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Giraffe - The Facts

Giraffe subspecies

As also explained with greater background under 'Taxonomy, Evolution and Scientific Classification', it is widely accepted that there are a number of (sub)species of Giraffa camelopardalis though there is increasing evidence to suggest that some of these nine (sub)species may be separate species in their own right.

GCF are at the forefront of working to establish the genetic classification of the remaining wild populations and are working closely with the IUCN SSC Giraffe & Okapi Speciliast Group and laboratory partners to complete this work and to subsequently help establish management strategies for all giraffe across the African continent (read about all ongoing GCF projects at ‘Our Projects’).

Image of giraffe (sub)species
Image Source: National Geographic. Click here for a larger pdf of this image.

The current recognised nine (sub)species of giraffe are:

  • G. c. angolensis.  Despite generally being called the Angolan giraffe (occasionally the Smokey giraffe), it is regrettably no longer found in Angola.  Instead it reputedly ranges across Namibia, south-western Zambia, Botswana and likely into western Zimbabwe – ongoing genetic evidence is collected to varify if this is completely accurate.  Accordingly, this genetic evidence will also assist with population estimates, but based on this original assumption and the purity of the sometimes isolated populations (there is suggestion of some re-introductions which may have produced hybrid populations).  It is estimated that fewer than 15,000 remain in the wild.  ISIS (the International Species Information System, based on zoological data information) records indicate that only about 20 individuals are kept in zoos.  The Angolan giraffe is relatively light in colour (hence the name 'Smokey') with large uneven, notched, spots covering the entire leg.  (See ‘Our Projects’ for information on GCF’s work in Botswana and Namibia
  • G. c. antiquorum.  The Kordofan Giraffe is a (sub)species whose native range includes some of the most hostile areas in Africa: southern Chad, the Central African Republic, northern Cameroon and northern Democratic Republic of Congo.  It is estimated that there are less than 2,000 individuals surviving across these war-ravaged countries.  The Cameroon populations were formerly assumed to be G. c. peralta (see below), but recent research proved this incorrect.  Similarly in 2007, genetic studies resulted in giraffe from zoos all across Europe, which were  initially thought to be G. c. peralta being reclassified as G. c. antiquorum.  As a result, ISIS records indicate that today there are in the region of 65 individuals kept in zoos.  The Kordofans’ spots are pale and irregular with a covering that includes their inner legs. 
  • G. c. camelopardalis.  Commonly known as the Nubian giraffe, this is also the nominate species, meaning it is named after the entire species.  All the more concerning then, that numbers are now estimated at fewer than 650 individuals, and with a home range of western Ethiopia and maybe eastern Sudan, areas recently ravaged by civil war, exact information regarding this precariously small fragmented population is extremely difficult to ascertain.  There have been ‘large giraffe herds’ seen from the air in Southern Sudan, but it has been impossible to determine if they were indeed G. c. camelopardalis or instead the relatively more numerous G. c. antiquorum, see above.  There are almost no Nubian giraffe in captivity, though there is likely a small pure-bred population in the United Arab Emirates, at the Al Ain Zoo (GCF is collaborating with them to analyse their genetics).  The distinctive coat of the Nubian giraffe has large, normally 4 sided, chestnut brown spots set against a slightly off-white background.  It has no markings on the inside of its legs or at all below the hocks (knees).
  • G. c. giraffa.  The South African giraffe (or Cape giraffe) ranges east to west through northern South Africa, southern Botswana and southern Zimbabwe, with current efforts underway to also re-introduce them back into Mozambique.  There are concerns that re-introductions of South African giraffe and Angolan giraffe into the same populations have likely resulted in hybrid populations.  With numbers dwindling, there are less than 17,000 left in the wild and according to ISIS only approximately 45 individuals in zoos.  The South African giraffe’s pattern extends all the way down the leg and is made up of blotchy, star shaped spots set against a more tan-coloured than cream or white background. 
  • G. c. peralta.  The West African or Nigerian giraffe survive in an isolated pocket of fewer than 400 individuals just east of Niger’s capital city Niamey (see also ‘Our Projects’ for more information).  Protected by the Niger government, this is possibly the world’s rarest giraffe (sub)species and in 2008 was listed on the IUCN RED List as ‘endangered’.  The West African giraffe is strikingly light in appearance with tan coloured, rectangular spots set amongst thick creamy lines.
  • G. c. reticulata.  Best known as the Reticulated giraffe though sometimes also called the Somali giraffe on account of its former home range of southern Somalia and southern Ethiopia and down into north-eastern Kenya.  It has been estimated that fewer than 8,000 remain in the wild (from an estimated 28,000 as recently as the late 1990s) – although estimates on numbers and range in the former two countries is unknown, but assumed to be minimal).  Interestingly, based on figures provided by ISIS the Reticulated giraffe is one of the more common captive giraffe with approximately 450 kept in zoos across the world.  Sometimes also called the Netted giraffe, it is plain to see why with the browny-orange coat patches clearly defined by a network of thick and often extremely white lines.  (Also see ‘Our Projects’ for more information on Reticulated giraffe.) 
  • G. c. rothschildi.  The Rothschild’s giraffe, sometimes called the Baringo or Ugandan giraffe, ranges through Uganda and west-central and central (not native range) Kenya, and possibly into southern Sudan (though access to this region is difficult).  With fewer than 1,500 individuals remaining in the wild, in 2010 the Rothschild’s giraffe was listed on the IUCN Red List as ‘endangered’ and of high conservation importance.  Efforts in 2011 to re-introduce individuals back into the Lake Baringo area (see ‘Our News’ for a news story on this re-introduction) have proved successful.  ISIS reports more than 450 individuals in captivity.  The Rothschild’s giraffe has large, dark rectangular shaped spots or blotches set irregularly against a cream coloured background, though the legs are noticeably white and are not patterned.  (See also ‘Our Projects’ for more information on Rothschild's giraffe.) 
  • G. c. thornicrofti.  The Thornicroft’s giraffe (rarely referred to as the Rhodesian giraffe), survive as an entirely isolated population restricted to eastern Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley.  Estimates indicate there are fewer than 550 remaining in this isolated pocket, and according to ISIS there are none kept in captivity.  The Thornicroft’s giraffe has large dark, ragged leaf shaped spots that continue down the length of the leg, set against a cream coloured background.  (See also ‘Our Projects’ for more information on Thornicroft's giraffe.) 
  • G. c. tippelskirchi.   The Masai or occasionally known as the Kilimanjaro giraffe ranges across central and southern Kenya and south into Tanzania, with populations also translocated (extra-limital) into Rwanda.  This may be the most populous of the (sub)species with an estimated fewer than 37,000 remaining in the wild, (though recent reports of significant  poaching would suggest it likely to be significantly less).  ISIS records indicate approximately 100 individuals kept in zoos.  Though all (sub)species can become extremely dark in colour, especially the males, the Masai giraffe is noticeably darker than the rest.  It has large, distinctive, dark brown, vine-leaf shaped, jagged spots interspersed by creamy-brown irregular lines.

Giraffe distribution map (c) GCF