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An Overview of the History of Captive Giraffes

Overview of giraffe subspecies in the wild

Kordofan giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis antiquorum) in Szeged Zoo, Hungary (photo: elajos)Giraffes are among the most popular animals kept in zoos. However, while a giraffe is ’only’ a giraffe for most of the visitors, it is also an important genetic resource for the survival of the species in the eyes of the staff of zoos and other conservation organisations, who are working to preserve genetically pure giraffe subspecies.

The giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) inhabits a lot of savannah areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, but these areas are fragmented and isolated from each other. Nine subspecies are living in these separated areas. Due to the geographical isolation pattern, differences have developed in these subspecies.

The subspecies are the following:Distribution map of the different giraffe subspecies in Africa (source: Wikipedia)

  1. G. c. angolensis (Angolan or smoky giraffe)
  2. G. c. antiquorum (Kordofan giraffe)
  3. G. c. camelopardalis (Nubian giraffe)
  4. G. c. giraffa (South African or Cape giraffe)
  5. G. c. peralta (West African or Nigerian giraffe)
  6. G. c. reticulata (Reticulated or Somali giraffe)
  7. G. c. rothschildi (Rothschild’s or Baringo or Ugandan giraffe)
  8. G. c. thornicrofti (Thornicroft’s or Rhodesian giraffe)
  9. G. c. tippelskirchi (Masai or Kilimanjaro giraffe)

Rothschild’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi) in Sosto Zoo, Hungary (photo: Damson)However, according to a 2007 study of the genetic drift in nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, six of these subspecies – G. c. angolensis, G. c. giraffa, G. c. peralta, G. c. reticulata, G. c. rothschildi, G. c. tippelskirchi – are regarded more as separate species than subspecies.

Although fortunately the giraffe, as a species, is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List, two subspecies – G. c. peralta and G. c. rothschildi – are listed as Endangered. The number of the wild population of G. c. peralta is estimated to be less than 200 specimens, but it is increasing due to conservation efforts. The population number of wild G. c. rothschildi is well below 2.500 specimens and it is decreasing, so the subspecies is approaching the status of Critically Endangered.

Overview of the history of giraffes in captivity

An ancient drawing proves that the first giraffes to be held captive were probably in Deir el-Bahari in Thebes, Egypt, in the 15th century BC. It was a garden of the temple dedicated to Amon and established by Queen Hatshepsut, where different animal species lived, like rhinos, leopards, monkeys – and giraffes.

Tribute Giraffe with Attendant by unknown artist from China in 16th century (source: Wikipedia)Most of the emperors and many wealthy citizens of the Roman Empire had animal collections including several rare and exotic animal species. However, giraffes were usually found only in the emperors’ collection. The first giraffe entered Roman territory in 46 BC during the reign of Julius Caesar.

The Yongle Emperor of China got to East Africa during his conquests at the beginning of the 15th century. He got many animals from Malindi (Kenya) as gifts, including giraffes. Based on the current distribution areas, these animals were probably Masai giraffes.

After the Roman times, the first giraffe in Europe arrived at Jardin des Plantes in Paris, France in 1826. It was a two-year-old female. It was a gift of the Pasha of Egypt to the King of France. Another giraffe was taken from Egypt to London as a gift to King George IV of England. It was the first of the species on the British Isles. According to sources, this giraffe was classed as a Nubian subspecies. Since the first giraffe in Paris also arrived from the Pasha of Egypt, presumably it was also a Nubian giraffe. Yet another giraffe was sent by Mohammed Ali, Pasha of Egypt to Schönbrunn in Vienna, Austria in 1828.

Eduard Gurk: The first giraffe in Schönbrunn Zoo - 1828 (source: Wikipedia)Four young giraffes (three males and one female) came from Kordofan to London – so probably they were Kordofan giraffes – who produced the first calf in captivity in June 1839. The first giraffes in America were imported by Philadelphia Zoo, the oldest zoo in the United States. Five males and one female arrived on 11th August 1874 – without classification to any subspecies. The first South African giraffe was imported to Europe by London Zoo in 1895. Carl Hagenbeck imported more than 150 giraffes between 1873 and 1914 including the first Masai giraffes, too.

Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) in Jihlava Zoo, Czech Republic (photo: Damson)Today we can rely on the database of ZIMS regarding the status of giraffe subspecies in captivity. According to this, Nubian giraffes and Thornicroft’s giraffes are not being kept in zoos currently. Angolan, South African and West African giraffes are represented in small numbers in some European, African and Asian zoos. It seems that four subspecies are being kept in zoos in greater numbers. Kordofan giraffes can only be found in European zoos and Masai giraffes are being kept almost exclusively in North America. Reticulated and Rothschild’s giraffes are the most numerous in the zoos of Asia, Europe and North America. Rothschild’s giraffes are living in Australian zoos, as well. There are conservation breeding programmes for long-term population management in most regional zoo associations.

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