The tallest animal in the world is surprisingly inconspicuous. I remember stumbling across one for the first time, as our safari jeep skirted around a random Kenyan bush. There it was. A giraffe. Instantly recognizable, and utterly incongruous in the flesh.
There’s the face—like a camel’s, but more pensive and streamlined. There are the comical tufty horns, the long eyelashes, and the dextrous, purple tongue. There’s that extreme neck, which multi-tasks as a ladder for reaching lofty shoots, a sledgehammer for brutalizing rivals, and a source of dispute for both evolutionary biologists and Fashion Twitter. And there’s the absurd, baffling verticality of the entire creature. J. M. Ledgard put it best in his novel Giraffe: “I am a giraffe, I am about that space a little above the blade, and my bodily intent is to be elevated above all other living things, in defiance of gravity.”
Then there’s the unmistakeable hide. The exact pattern varies between the different subspecies, but all of them feature brown islands separated by criss-crossing white lines. That, coincidentally, is exactly what giraffe habitats are like.
Their homes have become increasingly fragmented by human activity, with once-continuous stretches of forest and savannah broken up by roads and fences. They might be emblems of verticality, but they also roam over great horizontal distances, in search of better and more nutritious food. Constrained by humans, they’re now forced to feed on poorer foliage, leaving them in poorer health. And as different populations become disconnected, each isolated pocket becomes dangerously vulnerable to deforestation, drought, poachers, and troops from war-torn states who see giraffes as military rations. As Jules Howard puts it: “Nine small puddles will evaporate far more quickly than one big puddle, and so it is with life.”