evaluate their presuppositions of tranquillity as the heated battle raged. Harmony was quickly restored however thanks to the rather light hearted and comedic ending to the exchange and we left the sighting grinning from ear to ear. Once again, the complexity of nature had revealed itself but somehow, even in the midst of a brutal confrontation, the giraffe had left us with a sighting we would never forget and warm fuzzy feeling in our hearts.