Spotted ships of the desert

28 August 2009 | News story

Giraffes in the desert? Now there’s a thought. Surprisingly, giraffe are extremely well adapted to life in some of the most arid environments on the African continent including the oldest desert of them all - the Namib Desert.

In the northern Namib Desert giraffe concentrate along the ephemeral river beds which are lined with several tree species including Acacia that provide a valuable lifeline to these giants and other animals such as elephant, oryx and springbok.

Giraffe daily movements in these arid environments far exceed those of their cousins in more temperate habitats—a vital survival strategy that allows them to search for moisture and nutrient-rich seasonal food and to reproduce. In the northern Namib Desert, they walk on average 10km a day, and sometimes up to 70 km between river systems. On more than 200 days of the year the desert fog from the coast brings with it valuable moisture which enables the giraffe to survive without drinking. Their key to success is adapting their food sources to maximise moisture intake and changing their diet seasonally. Giraffe sometime prefer ‘alternative’ species with a higher water, and importantly, higher protein content. To help them maximise energy use in such a harsh environment, giraffe concentrate their feeding between late afternoon and early morning.

Despite being one of Africa's most charismatic animals, little is known about giraffe compared to other species. The International Giraffe Working Group of IUCN's Antelope Specialist Group is integrating knowledge about giraffe and chanelling it to decision makers be they members of national government or local community-based natural resource managers.